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A brief overview of “The Life of Plants” by Emanuele Coccia

“We barely talk about them and seldom know their names. Philosophy has always overlooked them; even biology considers them as mere decoration on the tree of life. And yet plants give life to the Earth: they produce the atmosphere that surrounds us, they are the origin of the oxygen that animates us. Plants embody the most direct, elementary connection that life can establish with the world.”

Emanuele Coccia

In his book, The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Melange, Professor Emanuele Coccia, takes a poetic, albeit intelligent, approach to repositioning the plant’s role in philosophical identification.  

As a student of plant medicine and Eastern philosophy, I was intrigued by the subject of this book. In my years of observation and biological studies, and even as a child, I always felt a particular kinship towards nature, and in particular, plants. 

For me, plants were silent storytellers. Synthesizers of time, energy and demonstrators of resilience. And yet, collectively here in the West, we don’t often give the life of a plant much thought. And we certainly don’t give the importance and majesty of a plant the attention it so deserves. 

Throughout modern science and Western philosophy, plants have often taken a backseat to their animal (and human) neighbors. In fact, most disciplines continue to identify the human as the superior being of life. We are at the top of the “food chain”, the pinnacle of the evolutionary totem pole, if you will. This anthropocentric view was predominately rooted in the idea that because humans have the capacity to communicate and form reason, they are, therefore, of greater importance to the Earth than other beings. 

Fortunately, the curious bio-centric child in me was satisfied as I sat down to the very first pages of this book and realized that Coccia had joined the ranks of other philosophers and scientists, such as Michael Pollan and Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, by almost taking a Shamanic point of view in (re)addressing the reverence plants deserve and rejecting this notion that plants are unable to communicate. 

Instead, in this book, Coccia posits the wildly controversial idea that plants are not only intelligent beings who are capable of communication, perception and reason, they are actually the link to all forms of life.  In other words, plants are not just beings that serve to feed and field humans and animals, rather they serve as the very force of life; the creators, the reproducers, the decomposers, and the regenerators. 

Leaf Theory

“The origin of the world is seasonal, rhythmic, deciduous like everything that exists Being neither substance nor foundation, it is no more in the ground than in the sky, but rather halfway between the two. Our origin is not in us…but outside, in the open air. It is not something stable or ancestral, a star of immeasurable size, a god, a titan. It is not unique. The origin of our world is in leaves.” 

This was no easy read. Like most philosophical works, I found myself reading paragraph after paragraph over, and over again in order to really digest and process the message Coccia was attempting to deliver. While at times I did feel like I was on a psychedelic high as my eyes danced from metaphor to data point, and my mind scrambled to catch up and decode deeper meaning, I was actually able to appreciate this heightened state of consciousness. I felt it served to better support the passion that Coccia projects. 

Coccia delicately breaks his book into three primary components, or theories. The first being Leaf Theory, where he develops his idea that existence, by its very nature, means an immersion and dependency on the atmosphere we breathe and occupy. 

Life, he suggests, rests entirely on the capacity of the leaves to harness and gather solar energy and photosynthesize. This magnificent phenomena is so overlooked and seemingly ignored in modern society and yet, as Coccia argues, is the very catalyst for which all organisms coexist. Plants are the sole beings that can utilize the primary source of energy and the result is, as Coccia puts it, “EVERYTHING”. 

Atmosphere, or breath, is cosmically shared between organisms, matter, animals, and plants. This state of immersion is where everything exists in everything; a permeable continuum. To illustrate this concept, Coccia thoughtfully cites this example of water and a fish: 

“The water of which the sea is made is not only in front of the fish subject but in it, passing through him, coming out of him. ”

We are all immersed in the same life-force. The water that rains down upon us and makes up our blood and oceans, is a product of this shared atmosphere, this breath. “Every living being, Coccia writes, “constructs itself starting from the same matter that makes up the mountains and clouds.” 

The leaf, he lyrically describes is “the oven that produces oxygen and frees it into space, the element that renders possible life, the presence, and the mixture of an infinite variety of subjects, bodies, histories, and worldly beings. The little green limbs that populate the planet and capture the energy of the Sun are the cosmic connective tissue that has allowed, for millions of years, the most disparate lives to cross paths and mix without melting reciprocally, one into the other.”

