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The Rights of Plants

The great brotherhood of the living does not stop at animals; it includes also the whole of the vegetable world. And there are reasons to believe that the transition between the less elaborate of plants and the mineral realm is just as gradual and imperceptible, in its way, as that observed between the lowest forms of aquatic animal life and the plants themselves. We do not know where fife begins — if it be true that it “begins” at all. We do not know what life is. The only fact of which we are well aware, as a fact, is its unity within the greatest possible diversity of forms and functions. We know, by a sort of direct, intuitive evidence — provided we are sufficiently sensitive — that the life of a tree, of a bush, of a blade of grass, of the moss that grows greener or yellower upon an old wall, is not fundamentally different from that of the worm or of the jellyfish, of the reptile, or the quadruped or of ourselves; not fundamentally different either, on one hand, from the extremely slow, heavily bound life of rocks and crystals, and, on the other, from that of the unseen creatures, more subtle, more highly organized and much freer then ourselves, if such creatures exist. A deep feeling tells us that there are no real breaks in the economy of Nature, and that nothing is outside nature, or in contradiction with its eternal laws. And scientific research applied to plants has, up till now, given increasing experimental support to the belief in the continuity at least of the animal and vegetable realm. While the study of metals — in particular the very word used to describe their condition after hard use: “fatigue” — seems to point out also to the presence, in them, of a dim sort of alternate state of pain and ease, a mysterious “life,” as apprehended throughout the whole scheme of existence by the seers of old.


No nation has stressed the idea of the unity underlying all beings, from Gods and Buddhas down to the humblest forms of plant and even mineral life, as eloquently as the ancient Hindus. What still lingers of their spirit and influence in modern India gives that unfortunate subcontinent, in spite of all its drawbacks, a place as a great constructive factor in any disinterested vision of a better world. And a large part of what is to be found concerning the unity of life in non-Indian teachings, ancient and modern — in Pythagorism and Neo-Pythagorism; in some aspects of the “Hermetic” teachings; in Unitarianism today — seems due to more or less obvious Hindu influences. Yet the most luminous souls of the world, be it in the East or in the West, not only always felt in tune with the whole of life, but expressed, occasionally at least, their conviction that plants and animals and ourselves have similar ultimate aspirations.

In the two of his hymns to the Sun that have survived the general wreck of his beautiful religion, Akhnaton, in particular, puts forth a that idea in simple words. Having recalled the gestures in which he sees the daily adoration of the Sun by man and beast, bird and fish alike, he speaks of the lilies in the marshes: “The flowers in the wastelands blossom at Thy rising” . . . “they drink themselves drunk (of Thy radiance) before Thy face,” says he, implying both a physical pleasure and a mystical thrill — a holy intoxication and an act of worship — in the opening of the velvety white petals to the warmth and light of the morning Sun. Plants are considered here not merely as living beings endowed with sensitiveness but — which is more — as religious beings; as creatures of the same nature as animals and men, and similarly capable of a sacred exaltation of all their powers of life in the presence of the Life-giver. A better recognition of the unity of all life in nature and in purpose, could not be imagined.

* * *

We do not deny that differences in degree, once they exceed a certain measure, are, for all practical purposes, just as good as differences in nature; that they are, at least, bound to determine very visible differences in our behavior towards creatures. And that is why we rejected so categorically, in previous chapters,1 the fallacy of those who are inclined to justify animal slaughter and meat eating by telling us that, “since plants have also life” — and

1 Chapter VI., p. 71 and following.


probably sensitiveness — and since we eat quite a number of them, we may as well eat the flesh of animals too, while we are about it. We are the first ones to admit that, however continuous be the succession of all forms of life, from the hot-blooded animal to the most rudimentary vegetable, and however “one” life be as a whole, there is a considerable difference between killing a lamb or a bull and pulling a beetroot out of the ground — a difference, nay, far greater then there can ever be between the murder of a man and that of a reptile or fish, let alone of a quadruped.

