with Frances Moore Lappé

By Susan Barber
The early 'seventies was an amazing time for life-transforming books. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance appeared then, as did The Nature of Personal Reality, a Seth book.

And this was the time of two other mind-blowing reading experiences — both concerned with plants — that could have, should have, caused massive, far-reaching changes in the way scientists perceive our world.

In one, The Secret Life of Plants, Christopher Bird and Peter Tompkins revealed literally centuries worth of hard facts supporting that plants — in fact, everything in creation — are conscious, intelligent, and aware of human beings and each other.

And in Frances Moore Lappé's revolutionary Diet for a Small Planet, the general public learned for the first time what specialists had long known: that world hunger can be traced to the way we produce meat, whereas the protein we seek is available much more cheaply — and healthfully — from plants.

The Secret Life of Plants

Meeting Mr. X

My own introduction to plant communication occurred late one afternoon in 1974 when I came into my outer office to find a slender, raw-boned man, with graying hair and a really long beard, waiting for me with a little "black box."

He had come, he said, to show me a machine that he'd built on commission from Howard Hughes, designed to demonstrate that plants have sensations, are psychic, and really do communicate with human beings.

Why anyone thought I needed this demonstration is something I've never figured out.[1] But for whatever reason, we attached electrodes to my office philodendrons and performed various experiments, reading the results on Mr. X's little black box. The plants cried, cringed, rejoiced, and quivered inwardly, all in response to our human thoughts and words.

So in this way, I am able to say for myself that at least some of the information contained in The Secret Life of Plants is real. And I'm grateful I had that opportunity, for the ideas within this book are absolutely life-changing. I do not think that it would be possible to read it without experiencing some degree of inner transformation in the way the world around us is perceived.

Plants live in a slowed-down universe

If asked the difference between plants and animals, many of us would respond that animals are free to move about, whereas plants are not. This is the first misconception exploded by Tompkins and Bird.

The truth, they explain, is that, like the Ents of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, trees and other plants simply live in a different phase of time than we do. To prove to ourselves that plants move, all we need to do is emulate the work of the Viennese biologist Raoul Francé and take time-lapse photographs. Then, as he did, we will see plants creeping or growing — intelligently and perceptively, but very, very slowly — toward or away from things that support or threaten them (pp. ix-xiv) [2].

They cannot tell a lie

According to Tompkins and Bird, the whole scientific uproar about plant communication began in 1966 when Cleve Baxter — then America's foremost lie-detector examiner — decided on impulse to attach his polygraph electrodes to the now-famous dracaena in his office, then water the plant and see if the leaves responded (p. 4). Finding that the plant indeed reacted to this event, he decided to see what would happen if he threatened it, and formed in his mind the idea of lighting a match to the leaf where the electrodes were attached.

And that was when something happened that forever changed Baxter's life and ours. For the plant didn't wait for him to light the match. It reacted to his thoughts!

Through further research, Baxter found that it was his intent, and not merely the thought itself, that brought about this reaction.

He also discovered that plants were aware of each other, mourned the death of anything (even the bacteria killed when boiling water is poured down the drain), strongly disliked people who killed plants carelessly or even during scientific research, and fondly remembered and extended their energy out to the people who had grown and tended them, even when their "friends" were far away in both time and space.

In fact, he found, plants can react "in the moment" to events taking place thousands of miles away. And not only are they psychic, they also are prophetic, anticipating negative and positive events, including weather.

One of the most important things that Baxter discovered was that, instead of going ballistic, plants that find themselves in the presence of overwhelming danger simply become catatonic (p. 7)! This phenomenon, the book tells us, has posed endless problems for those researchers who, unlike Baxter, do not respect the sentience of their subjects. Under such circumstances, the plants they are studying evince no reaction whatsoever. They simply "check out."

Plants and the sound of music

Yes, it's true. Plants don't like rock music. When it's played to them, they bend sharply away from the source. Over a long time, it can kill them. But plants do like classical music and, perhaps surprisingly, jazz. When that type of music is played to a field of crops, more and heavier grain is produced than in control fields that receive no serenades. And while they respond positively to Bach and Mozart, plants "express" a marked preference for the Indian sitar music of Ravi Shankar (pp. 145-62).

