Roots of Connection

A Brief History of Humans in the Natural World

"There is nothing lovelier in this planet than a flower, nor more essential than a plant.  The true matrix of human life is the greenswald covering Mother Earth.  Without green plants we would neither breathe nor eat.  On the undersurface of every lead a million movable lips are engaged in devouring carbon dioxide and expelling oxygen.  All together, 25 million square miles of lead surface are daily engaged in this miracle of photosynthesis."
-Peter Tomkins & Christopher Bird, The Secret of Plants, 1973

The spiraling form of a flower painted by prehistoric hand on cave rock wall, the distinctive shape of a mushroom, carved carefully into ancient stone -- the history of people and the natural world is a symbiotic one, a vast and intertwining evolution.  Plants and other species, such as mushrooms and fungi, were some of the very first living beings on Earth, with terrestrial growth thought to have first appeared at least 430 million years ago,  The first land plant is considered to be the leadless Cooksonia, whose fossilized remains have been found dating back to what is known as the Silurian era, an early geological period on our planet.  Evolving out of water, birthed by algae, and making their way to dry soil, plants, mushrooms, trees, and flowers were the essential elements in the formation of our own human existence, forming the air we breathe, the foods we ear to grow, survive and thrive.

For prehistoric humans, nature was thought to provide not only healing and sustenance, but spiritual guidance as well, the Earth itself a goddess, its plants, and botanicals offerings from a pantheon of primeval deities. Trees, mushrooms, and flowers held potent symbolic meanings and provided a conduit, a passage into the realms of the gods. For the Egyptians, the blue lotus or water lily was considered a sacred plant, representing the sun, resurrection, and rebirth in their complex mythologies. The Druidic religions of the British Isles saw their gods and goddesses embodied in the enduring strength of the oak tree. For the Greeks and Romans, the pomegranate, crimson dark and blood-hued, was a potent symbol of the afterlife. For the Aztec and Maya of Mesoamerica, mushrooms were thought to be consciousness-expanding, "food of the gods." Across cultures, depictions of trees, plants' and flowers found their way onto tombs, temples, and totems - nature the altar at which the early world held worship.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Adam and Eve, Germany, 1526
The peaceful moment before the fated fall from grace depicted in the Garden of Eden.  The apple is embraced by both Adam and Eve as they make their doomed decision.


It was not until the Neolithic era, however, over 10,000 years ago, that humans first began to settle plots of land, planting, and domesticating botanicals, and documenting their experiences into carved clay tablets, or penning their evolving knowledge onto scrolls made of the pressed papyrus plant. Agriculture is thought to have originated in Western Asia, eventually spreading across the globe, and forming the first expansive civilizations. In Babylon, the Assyrians would first cultivate the date palm. The Egyptians used the flood waters of the Nile for irrigating plots, growing plants for not only food and medicine, but for ornamenta- tion as well, creating elaborate gardens and public parks. These early agricultural cultures carefully documented the use of plants for medicine and nutrition and passed down this knowledge through the language of storytelling and eventually, into early forms of writing.

The oldest known written documentation of plants is thought to date back to Sumerian culture nearly 5000 years ago. One of the first known medical texts, documenting the use of herbs and plants, was compiled by Egyptians in approximately 1550 BCE. Known as the Ebers Papyrus, this scroll consists of writings on botanicals utilized to cure an array of conditions. Early Egyptian healers recommended curatives we still use today, such as aloevera for skin ailments and Spiraea ulmaria, or meadowsweet, a flowering plant in the rose family whose chemical make-up is used in modern aspirin.

In India, the origins of what is now known as Ayurvedic medicine were first documented in the Atharva Veda, Hindu scriptures written in approximately 1200 BCE. In China, a deified figure known as Shennong, thought to have lived in approximately 2800 BCE, is considered the forefather of modern Chinese Medicine. His famous Materia medica, is considered one of the oldest books on the use of plants for healing. According to lore, Shennong himself tasted hundreds of botanicals, many poisonous, in order to best record their qualities.