Still, we do not believe that such a difference justifies in any way the ruthless exploitation of plants. It only makes that of animals all the more shocking. Its existence implies that the eating of vegetables cannot excuse the eating of animal flesh any more than it would that of human flesh. And it may make the necessity of using the products of the fields and forests for our food appear less tragic to us, as, like all other creatures, we have to live on something. It cannot justify any destruction of plants — clearing of jungles, cutting down of forests, destruction of individual trees — save on a minimum scale, and that only in order to prevent death or pain being inflicted upon animals in their stead.

Animals, for instance (including ourselves), have to be fed. And this is an unavoidable source of destruction of adult plant life, so long as the vegetable-eating beasts cannot live either solely on mineral preparations, or on fruits naturally fallen from the trees, or on both these. And just as the obviously carnivorous animals are justified to feed on flesh (since they cannot possibly do otherwise without dying) so it appears reasonable to believe that the herbivorous species and ourselves are justified to eat rice and wheat, potatoes and peas, and all manner of vegetables and fruits, since we have no better choice.

The same thing can be said of the destruction of certain plants of which the fibres or the wood are used for our clothing, our housing or our fuel.

We should, en principe, strongly encourage the use of dead wood and of coal (mummified wood, so as to say) and of the by-products of the coal industry (gas, coke, etc.) as fuel, instead of live wood-or we should like to see people cook their food and warm themselves with electric stoves; we should encourage the use of stone, bricks or mud — or concrete — in preference to wood, as materials for the building of houses; of stucco, or similar plastic materials, in preference to wood, for interior decoration. And we should earnestly like to see dress reduced to a minimum, retaining,


wherever climatic conditions permit, but what is indispensable for attractiveness and decency. But we cannot deny that, until facilities of transport are far increased all over the world — so that mineral products might everywhere replace live wood, as fuel as well as in the construction of buildings — there is very little chance of sparing trees altogether.

And first of all (as in the case of our dealings with animals) there is a whole worldwide educational campaign to be carried on, so that people, now so callous, might more and more become aware of the beauty of plants, of the actual life that pervades them, or their sensitiveness (less obvious, and probably much dimmer than that of the highly organized animals, yet a fact); an educational campaign so that they might become more and more unwilling to cause any harm to them — unless it be, for themselves or for the animals, a pressing alternative of life or death, which it seldom is, save in the case of edible vegetables or herbs.

Our idea, put in a nutshell, is: no exploitation of animals whatsoever, and as little exploitation of plants as possibly there can be to keep both animals and men alive and healthy. We bear in a mind that even that much exploitation might well be temporary and that anyhow, so long as it lasts, it should be — as far as it can be — confined to plants naturally quick to grow and short-lived, mainly nutritive herbs and roots, and cereals.

Our sense of the unity of all life seems to us no excuse for not believing in the fundamental inequality of plants, as well as we certainly do in that of animals and also of men and races of men. And we do feel it is a far greater pity to destroy a noble oak, — a tree that took hundreds of years to reach its present splendor and that, if left to itself, would remain a thing of beauty for hundreds of years more — than to cut a rice plant or an ear of corn. We are even compelled to believe that the great realms of nature overlap one another, just as do, within each realm, the different species of unequal beauty and intelligence. And although we are not in the habit of killing anything, if we can help it, we would very certainly destroy a bug or a flea before consenting to see in their place a rose tree — not to speak of an oak tree or of a cedar — be cut down, just as we would give up any number of human dullards rather than consent to the death of an animal embodying the strength and beauty (and perhaps also the intelligence) of one of the most splendid or loveliest species.


* * *

One of the saddest tragedies of historic times is surely the gradual disappearance of forests all over the surface of our planet.

Ancient India — that India whose better sons composed the Vedic hymns and wrote the Upanishads — was a land of endless, luxuriant forests, with a comparatively small population. Ancient Greece was, in its mountainous areas at least (and these occupied then, as always, the greatest part of the country) covered with woods, fragrant abode of divine and semi-divine beings. There too people were few, compared to trees, without their quality suffering from it in any way, as their deeds have proved. The same could be said of ancient Italy, of North Africa, of Asia Minor; of China and Indo-China, and Japan. The same could be said of the whole world in ancient times.

