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Plants and People

© Kat Morgenstern, revised 2003, all rights reserved.

The relationship between people and plants has always been profoundly important. Plants affect every aspect of our lives and indeed, without them life as we know it would not be possible at all. Plants not only regulate the concentration of gases in the air (making it 'breathable'), but are also the only organisms capable of transforming sunlight into food energy, which all other forms of life ultimately depend upon. Some have termed them 'original alchemysts', (or less poetically - 'biochemical factories') capable of producing a myriad of chemical compounds, which modern chemists still find difficult to imitate, let alone imagine, without the aid of these natural models.

Since the stone-age, (which is really a complete misnomer and should instead be called 'the plant-age', as many more artifacts were fashioned from plants than from stone) human beings of all cultures and races have been incredibly innovative with regard to utilizing plant materials for their various needs. Plants provide a sheer inexhaustible source of widely varying materials: timber for building shelters and making tools, fibers for twine and rope, for weaving and basket making, paper, natural dyes, perfumes, resins, oils and soap, to name but a few...

Plants, of course, also offer wide varieties of food for both body and soul, as well as multitudes of medicines for all types of diseases, from the common cold to cancer. Phytochemical compounds have played a significant role in the development of many important drugs that have saved thousands of lives over the centuries, and the hunt for new plant medicines is still on. In fact, presently it is a race against time. As more and more habitats of rich biodiversity are threatened by the forces of development, scientists all over the world are scrambling to identify new plant species and to learn about their traditional uses before they are lost for ever.

In an age of growing alienation from the natural world the loss of fragile habitats and endangered species represents more than the loss of material resources or impending environmental devastation. Ultimately it implies nothing short of the mindless destruction of our own cultural roots as we cut ourselves off from our once sacred relationship to the earth. Since time immemorial plants have played a significant role as mediators of the sacred. While this may be of little concern to most scientists working to protect nature, to those who link their spiritual roots to their relationship with the Earth the current trend of environmental destruction and loss of traditional knowledge represents a sacrilegious culture-cide. No matter which race or culture we may belong to, once upon a time plants significantly affected our (collective) experience of the divine world and often literally acted as gateways to Gods. As shamans of all cultures have always known: plants provide a way of connecting with the very essence of life.

In an effort to rationalize and objectify our understanding of the world around us, this particular aspect of the plant/human relationship has often been forgotten or disregarded. However, it becomes strikingly obvious through the study of ancient religions, mythologies and art in which plants play a central role. Archetypal symbols such as the 'World-tree', or the 'Tree of Life' - common motives that occur in widely separated cultures all over the world, once served to psychologically integrate human beings within the web of life. No longer so... Somewhere along the line we lost the thread that once upon a time connected us with the rest of nature. No sooner than we lost our place within that web, do we think nothing more of pulling the strands to manipulate whichever parts we please - often with unforeseen and devastating results. But we should never forget, that nature, and plants in particular, are the basis of our existence - physically as well as spiritually they form the very roots of human culture.

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