The great scholars and philosophers of early Greece would expand on this plant knowledge, their works providing the core foundation for Western botanical and medical studies for centuries to come. The renowned physician Hippocrates, who lived between 460 and 370 BCE would study and expand upon existing botanical and herbal documentations in his teachings. The scholar Theophrastus, a follower of Aristotle, penned the expansive ten volume work titled Enquiry into Plants or Historia Plantarum. Written sometime between 350 and 287 BCE Theophrastus documented numerous plant varieties and their uses. Considered to be one of the first "herbals" or books of plant medicines, the Historia describes a wide array of medicinal uses, and instructions on how best to gather and extract potent resins and juices. The Roman philosopher and naturalist Gaius Plinius Secundus, also known as Pliny the Elder was another key contributor to our modern knowledge of botany. His Natural History, a multi-volume series first published in the year 77, offers not only texts on agriculture and horticulture but also includes an extensive overview of plants and their uses, both medicinally and in religious and spiritual ceremony. In one major section of the series, Pliny lists over 900 plant medicines and their uses. In another, he discusses the importance of various trees and plants in pagan ritual and ceremony. But perhaps the most important early writings on the natural world are contained within the five volumes of De materia medica. Written between the years 50 and 70 by the Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides, these books became a precursor to nearly all botany texts to come. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, De materia medica would be translated into several languages and carefully copied and illustrated by hand into countless editions that would find their around the globe, and inform generations of scientists, scholars, and enthusiasts.

Leonhart Fuchs, Portraits of Albrecht Meyer and Heinrich Fullmaurer, Switzerland, 1542
From the Taschen edition of Fuchs Herbal, the famous 1543 herb manual by botanical pioneer Leonhart Fuchs.  In this image Fuchs captured his collaborators on the book, illustrator Meyer and engraver Fullmaurer.


Another scholar whose contributions to botanical knowledge and the medical use of plants are considered indispensable is the visionary Benedictine Abbess, Hildegard of Bingen. Born in 1098, in Germany, Bingen would live an extraordinary life for a woman of her era. Within the confines of the convent walls, she would immerse herself in art, music, books, and horticulture, developing a passionate conviction that God existed, not only above, but below, as well. "Gaze at the beauty of the green earth," she would famously write, "the truly holy person welcomes all that is earthly. The earth should not be injured. The earth should not be destroyed. There is the music of Heaven in all things. The Word is living, being, spirit, all verdant greening, all creativity." In addition to her writings and her duties as Abbess and spiritual leader, Bingen would also create countless works of transcendent art, compose music and immense publications on botany, medicinal plants, and healing practices. The first is a nine-volume natural history documenting animals, minerals, as well as plants and their uses, titled Physica. The second, Causae et Curae, explores Bingen's revolutionary philosophy on the human body and its connection to the natural world. Bingen believed that our health is reliant on the planet's health, and that plants and herbs were powerful allies in healing the body holistically, but in return, they needed nurturing and stewardship themselves. Bingen's practical education came in the form of experience. Renowned for her medical knowledge, the garden at her abbey was planted with medicinal herbs and botanicals. She and her sister nuns actively treated patients with much success. Her writings, recorded in Latin, remain some of the sole documentation of the vast medical and herbal knowledge of predominantly female healers of the Middle Ages, as most women of the era were illiterate, passing down traditions verbally and through mentorship, from one generation to the next. Writings on botany and herbal medicines were reserved primarily for men, but specifically for the libraries of royalty and for the wealthy, as these hand-crafted, hand-illustrated tomes were rare and extremely expensive. It was not until the advent of woodblock printing processes, first used in China in the 9th century and later with Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in 1436, that botanical knowledge was finally disseminated around the world. Books on botany became extremely popular during the Renaissance, as well as the use of plant symbolism in paintings, sculpture, and illustrations of the era. Vast gardens were planted as a show of status at palaces and in cities across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Plants became muse, medicine, and commodity, most notably in the late 1500s, when the tulip was first imported to Holland from the Ottoman Empire. An all-out craze for the flower ensued and for a moment, during a phase appropriately named "tulip mania," the multi-hued flowering plants were worth more than gold.

Unknown, Krishna and Radha, India, Unknown
The mythical couple symbolizing God and the human soul, court under a tree surrounded by lotus blossoms of which pure petals emerge from muddy depths. 