It wasn’t too long ago when I was sitting on my grass with my youngest son and he turned to me and said, “Isn’t it amazing that the air we are breathing right now is the same air that they are breathing on the other side of the earth?” I sat there marveling for a minute and praised him for recognizing this astonishing, yet humble truth. He was right. But I couldn’t help but wonder why so many of us fail to acknowledge this universal connection in our everyday lives? We are indeed all connected. To everything. And, as Coccia reiterates, everything is connected to us.

Power of Breath

“The world is the matter, the form, the space, and the reality of breath. Plants are the breath of all living beings, the world as breath. In turn, any breath is evidence of the fact that being in the world is, fundamentally, an experience of immersion. To breathe means to be plunged into a medium that penetrates us in the same way and with the same intensity as we penetrate it.”

I have been a breathwork facilitator for some time now and because of this I have understood the significance and power of breath for quite a while. But it wasn’t until recently when I completed a Shamanic Breathwork course that I fully grasped the idea that breath really is the ultimate life force and a clear example of the reciprocal and sustainable relationship between all beings. 

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In a recent article on the power of breath, Shaman Rudá Iandê supports Coccia’s primary notion that plants (leaves) are the architects of existence by suggesting that the breath is our first relationship with life. When an animal or human is born, their very first action and sign of life is to take a breath. And just as we are reliant on the plants to provide the necessary oxygen, or atmosphere, to support our breath, so too, are plants reliant on our exhalations to sustain their life force.  As Iandê writes

“You are immersed in the planet’s atmosphere. You can’t exist by yourself.

You are completely dependent on the oxygen produced by the plants who live on this planet. Every time you inhale you are bringing life from the outside world to your inner atmosphere. And upon your exhalation, you give back to nature the carbon you produce in your cells. This same carbon will be inhaled by the plants around you.”

Root Theory

Coccia’s second theory, Root Theory, serves to offer the idea that plants operate a profound and intricate system of communication and reason within their subterranean root structure. He uses the analogy that the human brain and the plant’s roots ultimately share the same “action” – discerning obstacles that stand in the way of survival and growth and discerning the information provided by their immediate environment to assess needs. 

In an article for New Yorker titled The Intelligent Plant, author Michael Pollan address the idea of plant intelligence and supports Coccia’s praise of the root structure by noting that

“plants have all the same senses as humans, and then some. In addition to hearing, taste, for example, they can sense gravity, the presence of water, or even feel that an obstruction is in the way of its roots, before coming into contact with it. Plant roots will shift direction, he says, to avoid obstacles.”

Flower Theory

The final position in Coccia’s book explores the theory of flowers and identifies the flower’s role as the sexual organ of plants. 

This series of chapters, I admit, was the most challenging to process. Coccia makes the implication that flowers are, in theory, the very essence of reason. Reason, according to Coccia, is a “universal, cosmic force” that allows things to be made.  In this sense, we view the flower as a magnetic attractor, immobile and stationary in its position, but “thanks to flowers, plant life becomes the site of an explosion of colors and forms and of a conquest of the domain of appearances. Sex, forms, and appearances all merge in the flower. ”

The flower attracts the world to it while simultaneously creating a world within itself. 

Gratitude

I think the fundamental takeaway from reading Coccia’s book is that there seems to be a void in reverence towards nature and plants and their place in both our metaphysical and biological classifications. 

In reframing our thoughts, as Coccia suggests we do, to understand the significance and generous blessings that plants provide, Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer hints that we simply do one thing: start with gratitude.  In adopting a sincere practice of gratitude towards the wisdom and life force offered by plants, we will deepen our cosmic understanding and appreciation of interconnectedness. 

Indigenous philosophy and shamanic wisdom both share the principles that plants speak to us. We are not just interconnected, we are loved and nurtured by plants. And they tell us so. Plants provide air, food, seed, clothing, shelter and engender this very existence. Plants offer lessons in resilience and capability. But above all, plants give and sustain life. 

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