But, as mankind expanded, forest areas decreased in surface, or vanished away altogether to make place for cultivated fields and various human industries. Whole portions of the globe lost their glorious living mantle. The famous Hercynian Forest that covered a great part of Germany and Central Europe in the days of Tacitus, and the forests of France and of the British Isles, where stately priests and virgins worshipped the Principle of Eternal Life in the sacred Oak, gradually fell under the merciless axe. Castles, towns and villages, churches and convents, warehouses and slums, and fields to nourish man, appeared upon their ruins. And the process seems to have gained impetus as man’s technical achievements became more remarkable. In those very countries of Central and North-Western Europe there were as late as in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries — not long ago — many more woods than one can ever think of today. Now, what have they in the place of their royal oak, their birch trees and fir trees? An intricate network of roads and railways, huge industrial towns, a countryside full of neatly delineated food-growing fields and villages close to one another, and twenty-five times more population than is good for them — a restless population wasting its intelligence in inventing and solving new “problems” and curing new “complexes” instead of looking at the beauty of the world under sunshine, mist or snow.

The United States of America were a land of forests as late as the middle of the nineteenth century. Canada is said to be still, but not to the extent it once was. And there, in the place of the murdered trees, one sees undoubtedly, like everywhere else, roads and railways, towns with endless suburbs, villages rapidly, growing into towns, and vast expanses of cultivated land; more and more cultivated land to feed more and more people who might as well never have been born.


Save in the basin of the Amazon River and a fairly large part of Brazil, in the whole equatorial Africa, in Malaya (until very recently at least) and in some parts of Burma, Siam and Indochina, there are hardly any forests worth the name in all the world today. This, and parallel decrease in number of some of the most beautiful species of wild beasts — such as lions and tigers — is, in our eyes, the most disquieting fact of our times. It is disquieting because its consequences may well become irreparable in the relatively near future, unless men come to their senses, for whatever reason and whatever pretext it may be, and stop this rush to destruction.

Today, as after most wars of some importance, one hears no end of resounding talk, in private and in public, on the best means of putting a full stop to war. People seem to be terrified at the idea of destruction involving their own precious kind. And this is not to be found too strange, when one remembers that over fifteen hundred years of well-organized Christianity (influencing, more than one thinks, the whole world) have helped them and are helping them still to take their natural collective selfishness for the highest of virtues, and to consider human solidarity as their foremost duty.

Still, to us who look upon life — and not man — as the measure of values, there is something extravagant and ridiculous in that indignation that flares up at the mere name of “war,” while all forms of destruction of nonhuman beings, however lovable and beautiful — be it the daily massacre of thousands of animals in all the slaughterhouses of the world, be it the cutting down of the most magnificent trees — leave most people unstirred.

We are surely the last persons to exalt war — especially colonial war, the worst type of uncalled for aggression. Yet we cannot but admit that the alleged remark of Napoleon Bonaparte at the sight of the multitude of dead men on the battle field of Eylau was not entirely devoid of meaning. The conqueror is said to have exclaimed, so as to console himself, perhaps, for the loss of so many good soldiers and officers: “A single night in Paris will fill that gap!” In fact — and provided the Parisians did not oppose themselves to the course of Nature — a “single night in Paris” would, probably result, twenty years hence, in the existence of a number of youngsters sufficient to form an army. Average men are good enough to fight wars, if not always to direct them. And average human life, though no doubt precious — as all life — is easy to replace, for all practical purposes. Buildings too are easy to replace, save when they happen to be extraordinarily beautiful, or of outstanding historic interest. The Houses of Parliament in


London, or Westminister Abbey, or the Cathedral of Chartres in France, or the Temple of Minakshi in Madura (South India), rare spots of utmost beauty with a long history behind them, would be irreplaceable. Fortunately enough such spots are not always hit. Bombarded towns, in general, recover far quicker than one would expect, and often emerge from the turmoil of war cleaner and better built than before.1 Their ancient monuments are the only ones of which the loss, when it does occur, can count as a tragedy.