In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Age of Enlightenment would usher in an intellectual and philosophical movement that would result in a groundswell of botanical and medicinal studies. One of the most renowned botanists of this period was the Swedish physician Carl Linnaeus, whose prolific writings resulted in the study and categorization of thousands of plant species. His book, Systema Naturae, printed in 1735, identified over 7000 thousand botanicals. 1751's Philosophia Botanica expanded upon Linnaeus' philosophies regarding the plant world. His Species Plantarum, released in 1753, established a plant-naming system that is still used today. Like Abbess Bingen before him, Linnaeus saw God's work in the beauty of the natural world. In his preface to Systema Naturae he states, "The Earth's Creation is the glory of God, as seen from the works of Nature by Man alone." His vast and in-depth writings would have a profound effect on the modern study of botany, horticulture, and ecology. Linnaeus was also greatly admired during his lifetime, respected, and celebrated by his contemporaries. His fellow Swede, the author August Strindberg once wrote of him, "Linnaeus was in reality a poet who happened to become a naturalist."

Meanwhile, in the arts, the genre of botanical illustrations was thriving, with new editions of herbal texts being published the world over. In 1675, with the release of her New Book of Flowers the Swiss naturalist and talented illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian would provide the aesthetic groundwork for generations to come. Her ornate, highly detailed drawings of plants were an inspiration, particularly to female artists, including the Scottish illustrator Elizabeth Blackwell, best known as the author and engraver for the immensely popular tome A Curious Herbal, published between 1737 and 1739. Painting specimens from the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, a four-acre plot established in 1673 to grow medicinal botanicals, Blackwell elegantly documented nearly 500 plants and their uses. With the success of A Curious Herbal, Blackwell was able to supporther child and raise funds to ensure her hus- band's release from a debtor's prison. While her work was disregarded by many male botanists of the era as "amateur," Blackwell is now considered to be one of the most important cultural figures in herbalism and plant medicine. Over the next few centuries, long before the invention of photography, Blackwell and other artists would offer vibrantly realistic renderings of rare botanicals and exotic mushrooms, trees, flowers, and herbs, ultimately helping to share with the public the remarkable beauty and diversity of the natural realm. The talents of artists such as Pierre- Joseph Redouté, one of France's premiere botanical illustrators of the early 1800s and later, the works of English artist Marianne North, would earn accolades not just from the science community but by the art world as well. Redoute's work would be hung in the Louvre, while North has her own gallery at Kew Gardens in England. One of the preeminent botanical illustrators of the Victorian era, North was also an avid plant-hunter as well, documenting botanicals discovered during her extensive travels to Europe, North and South America, Australia, Asia, and Africa.

The scientific study of nature in the 19th century would culminate with the 1859 release of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. Darwin's thesis - that humans, animals and plants are interrelated and thereby defined as co-dependent - would inspire a new era of ecology and environmentalism. And our perception of the natural world would be irrevocably transformed. Through the late 19th century, the Romantic Movement in English literature, and the Transcendental philosophies of American authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau embraced a return to nature for both spiritual sustenance and creative inspiration. "The happiest man, exclaimed Emerson in his best-selling book of essays, Nature, first published in 1836, "is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship." Later amid the throes of the Industrial Revolution, many began to seek solace in the natural world, our innate connection to the Earth and its bounty severed by smokestack and assembly line.

Mikhail Dmitrievich Ezuchevsky, Charles Darwin in the Langdon-Down greenhouse, Russa, 1920
In addition to being the father of evolution theory, Darwin was a botanist and engaged in plant experimentation in his private hothouse.


Over the next century, advances in science and technology would allow for the synthetization and manufacture of fungi and plant-based compounds into a wide array of medicines and materials. Perhaps the most revolutionary of these was the isolation of compounds found in ergot, a fungus that grows on grains, by Albert Hofmann. Lysergic acid diethylamide was first synthesized by Hofmann in the late 1930s, but it was not until 1943 that he would discover L.S.D's psychedelic qualities after ingesting a trace amount in his laboratory. He wrote of the experience, "In a dream-like state... I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors." Hofmann's discovery would allow the modern Western world entry into a rite long considered sacred to ancient and indigenous cultures - the use of plant medicines for shamanic transformation and enlightenment. Over the next few decades, the study and use of the psychoactive plants and mushrooms would definitively alter the state of culture and consciousness.

