THE SECRET LIFE OF PLANTS, by Peter Tomkins & Christopher Bird, New York: Harper & Row, 1974, 402 pp., $8.95.
The emergence of Peter Tomkins' and Christopher Bird's latest book, THE SECRET LIFE OF PLANTS, was predictable. Our present taste for netherworldly phenomena has brought forth a gluttony of metaphysical murmurings. Erich Von Daniken's CHARIOTS OF THE GODS? and sequel GODS FROM OUTER SPACE, Tomkins' own SECRETS OF THE GREAT PYRAMID, Blatty's EXORCIST and Carlos Castaneda's JOURNEY TO IXTLAN—one of three "spiritual journeys" with a Yaqui Indian sorcerer—satiate our faddish yen for the supernatural. And now, along with drug-trips, UFO-trips, and devil-trips we are enticed to trip out on green foliage. Not hallucinogenic marijuana or peyote, but common household philodendron, Dracaena massangeana, potatoes, and onions.
Authors Tomkins and Bird in some 400 pages—and, of course, in a forthcoming sequel, THE COSMIC LIFE OF PLANTS—try to convince us that plants have E.S.P., can count, can communicate with life in outer space, can predict earthquakes, can point out the guilty murderer in a line up, can relay a man's feelings about his wife (!) and hold the secret to WHAT'S REALLY GOING ON? in this baffling life we're victims of. Typical of the outpourings of the metaphysical brotherhood (Tomkins, Von Daniken, et al), we are told over and over and over—the ram-it-down-your-throat-method—their REVOLUTIONARY idea. And repeatedly recited in the pages before us is that the charges of "idle fancy," "unprovable conclusions," "chance results" made by scientists are the dusty mouthings of unenlightened old men who refuse to see THE TRUTH.
After all, why should we doubt such unbiased experimenters as the California psychic Marcel Vogel; L. George Lawrence, the vice-president of the Anchor College of Truth in San Bernardino; Dr. Ken Hashimoto, author of the best selling Japanese INTRODUCTION TO E.S.P.; and Pierre Paul Sauvin, a minister at the Psychic Science Temple of Metaphysics, whose leader has the claim to fame of eliciting voices from the past through an ear trumpet in a darkened room. Their homemade lie detectors, bionic telescopes and "psi-field" galvanometers zero in on plant leaves, pick up changes in the plant's electrical potential. What does that tell about the life form being monitored? Nobody knows—it's all a guess.
But Tomkins and Bird would have us believe that these jumpy voltage changes mean the monitored plants are feeling pain, happiness, sexual excitement and LOVE for their masters. Aha! But not any master. The recorded peaks and valleys of the vegetable's internal electric field do not appear for just anybody attaching electrodes to fragile leaves. Results come only to those who can COMMUNICATE with plants, to those SENSITIVE INDIVIDUALS who eat lots of nuts, soybeans, alfalfa—PLANTS. (Plants, you see, really LIKE to be eaten—WANT to fulfill their role in the life cycle.) Only the experimenter who HAS FAITH in plants, who BELIEVES they'll respond to his/her emotions, will get response.
Reason tells us that the authors' bizarre conclusions are so much hocus-pocus; that credentialed scientists' rejections of Tomkins', Von Daniken's, Blatty's propositions mean that the existence of these phenomena is questionable. Reason tells us that it's possible these guys have hit on something, but until it's proven by the reliable scientific method, by consistent results in duplicated experiments—I'm not buying. Yet these mythology-pushing books sell like hotcakes. The authors cash in on their popularity with sequel after same-saying sequel. Why is the time ripe for mysticism? Why is reason exiting? Why are people returning to evil spirits, horoscope chartists, hallucinogenic drugs, Jesus and voodoo?
This question of WHAT'S REALLY GOING ON? has plagued Man ever since he got down out of the trees. Religion—belief in the direct or indirect governing of earthly events by an all-powerful being—held and still holds the answer for most. Yet, throughout history, there have been diversions from this explanation. In the 19th century people clothed the machine in a glowy coat of awe. If we only perfect THE MACHINE it will save us from all. Love for greased gears phased into belief in TECHNOLOGY. SCIENCE will answer the all-present question. M.D.'s and scientists became an adored elite and few are admitted to their snobbish ranks. But the war-waging uses of scientific discoveries in recent decades have made the public wary. Are they delivering us from evil or leading us into it?
Who or what do we look to now for THE ANSWER? For a while there, in our floundering state, we put the burden on youth. THE YOUNG, in their innocence, will save us. Realizing the burden was much too much to be put on their fragile shoulders, they set about as a group to show us that they weren't at all interested in being the saviours of mankind. And what better way to do it than to be as obnoxious and absurd as they have been? They were purposely disgusting and unclean. They knew they didn't have the answer and were the first to turn to mysticism—Tom Wolfe's Third Great Awakening.
The over-30's took the cue and conceded that, well, maybe they have something in their Jesus movements, their communion-with-nature bit. We're off and running into the worlds of the past. Maybe the primitives hold the answer. Maybe there was something to those fertility rituals of having sexual intercourse in a newly seeded field. Maybe the American Indian chewing peyote found out the answer. Maybe the Chinese, the Hindu Mahatma; the wisdom of the East is where it's at. Maybe those struggling remote Stone Age tribes explorers keep uncovering know what it's all about—Son of The Noble Savage. Maybe we had the answer in the 20's, the 30's, the 50's and didn't know it! Maybe the U.F.O.'s, pre-Columbian ruins, faith healers, psychics—PLANTS hold the key to WHAT'S REALLY GOING ON?
Now we can no longer water, prune and fertilize our green friend without wondering what it's thinking. Does it hate me for ripping off that unaesthetic, half-parched leaf? We coo and cuddle it so it will flourish and LOVE us. WHAT DOES IT KNOW? Tell Momma.
Yet my real pity is not for those of us haunted by devils, hovering spacemen and mind-reading foliage; but for the innumerable plants that will be pricked, probed, pickled, plunged into scalding water and uprooted in the quest for TRUTH.
Patricia Levy-Gleason has a B.S. in physics and plans to start work shortly toward an M.S. in math at American University in Washington, D.C. She is also public relations officer of the Montgomery County chapter of the Maryland Libertarian Party.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Secret Life of Plants".