Now, every day, in some part or other of the world, majestic trees, older than many of the hallowed specimens of mediaeval architecture — patent masterpieces of nature — fall under the axe of the woodcutter. They too, we know, can be replaced. The systematic replanting of a seed for every felled giant of the forest would do for them what the “single night in Paris” was expected to do (and probably did) for the dead of Eylau. But it would take two hundred years — not twenty. In the meantime, the earth lies despoiled of its loveliness. It mourns its destroyed forests. And it is a fact that half the time there is no systematic replanting of trees at all, so that the earth is left to mourn its forests forever.

* * *

Most people do not take the tragic reality of deforestation too seriously, simply because they do not feel for the trees any more than they do for the animals. They far too badly lack any vital sensitiveness to beauty to be disturbed by the idea of the murder of a tree, be it the most royal sample of its kind. All that they care for is, at the most, their own species — when they care for anything at all besides themselves.

This is abundantly proved by the arguments put forward by those very speakers or writers who raise any cry of alarm at all as they contemplate the gradual disappearance of woods, and forests from certain regions of the globe. What is their cry of alarm? Trees, they say, are useful — indispensable — to the stability of the ground, and to be normal repartition of rainfall, of which they absorb a considerable portion. Their roots, infinitely ramified as they are, drink the surplus of the water and hold the earth together at the same time. Once they are no longer there to accomplish these two most useful tasks, the rain, following the natural course of all liquids, rushes down the slope of the hills to swell the rivers,

1 Not, however, such towns as Nuremberg, every house of which was a work of art — such towns are irreplaceable.


dragging along with it sand and gravel and bigger rocks. Often whole masses of soaked earth, or loosened blocks of stone, detach themselves from those hills which have been stripped of their woody growth, causing in their fall more or less damage to human life or property; while in the plains, the rivers, increased by unchecked supplies of rainwater, rise and flood the countryside, carrying away hamlets and villages — cattle, houses, provisions and all; and men too — in their overflowing stream; becoming the cause of unheard of disaster. So, in order to avoid such calamities on an ever broadening scale, stop at once the cutting down of forests! Replace the murdered trees — for the sake of the coming generations of men — and allow the survivors to live and flourish — for the sake of the men of the present day, threatened with ruin and starvation!

This, in a few words, is the main argument advocated by the defenders of the forests. It is probably a very sound one, containing nothing more than a statement of actual fact, a relation of cause and consequence, well defined. It is surely a clever one, for it is the one, if any, that will move people to agitate for the preservation of forests, and governments to take steps against their destruction. But there could be a nobler one. It is an argument which appeals to one of the strongest of all feelings in average man: fear. Fear of his own loss; fear, at the most, for the loss caused to the human race. It resembles the argument of those who support vegetarian diet pointing out that meat eating is less healthy, or altogether unhealthy; or of those who speak against vaccination and against inoculation by serums saying that these do, ultimately, more harm than good to the patients. It betrays no feeling more generous than the desire to forestall avoidable disasters (landslides, floods, etc.) by practical precautionary measures of which the first would consist of protecting the trees; it supposes no broader love than that implied in human solidarity. It is not the argument of those who see, in the whole of Nature, a beautiful hymn to the glory of the mysterious Power within all things; of those who see in the trees, stretching out their branches and light-thirsty foliage to the Sun, as well as in animals, children and worshippers of the selfsame radiant Father-and-Mother of our world, and who love all creatures as themselves. It is not our argument, though we fully recognize its opportunity.

The great reason — the one reason — for which we advocate not only the preservation of the few existing forests, but the gradual replanting of the former ones, (now reduced, some of them, to


hardly a few trees) — is the beauty of trees — the beauty of life in the vegetable as in the animal kingdom.