A contemporary of Hofmann's, the Harvard scholar Richard Evans Schultes, was one of the first Westerners to study the use of plants in indigenous ceremony, writing his undergraduate thesis on Native American peyote rituals in 1937.  In 1941, Schultes received his PhD. in Botany, penning his doctoral dissertation on the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms and morning glory in indigenous Mexican cultures. Schultes' early work would have a huge influence on key figures in what was to become known as the field of ethnobotany. Inspired by Schultes' study of psychoactive mushrooms, the American businessman Robert Gordon Wasson and his wife, Dr. Valentina Pavlovna Guercken, a pediatrician, scientist, and experienced mycologist, traveled to Mexico in the hopes of participating in a traditional ritual of the indigenous Mazatec peoples. The couple were welcomed by the shaman Maria Sabina, who graciously allowed them access to a healing ceremony involving the ingestion of psychoactive mushrooms. A photo essay of this experience, published by the Wassons in Life magazine in 1957, would expose what had once been a secret, sacrosanct medicinal rite to the world at large. The floodgates of consciousness, or what the English writer Aldous Huxley would term, "the doors of perception" - had suddenly been flung open. Throngs of eager scientists, artists and seekers began studying and experimenting with mushrooms and other plant medicines such as peyote and ayahuasca. At Harvard, in 1960 the young psychologists Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert began their infamous Harvard Psilocybin Project, using Hofmann's synthesized versions of psilocybin and L.S.D. in various experimental trials. In 1970, ethnobotanist Terence McKenna and his brother Dennis would travel to the Amazon, publishing their experiences with the area's hallucinogenic plants in their 1975 book, The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens, and the Ching. Later, in the 1992 book Food of the Gods, Terence McKenna would expound upon his "Stoned Ape Theory," which proposed that human consciousness evolved in part due to our primitive ancestor's accidental ingestion of psilocybin mushrooms.

Today, psychedelic plant medicines have experienced a renewed interest within the scientific and psychiatric community and have been embraced by a young generation of spiritual seekers. Journalist Michael Pollan's best-selling book How to Change your Mind and This is Your Mind on Plants, explore the effects of plant medicine through intimate and in-depth research. The mycologist Paul Stamets, in his book Mycelium Running, makes the claim that mushrooms may in fact be a key factor in helping to save the planet. With the environment in crisis, we continue to look for solutions, both in nature herself and within the ancient traditions of plant stewardship long practiced by cultures around the globe. In Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants, written by the Potawatomi scientist and scholar Robin Wall Kimmerer, the author offers insight into be the that nature, if respected, can our nurturer and guide. "It is not enough to weep for our lost landscapes," she writes, "we have to put our hands in the earth to make ourselves whole again. Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy."

"The teachings of the plant world also have an immense impact and influence over my work and practice in the arts. From them I learn about intentional collaboration and interdependence, the necessity of care and nourishment in our pursuit of growth and evolution, and the true blessing of existing in this world. Plants and plant medicine have always been constants in my life. As a child, I didn't know our traditional Afro Caribbean and Afro Dominican healing practices as "plant medicine," but the universe made sure to bring me full circle to my starting point. I came to my formal study of plant medicine about 8 years ago, when my wife was suffering from debilitating, paralyzing migraines. Western doctors prescribed her a series of seizure medications. I started searching for another way. I've been on this journey ever since, learning and growing, sharing, and receiving, dreaming, and deepening my practice alongside my community, my family, and brilliant, visionary collaborators. There is a role for the plants in everything we do. I have been privileged enough to practice alongside other organizers and herbalists operating at small scales to affect change within our neighborhoods and across our interconnected spheres of influence. When I reflect on the enormous efficiency and impact of neighborhood-based mutual aid networks across New York City alone, just from 2020 to the present moment, it restores my faith in what can happen when we approach transformative change from block-by-block model, versus starting with the world. I have witnessed many ways in which movement work has leaned into biomimicry, taking a page from nature's book, emulating systems of nature to address the complex issues of the human condition. The natural world around us continues to be our greatest teacher: the cosmos, the ocean, the plants. They are, at all times, revealing everything we need to know and understand about living in more synchronous coordination with our planet."
Artist, Herbalist, Activist & Founder of Moon Mother Apothecary, 2022