The Art of Phyto-Therapy
Plant Life Mirrors Human Life

Shin'ichi Takemura
Anthropologist and Producer of sensorium

Person/Plant Communication

Although many people are increasingly conscious of their living environment in the ecological sense, vital points often seem to be missing from the prevalent naive discussion on ecology. It is obviously absurd, for example, to talk about a future vision of "Eco-city" only in terms of the quantity of greenery. What really matters here is the sensibility we have towards plants and vegetation around us, the quality of our experience concerning trees, flowers, and the eco-system as a whole.

I recall an experience I had some years ago in Beijing. The city lies in the middle of a desert of yellow sand. In the freezing winter, especially, it gives us little sense of a city possessing any green vegetation. The trees are few and far between, and are mostly bare of any leaves.

But, people are standing in front of them. They are practicing "tree chi-kung." (a physio-spiritual exercise focusing on the flow of energy; especially the flow between the tree and human body, in this case).

You stand in front of a tree, feel and receive its energy, meanwhile rearranging the flow of your own. Then, you develop a sort of dialogue with the tree, identifying yourself to (or mimicing) it and imagining that you yourself are standing on the ground as a tree. In this way, you raise your human state of existence to a more relative and plural condition.

Also, depending on the type of your body character, some trees are better suited to you than others. It is important for a person to identify a good "tree partner." In this regard, tree chi-kung has tremendous potential for being a radical and comprehensive method of sensory training.

Off course, not everyone in Beijing stands in front of a friendly tree and practices chi-kung, and we should not define Eco-city only by the yardstick of an esoteric practice. But what interests me in this matter is that in Beijing we do witness a close rapport between ordinary citizens and trees, whereas in Tokyo, for example, trees are primarily only an accessory of the cityscape.

If you were to regard a tree as a friend or partner of yours, you would then share that tree's pain as it was felled and removed. The more of us there were, the greater sense of crisis we would share about the destruction of the world's forests. So then, while the volume of greenery in Tokyo is something of which we can be proud, we are in fact almost completely detached from our trees and greenery: while in Beijing, a city almost bereft of trees, is a place where trees form an inmate part of people's lives. Which city then sounds like the better "ecopolis?"

Cultural Sensibility Concerning Plants

Ecology is a matter of relationships. It is concerned with our whole structure of socio-cultural experience. So, the reconfiguration of our sensitivity to and cultural feeling for plant life may become even more important than the physical protection of forests.

Chinese chi-kung, in this sense, may serve as an alternative to be applied in our daily lives and to integrate our health and environmental education. It could serve as a breakthrough in the dualistic relationship that exists now between humans and trees. Perhaps, too, we can find in it the seeds of a yet-to-be-developed Asian approach to ecology and life.

In addition to chi-kung, there exists a wide variety of other exercises and traditions that have been developed in differing cultural climates, and that have served to refine our "plant life sensibilities."

Herbal medicines, which are gaining in popularity, are also much more delicate than administering chemical substances to cure one's ills. As many authentic practitioners of traditional medicine say, the effect of herbs is essentially based on the mechanism of resonance (or attunement) that exists between humans and plants. So, it isn't even always necessary to intake a dose of herbs.

It is thought in many traditions that you have only to touch herbs or wear a garment that has been dyed in a certain herbal essence. Again, herbs deal with subtle relationships or communication processes, as is told in the tradition of tree chi-kung.

Herbal medicine is thus a science of holistic relationships between humans and plants. That is why doctors of traditional herbal medicine are very prudent when collecting herbs. They always think much of the right time for plants, refering to various contexts including astrological conditions. Or, they don't just collect everything they find in the field simply because it's good for human beings. Instead, they make it a point to leave some for the animals, and for the plants themselves. And, too, they don't necessarily pick the strongest leaves. This is an ecologically sound attitude, as well as a courteous gesture.

Broadening the Concept of Phyto-therapy

Doctor Bagwan Dash, an Indian authority of Ayurveda, a traditional Indian medicine or life science, once told me, "Phyto-therapy is something more than just using plants for treatment. This concept implies a holistic approach for creating harmonious relationships between human beings and plants. Etymologically, the word 'therapy' means both 'to heal' and 'to serve.' Phyto-therapy is a synergetic process involving both of these activities."

We can immediately apply this view to tree chi-kung. Or, in this line, we should mention "gardening therapy" (horticultural therapy); one will be healed not by the physical plant or herb itself but through the very "process" of growing and serving plants.

The traditional Japanese custom of "hanami" (viewing cherry blossoms in spring: see linked senses "plant") embodies this concept, in which people dance and sing to please and revitalize the blossoms.

Now, from the viewpoint of redesigning the human-plant relationship, there have been some interesting attempts in recent years to make a bridge between traditional gardening practices and advanced computer science.

For example, Plantron, a unique system developed by Yuji Dokane, a Japanese biologist, electrodes attached to plants, and in an ECG-like technique, their potential differences are measured and displayed in graphically and acoustically codified forms. The system may be somewhat simple, but it vividly monitors plant's reactions to specific environments.

Of course, it is misleading to regard Plantron as a device to audio-visually capture the "voices" of plants. But at least observers can actually "see" and "hear" what is going on between two plants, or between plants and humans in the same environment. Plants drastically react when an intimate person approaches or strangers try to touch them. Plantron could tell you something about the relationship between your favorite plant and yourself.

In a way, it is a mirror that shows us how we humans look at plants. It is also a device to monitor the field created by the latent communication between humans and plants, a self-referential medium to improve our dialogue with the plant world.

[linked senses "plant"]

Theme pavilion "sensorium" (sensorium home page)
INTERNET 1996 WORLD EXPOSITION (World Public Park) / JAPAN (Japan EXPO home page)