Most people admit that trees are beautiful; and many, thrilled by the idea of that intricate inner organization that all life represents, are ready to marvel at them as works of art out of comparison with anything man can produce in stone, sound, or even thought, and to quote Joyce Kilmer’s well-known words:

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree!

Yet they do not really feel for the lovely innocent creatures whose only purpose, like that of all creatures, including man, is to live to the utmost in the truth of their life, and to be beautiful; of the lovely innocent creatures whose only joy is to drink in the fragrant dampness of the earth with all the power of their sensitive roots, to absorb the Sun’s rays through all their leaves, and to grow — to grow in strength, to grow in grace, in an exuberance of shapes and forms, as well as in a harmony of elemental sensations; to express, to their full capacity, the joyful presence in them of a universal Soul. They willingly look upon them as the incomparable handiwork of a supreme Artist, but do not apprehend in them a part and parcel of that Artist’s life. The inherited habit of considering the world as the arbitrary creation of a personal and transcendent God, distinct from it, has killed in them (west of India, at least) the sense of the divinity of Life as such.

We remember the instance of some Hindus offering a feast of milk, fruit and cakes to the life-spirit within a tree before putting their axe to the stately trunk. Ancient Greeks or ancient Romans, ancient Germans or Britons, who believe, the trees of their forests were inhabited by dryads and sylvan gods, would possibly have done the same in similar circumstance. If the felling of the tree was unavoidable, it was perhaps the only thing left for them to do, to show how reluctantly they were yielding to an awful necessity. It was surely less barbaric than simply to fell the tree, without remorse or regret, as though it had no beauty and no soul. It showed a better sense of the value of plants as such (irrespective of their utility to man), a better knowledge of the unity of all life than most possess, west of India, for the last fifteen hundred years (and in India, too, in general, at the present day).

We would like everybody, but especially the more consistently rational people, to feel increasingly all the beauty and sacredness of life in trees, creepers and bushes — in all plants — as in animals. Such people would perhaps not try to propitiate the spirit forced


out of its sylvan abode before ordering or allowing the felling of a tree. But they would surely think twice before deciding, in their heart and conscience, that the felling of that tree has to take place, and “cannot be avoided” anyhow. They would look upon the action as an evil in itself, and consider it very seriously.

Felling trees is bad enough; burning out forests is even worse, for it implies the infliction if the most horrid death not only upon the trees themselves, but also upon the luxuriant living undergrowth, and on numbers of birds and animals caught in the flames. Only try to imagine how many young birds are burnt alive in their nests when a forest is set on fire; how many insects perish, and how many reptiles twist their bodies in a cruel agony; how many deer and wolves, foxes and wildcats, — or leopards and panthers, if in the tropics — rush hither and thither, maddened with fear, surrounded with flames, not knowing where to run, until they are burnt to death. But leaving the animals aside, think of the ferns and flowers and creepers, the bushes that grew so happily an hour before in the shadow of the high trees. Think of the trees themselves, their boiling sap bubbling out by a thousand horrid splits; their leaves — those leaves that drank in the sunshine with sensuous delight, — shriveling up in the contortion of death as the trunks burn, upright, desperate living torches, unable even to try to run away. Men who can set fire to a forest, or order others to do so, deserve death at the stake.

We know the reply. “Horrible though it may be, this has to be done, especially in the tropics. There is no way of clearing out space otherwise. And space is needed to build roads and railways; to win new ground for cultivation and human settlements. Or, in other cases, one has to cut down trees and burn them, by a different process, in order to make charcoal; one has to cut them down to make pulp for paper. For without roads and railways, civilization would not progress, exchanges would stop — things I could not be sold cheap wherever they are needed; new fields are I necessary to feed people; without an extra supply of charcoal, buses could not run in wartime, when all the fuel is needed for airplanes; and without paper, or with very little paper, hardly any books could be published.” We know this argument. It is, applied to crimes against vegetable life, the same old selfish argument put forth to justify the torture and slaughter of animals, by those who believe that “anything” can be done when it suits the interest of the human species. It shocks us as much gas would the reasoning of a man advocating the wholesale destruction of more or less


extensive portions of foreign humanity in horrible agony for the convenience of his own country, guild or family. In case men were to be the victims, most people would exclaim: “We would rather go without our convenience than purchase it at that cost!” In case of all the life and beauty that a forest contains, we exclaim: “Better to have no roads and railways; no new fields; no buses running when they cannot get the necessary fuel; and better have next to no paper for new books, rather than purchase any of those advantages at the cost of a forest in flames, even of a felled forest — of beautiful trees lying dead where they could still have been alive, enjoying the light and warmth of the Sun!”

