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Food for BookWorms: The Secret Life of Plants

Posted Date: Tuesday 20 December 2011    

The Secret Life of Plants
Authors: Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird.
Publish Year: 1973

This book, written nearly 30 years ago, was very controversial at the time. It is worth a read to see what all the fuss was about and to perhaps shift one’s perception of plants and our relationship with them. The book leads us through numerous scientific experiments conducted over the previous 40 years or so in which the reader is asked to suspend disbelief and accept the word of the authors, and the reported evidence and conclusions of the original scientists conducting the experiments, that plants can ‘think’ and even read our thoughts. Most of the experiments mentioned rely on measuring, by a kind of polygraph, changes in electromagnetic activity in the plants caused by human induced stimuli.

This book amazed and fascinated me; I really hope that all that is suggested is true. However, I found I could not suspend my disbelief in this book for too long. The writing style is anecdotal and for the mass public consumption, not the scientist, yet it maintains a scientific tone throughout, which may deceive the average reader into believing these are cut and dried facts. I constantly found myself saying ‘yes but what about….’.  If these authors wanted to present the work as scientific fact and gain widespread acceptance they really needed to be rigorous in their science and the reporting, address all possibilities and not jump to attractive conclusions so easily. If it is indeed a fact that plants can think, identify murderers and feel the ‘pain’ of a fellow plant or shrimp being killed nearby, and pick up the thoughts of someone planning to do them damage from several miles away then they would do this area of science justice by letting us see all possibilities explored and have our obvious questions answered. For example, for many of these experiments were there any other electronic equipment in the vicinity that could have affected the measurements; what steps were taken to ensure this and did any neutral experts witness the event?

I was also frustrated by the frequent message that the scientists were planning to do some more research into this phenomenon. My copy of the book was printed in 2006, after 33 years one would expect a little update on the work. For example, how is that project of intercepting communications between plants on distant planets going? I find that pretty interesting and need an update – otherwise I assume it was invalid.

I suppose the only way for me to believe the stories is to construct or buy a polygraph and other electromagnetic machines, and try to replicate the experiments; if I do I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime I will settle for spending a few minutes every day in the ‘Plants and Us’ Green House at KFBG giving thanks to one special plant for all that plants do for us and watching it grow faster; rejuvenating myself by absorbing the positive energy in the forest and sometimes closely observing and drawing a plant to get to know it intimately, if it reads my thoughts in the process so be it.

I recommend that you read ‘The Secret Life of Plants’ for an entertaining read; to find some conversation starters; and to open your mind and increase your awareness of plants as living beings. You may even be inspired to pick up the batten and continue the scientific research for the good of human and plant-kind.

• Book review written by Andy Brown, Executive Director of KFBG