Updated: Dec 11, 2021
By David St Maur Sheil
The Conscious Tree, David St Maur Sheil 2021
I started this painting last year to help me explore some thoughts around Rudolf Steiner’s insights on trees and how they are supported by recent scientific research. I couldn’t post it until I returned to the UK, during which I turned some of these insights over in my mind. I’m glad to have the opportunity to share it now.
In the summer of 1924 Rudolf Steiner gave a series of lectures to a group of land-owners and farmers at kobetwitz in Austria. This Agriculture Course became the origin and foundation for the practice of biodynamic agriculture, which is now accepted by many as an advanced fully holistic approach to organic agriculture. Practitioners focus primarily on Steiner’s advice on sowing according to a biodynamic calendar, which is based on the traditional and detailed sowing calendars and knowledge of pre-industrial farmers, and also on the preparing and use of biodynamic preparations. However I wish to focus on his lesser considered insights into plants and trees.
I could lace this with many quotes from Rudolf Steiner however I am just going to summarise some of his main points in a simple way and I apologise in advance if this loses some of the subtleties.
Plants can be seen as Standing on their Heads
The surface of the earth acts as a diaphragm.
Steiner compares the surface of the earth to a skin or diaphragm. Comparing a plant to a human he notes that above our waist we have our head and breathing. Below are our digestive and reproductive organs. For plants you can reverse this. The head or consciousness of plants is primarily below the surface as if a tree is standing on its head! The digestive and reproductive parts of the tree are primarily above the surface, with the trunk and branches acting as a digestive system and the fresh growth providing energy and also reproductive functions.
In cartoons we tend to see trees with faces on their trunks. However it would be more accurate to draw the faces under the earth. Huge recent advances in understanding the interconnections of root and fungal networks with the soil, forming something similar to the neural networks in the brain, leads us to more readily understand that the consciousness of plants including trees and indeed whole forests is primarily under the surface. If we alter our perspective to accept this it will completely alter both our understanding of the soil and the way we respond to plants when working on a farm or garden, or wandering through woodland. When we feel the consciousness of the woodland that surrounds us we will feel the trees responding to the vibrations of our footfalls as they reverberate in the sensitive networks under our feet.
The root and interconnected fungal networks are like the neural networks in our brains.
Plants Support and Nurture Each Other
During the winter when the plants above ground seem to be stilled or even dormant we would recognise that all the energy of plants has retreated under the surface and is at its most active under the ground. Plants also interconnect with each other via the fungal networks and older and healthier plants can nurture and support young or ailing plants through such as the sharing of nutrients.
Plants nurture each other through their root and fungal networks
Tree Trunks are Mounded Up Soil
Just as we may mound up humous and carbon rich soil around a plant to help strengthen it’s stem, so we can see the trunks of trees as soil which has been drawn from the earth and mounded into the sky, enabling the garden to ascend upwards. Just as we may form a hollow in the soil in which to plant a seedling, the inner cambium layer of a tree is likened to a hollow within the column of hardened soil that forms the trunk. The thick carbon-hard rind of bark not only supports the tree but protects the living layers within.
The trunk is as mounded up soil, hollowed within to enable the flow of nutrients and life forces
Branches of trees form garden beds in the sky
So if we can think of the trunks of trees as soil mounded up then that soil extends out into the strong arms of branches, each branch becoming a garden bed in the sky. Then out of these beds multitudes of fresh sprouting leaves, seeds, nuts and fruits grow. Therefore if you can think of a tree as a community of plants all rooted in the upraised soil of the tree, you would no longer think of a tree as a single being, but as an upraised garden or community.
These little plants high up in the trees do not have visible roots and are seemingly separated from the roots of the tree, but in fact they are rooted into the living cambium sap layer of the tree. It is worth noting that the living parts of roots under ground, where the nutrient exchange takes place, are so fine that they are invisible to the human eye and virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding soil at the microscopic level. It is the same with the rooting of fresh shoots into the tough rindy branches that support them.
Branches form growing beds within which fresh plant growth is rooted.
Through the spiritual insights of Rudolph Steiner combined with contemporary insights and scientific advances in understanding the interconnections of plants and soil, we can develop fresh ways to perceive the trees and other plants that surround us. And also heightened awareness to the preciousness of soil. In my next blog I will explore the interconnections of plants with the Sun, Moon and the planets and the flows of warmth and energy above and below
the diaphragm of the earth’s skin.
Happy woodland wandering all.
David St Maur Sheil, Dec 2021