The world would be none the unhappier if a few extra places remained without roads or railways; if a few more imported things remained expensive, even unobtainable; if a few more people travelled on foot, or renounced travelling altogether for want of buses in abnormal times. And as for books, far too many mediocre and decidedly bad ones have been published since the invention of the printing press. Many are not worth the paper on which they are printed. A few — extremely few — are worth the sacrifice of a single tree for paper pulp. A little slowing down in paper production would do more good than harm. It would perhaps — it could, anyhow — become an opportunity to stop the widespread prostitution of the pen; to remake the art of writing what it should never have ceased to be: a disinterested attempt to express beautifully some strongly-felt aspect of everlasting truth; a mission, not a profession. It would perhaps eliminate the many commercial writers, the idle readers, and an enormous quantity of trash. And paper made out of rags would be quite sufficient to publish all that is truly beautiful or truly instructive.

On the other hand, if man could wholeheartedly refuse the advantages he might get from the destruction of forests rather than accept them, knowing fully well what crimes against life and beauty they involve, then he would begin to grow into a creature somewhat different from a clever and selfish beast; he would experience the development of a finer nature within himself; he would earn the right to call himself “superior” to the rest of the living. But will he ever do so? Will even the superior human races ever do so on a broad scale?

* * *

Among the most shocking forms of what we could call cruelty to plants in ordinary life-assuming, as we cannot but do, in the


vegetable world, the existence of some dim consciousness — one should count all those attempts to force certain trees to grow into all sorts of unnatural shapes for the satisfaction of perverse human taste. Trees (in particular certain fruit trees) tortured into fan-like formations, or into square, triangular, conical, cylindrical, oblong and other geometrical shapes, and trimmed regularly so that one branch may not stretch further than another and “spoil” the line; hedges continually cut in order to keep their tops and sides perfectly flat, and to make them look like living walls; grass clipped and reclipped to make the lawns look “tidy” — all this seems to us gruesome. Ugly, for one thing; anything distorted is ugly — and in addition to that, cruel to the extent that the trees in a “Dutch garden,” the bushes in the too “neat” hedges, and the grass in the “tidy” lawns, are alive and sensitive in their own way, and that they are thwarted in their healthy natural growth, just as a child would be, were it forced by some mechanical device to grow crippled. These practices seem to us all the more repulsive in that their only motive lies in a human fancy for living “curios,” a taste for monsters and freaks of nature, that is not a particularly noble one, or in a mania for “tidiness,” ill-becoming when tender, live shoots and branches that had their place in a greater and more generous order, and grass and flowers eager to grow are ruthlessly sacrificed to it.

Personally, we would even abstain from despoiling plants of their beautiful flowers save on very special occasions, or for truly exalted purposes — for the cult of Him who made them grow, for instance, or for the embellishment of the shrines dedicated to the world’s great Souls. And we disapprove entirely of the custom of sacrificing a whole plant merely to decorate the entrance of a house on a festive day, or to form the basis of an arch of green leaves and flowers under which a procession is to pass. Banana trees, in India, are often put to such uses. It is a pity, no doubt. And the Hindus would not do it, were they nearer at heart to the spirit of their great life-centered religions.

* * *

To sum up, we do not — we cannot — reject all idea of exploitation of plants as categorically as we do that of animals. An uncompromising attitude, possible in the latter case, would lead nowhere in this. We can live without eating meat; we cannot live without eating some kind of vegetable; without even growing, for our own staple food and for that of thousands of domestic animals,