why radical plant empathy actually sucks


how I went from curious herbalist to bev-loving plant witch, Part 3

(Read Part 1 and Part 2)

There I was, an advancing, confident herbalist, opening her heart in radical empathy for the plant world, learning to channel their messages and insights. 

Here’s the thing that no one tells you about opening your heart in radical empathy for the plant world: it totally sucks. 

Channeling messages from plants doesn’t just mean receiving human-centric tips-and-tricks for using herbs. 

Radical plant empathy means opening up to the full array of plant feelings, desires, agendas, fears, anxieties.

It means seeing the world around you from the perspective of the plant community. And that opens space for a whole lot of pain. 

I was already someone who was concerned for the environment and the state of the world. 

I was concerned about justice for people and nature— these concerns are what got me farming in the first place. I was not blind to the pain of the world. 

This was different. This was more, so much more. And it was everywhere. 

Every new house that was built. Every over-manicured lawn. Every report about species loss and declining insect populations (not to mention the polar bears…) These things bothered me before. Now, they filled me with a feeling of suffering and despair so immense that I could not put them out of my heart. 

The despair became particularly acute when it seemed that a convenience store was going to be built in the remaining natural area in the center of my town, just a block from where the smaller version of the same convenience store currently stood. 

Every time I drove through that intersection, I looked at the trees who lived there, the trees who were last home for the insects and critters in that area, the trees who were giving us the air we breathe, the trees who were holding the soil in place, the trees who were elders in our community, whose lives were truly irreplaceable. Would they be killed?

I tried going to a therapist to work through my deep existential despair. He suggested that, when I get stressed, I think about trees — trees don’t get stressed, he said. They simply exist, in peace. I realized that 

  1. this person actually knew nothing about trees, and

  2. he could not help me.

The thing about this type of despair, this feeling that humans, particularly humans in my lineage, are destroying the earth, is that it becomes a very deep form of self-hate. 

If humans are so thoroughly destructive, we don’t belong here. None of us belong here. 

It is the ultimate lack of Belonging. 

I had been occupying this space of despair for months that turned into years, the pain growing alongside my herbal practice and the plants in my garden whom I so desperately loved.

One night, when I was at a very, very low point, my partner John suggested we go see a movie. This is something we almost never do, as I’m very sensitive to violence. But I checked ahead, and asked a friend if the movie was violent, and did it contain any torture. Nope, he said, not violent, and nothing that would count as torture. 

Turns out, his definition of torture is very different from mine. 

I had entered the theater feeling despondent and hopeless. I left it sobbing and inconsolable. I sat on a bench outside the theater for 40 minutes, openly weeping while John made awkward eye contact with passerby. 

I cried until there was nothing left. 

Don't worry, the story doesn't end here. Check out Part 4 “magic in the bookstore (where else?)” ...