Lest we become too anthropomorphic about all of this, it's also been shown, we are told, that plants are equally responsive in a positive way to single intonations played continuously. Melody is not required.

Plants and energy healing

Distance healing through broadcasting of wave-form energy — called radionics — depends upon the concept that all parts of reality communicate with all the other parts "outside of time," and that a small piece of something can stand in for the whole, no matter how far away in "space" that whole thing may be — exactly as a voodoo doll stands in for the person being helped or harmed.

As The Secret Life of Plants describes in detail through several chapters, radionics practitioners totally proved as far back as 1952 that they could "treat" plant crops without actually spraying them, simply by broadcasting the waveform of the pesticide to a photograph(!) of the field itself. The results of doing this were actually better than when insecticide was applied to the physical field. And the potential, not only for nurturing our environment but for cutting the cost of food production, was dramatic.

But Monsanto and friends, with the help of our government, made sure that such a revolution in growing practices did not happen. The practitioners were ridiculed, and their published results discredited. As had been happening since the time of Nicola Tesla, yet another sustainable energy practice was wiped almost out of existence (pp. 295-317).

And that brings us to the second seminal book about plants, which concerns the way in which they are grown, and how they can be used to end world hunger instead of causing it.

Diet for a Small Planet

Frances Moore Lappé used to live near my hometown in Vermont. Incredibly sincere and dedicated, she is in her personal life a seeker after spiritual truth. But in the realm of plants, her concerns are more practical.

Did your parents raise you on a steady diet of tofu, soymilk and unsweetened granola? If so, you probably have Frances Moore Lappé to blame. Her seminal 1971 book, Diet for a Small Planet, was a bible for millions of baby boomers who wanted to eat better. For many, Diet was also a political and personal manifesto, the first book to detail how you don't need meat to get enough protein, and more importantly, how there is more than enough food in the world to go around.

Hunger, Lappé found, is caused by a scarcity of democracy, not of food."[3] So writes Lappé's son, Anthony, in a recent article for the Guerrilla News Network. As Anthony reveals, the basic premise of Diet for a Small Planet was that the widespread hunger and starvation experienced by so many (then and now) has its roots in the meat industry. Instead of eating grain ourselves, we feed it to cows, pigs, and chickens, who convert only a small fraction of the original food value into meat. If we were to feed this grain to human beings rather than cows, there would be no shortage of food on this "small planet."

"While the experts . . .were telling us we were running out of food," Lappé says, "I learned that we were feeding almost a third of our grain worldwide to livestock."[4].

Lappé's book was the first to put forward to mainstream readers the concept, now fully accepted, that a plant-based diet is capable of supplying all of our protein needs. As such, the book provided the impetus for a whole new trend in eating and a whole new way of looking at food.

Food as an entry point to personal transformation

Lappé's first big discovery, she said, came when she was a social sciences graduate student at U.C. Berkeley and had the sudden realization that she did not really understand the roots of the world's needless suffering. Deciding that it made absolutely no sense to be a social activist until she had some concept of what the problems were and what would work (or not) to solve them, she dropped out of graduate school and began the odyssey that eventually led to her life's work.

When I spoke with Frances about that book, and its 30th anniversary sequel, Hope's Edge, I asked her how it happened that she settled upon food as the core issue in changing the world?

It's about what I call entry points [she answered]. If we really think ecologically, we must think in terms of systems and patterns. The entry points into a pattern are infinite.

If we seek to make a difference, the question for each of us is, What touches our hearts? Maybe it's our child's challenges in school, or our work — something that's happening there that's offensive to us because we love ourselves and care about what's around us. Having asthma can be an entry point, because it can be related to pollution particles in the air. Violence in the home or community can be an entry point, as we seek ways to create a more healing approach to justice.

It's all connected. My entry point involves being conscious about what I choose to put in my mouth, learning to listen and trust myself, treating myself well. I began to feel a deep intuition that an understanding of food might be the key that would unlock the rest. Food is our most direct connection with the Earth. It bonds us with the Earth and with one another.

Hope's Edge

In 2003, Lappé's book, Hope's Edge, appeared, co-written with her daughter, Anna. The book was based upon a world tour of places that are doing something to reclaim their original food supply and, through that, their connection with the Earth.

Food's power lies in part in the fact that food has never been mere commodity [she writes]. Throughout human evolution it has been part of defining family, community, and culture. As our most intimate link to the earth, food has always been the center of religious and community ritual, strengthening our ties to each other and to the rhythms of nature. In other words, food has always been sacred, not merely a means to physical survival but also to spiritual wholeness.

The global drive to reduce food to a mere commodity therefore touches a deep nerve. A very deep nerve. On five continents, we saw food acting as a wake-up call, jarring millions of people to what we are losing in all dimensions of life. What we are losing as we acquiesce to a global structure of decision making by entities more powerful than governments, yet without democratic accountability [5].

Not a duty but a joy

Lappé's goal, she said, "is to tempt people with the pleasure of reconnecting with whole foods. . . reconnecting through food with ourselves and the Earth. That's why we wrote Hope's Edge in story form, we are inviting people to do something pleasurable. For me and my daughter, this new consciousness has not been a burden, but a wonderful discovery."

Finally, with respect to plant communication, although it's not her main focus, Lappé is very much aware of plants as sentient beings. "I once went out and purchased a plant in order to bring life into my cold, sterile little office at M.I.T. And when we traveled all over the globe researching Hope's Edge, this little plant would be left alone. Sometimes I would come back here and find it almost expired from lack of care. But it always revived, and I would thank it for hanging in there with me. It's my little companion. It's still going strong."

Looking Backward

Today, upon rereading The Secret Life of Plants at a remove of almost four decades, the most astounding impression one receives is that, despite the book's widespread popularity and thoroughgoing research, nothing's really changed. The information seems as esoteric and arcane today as it did in 1973. Scientists still scoff at the notion that plants can think, feel, and even — as one investigator proved — learn to perform simple math (p. 20). Farmers still spray their fields with poisons that find their way into our systems through the food we eat, the water we drink, and the very air we breathe.

As Frances Moore Lappé herself has written, "No one can make a case for hope in today's world by tallying up the evidence [7]."

But if we want to raise bigger, healthier, happier plants, we can do so. We can talk to our plants or sing to them or dance for them. We can play music for our plants and ourselves. We can give and receive healing.

We can choose to look at everything in our world and all of creation, not only plants but rocks and mountains and the planets and stars, as sentient beings — conscious, intelligent, and aware.

If we want to make effective use of the power of radionics, this, too, is something we can do for ourselves. We do not need to order a machine, or wait for the multinational corporations and their captive governments to show evidence of some kind of common sense and caring. We can simply program a crystal, but even that's not necessary. Our intent is enough.

And if we wish to "become one with" nature, we can partake of her bounty through natural, organically grown foods, thereby aligning our bodies with the natural vibrations of the Earth.

"No one can 'justify' hope by proving something good and positive," writes Frances Moore Lappé. "Hope is more a verb than noun — an action, not a stance. It is movement. It is jumping into the messiness of it all. It is listening, learning, trying, stumbling; it is false starts and contradictory evidence. Such honest hope we choose because we must; we choose because our planet needs us to."

(Editor’s Note: We salute Susan Barber for this excellent article and hope to feature her work again.)

Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet, is co-author with her daughter Anna Lappé of the Hope's Edge: the Next Diet for a Small Planet (Tarcher/Putnam, 2002), a 30th anniversary sequel to her 1971 international bestseller. Besides these two, the senior Lappé has written more than a dozen other books, and is co-founder of two national organizations dealing with world hunger and the roots of democracy. Her website is at


  1. Strangely, this was one of three instances in which I received visits that seemed to originate from Howard Hughes's metaphysical pursuits.
  2. Page numbers refer to the first Perennial Library edition of The Secret Life of Plants, 1989.
  3. See Hope's Edge: Solutions for a Small Planet on the Brink, by Lappé's son, Anthony.
  4. Ibid.
  5. From an article in the United Methodist Women magazine, October 2001 (see Pushing Hope's Edge: Rediscovering the Power of Food, United Methodist Women magazine (October 2001).
  6. U.N. Chronicle, November 2001.
  7. Ibid.