A number of years ago someone gave me three speckledy marijuana seeds. I remember rolling them out of their packet into the hollow of my hand where they nestled like a clutch of miniature grouse eggs. Seeing them there like that gave me a little frisson of nervous excitement because they reminded of Jack of beanstalk fame and his beans. It was like Fate was beckoning me too.
They were seeds and their purpose was to germinate, so I set about germinating them. I soaked them and waited, then swaddled them in damp tissue and placed them in the dark warm airing cupboard and waited. And, in a few days, they split and little taproots felt their way out. Then I placed them in dark soil and waited again until another few days had passed, by which time three green-tipped shoots had pushed out into the light and unfolded their leaves in salutation to the April sun.
I was very pleased with these little seedlings but worried by them too. For a start, they couldn’t stay on my kitchen window in full public view. In the time that I pondered what to do, the two cotyledon leaves gave way to paired singlet leaves, to three serrations, to five… And too soon they were so obviously marijuana plants in looks and odour that I knew I couldn’t hesitate any longer. The trouble was I felt the responsibility of a new mother. I’d coaxed these little plants into life so it felt like an act of prolicide to compost them. I might, even then, have put them out of harm’s way up in the attic with a light system and hydroponics but that didn’t seem any kind of solution to me either. Consideration of it brought Bertha Mason – Mr Rochester’s first wife in Jane Eyre – to mind. I figured that hidden things in dark attics are bound by the circumstances in which they live to become insane and mind-blowing on contact. Ideally, I thought, one takes Culpeper’s advice and plants herbs “where they delight to grow”.(1)
Not so far from my home was a wooded clearing which, at the time, I was in the habit of visiting very early each morning. You approached it either along a river bank or through an ash and cherry copse beyond which it opened into a place of wild loveliness. There were the ash and cherry trees I mentioned, but also elder, birch and young oak. It was May by now and young nettles were beginning to reach out of undergrowth shadows into the sunlight while bittersweet vines were inching over and around them ready to tangle and knot amongst the brambles. Anyway, I was sitting there one morning on a wormy old log, watching as a buzzard lifted from the top of a birch into an updraft when it came to me that this was just the place for my seedlings. I could see that they would fit in with all the other medicinal species hanging-out there already and that, in contrast to hydroponics in the attic, the clearing would offer them a socialising experience which would ensure their sanity and maturing mellowness.
So the next day I returned with the rising sun. I brushed aside bittersweet tendrils and dug down into the soft loamy soil and planted my cannabis.
Guerrilla gardening cannabis taught me things I could never have understood if I’d been tending those seedlings in a place where I had land rights. More than that, cannabis is a prohibited plant which makes it taboo and, by definition, both holy and cursed. As a guerrilla crop, it is doubly holy and cursed. Thus my experience as a guerrilla cannabis gardener was profoundly and religiously meaningful. I had no interest in making money from them and nor was I particular worried about harvesting them for my own use. I was just interested in how they turned out, growing there amongst the wild things.
And from that viewpoint of loving interest I learned to appreciate that their medicinal value is a consequence of their efforts to survive and integrate. There was undeniable intelligence in their complex fluid adaptions. One plant was lost almost immediately to slugs. At this time, all three were still bright green and tender and that first baby was eaten right to the ground so that not even its stalk remained. The others, planted right alongside, survived nibblings while toughening into musky, lemony, resiny hunter’s green. It was clearly not arbitrary misfortune that the eaten plant was picked off but something more, something about being individually weakened, something about communication much more complex than a mere fight for individual survival. And it wasn’t just the surviving plants that changed in response to the slugs’ interest. The slugs’ behaviour changed subsequently too because as the plants responded by producing higher levels of terpenes so the slugs gained respect for these exotic spring greens and thereafter took them sparingly like tincture.
Obviously, being a modern human, I’m used to conversation being about words, spoken and heard. But the chatter between the plants and their surroundings was so much more complex than that and took place via signals, or signs. The to and fro wasn’t just between the plant and the slugs, but, between those and microorganisms too, and fungi, insects, other animals and the wider environment taking in the lengthening and then shortening days which brought the plants eventually to flower. Every minute, my cannabis was in a conversation of infinite complexity with itself and all the elements of its surroundings. All this chatter went on between the tangling roots of the three cannabis plants and those of the nettles and bittersweet. It went on inside cells and between cells. It went on psychically, chemically, behaviourally and was underground and in the open and drifting off on air currents. Thus, in those darkening cannabis leaves and intensifying odours were lessons in relationship so subtle as to include themes of happenstance, altruism, mutualism, opportunism, deceit, parasitism and invasion of boundaries.
Anyone who has ever tried more than one kind of psychoactive substance will know that each drug has both a collective character and a unique personality. For instance, the character of salvia divinorum seems to be to provoke experiences of disembodied lonely intelligence while, generically, cannabis inspires confusion about hierarchy because size and scale become interchangeably microcosmic and macrocosmic. And these modes of psychoactive expression seem to say something about what it is to be a salvia divinorum or cannabis plant. For example, salvia grows on shaded river banks with its roots trailing in running water while cannabis is sociably out in the open. But domesticated hydroponically-raised cannabis is denied social interaction because, for one thing, it is confined and hidden away in circumstances not dissimilar to those suffered by Anne Frank and her family. Additionally, measured nutrients are delivered to it without any need for symbiotic mycorrhizal interactions. Mini beasts become pests and parasites to these plants which haven’t learned to defend themselves so they are prevented at all costs, and light and dark cycles are strictly controlled. Yields and tetrahydracannabinol (or THC) levels are maximised because, in this kind of scenario, consumers are involved and highs must be guaranteed. Predictably, when they come, these highs are dislocatingly heady.
Thus, when wild-grown cannabis is ingested, it gives an idea of life as network while crop-cannabis confirms our culture’s hierarchical and dualist assumptions about mind and matter. And they can do this because all living organisms share a core set of signal molecules which build parallel communication processes and analogous outcomes. In this way, the communication of a plant with a human need not be viewed in metaphysical, inexplicable, otherworldly terms. And yet this communication does remain deeply religious and mystical because, for one thing, all that flows between one individual organism and another is truly awesome and profound. For another, cannabis is counted with other psychodelic drugs as an entheogen because psychoactive substances facilitate much religious experience as we ingest and interpret chemical interactions according to our own individual and collective homeostatic needs. Religion, as Durkheim said, is “eminently social” (2) and cannabis, however it’s grown, has much to say about our society and how we might improve it.
But I never harvested the two remaining of my trinity of cannabis plants. I had no need to. So they lived out their lives in that little clearing and died there in a joint crumpled heap hardly distinguishable from the withering nettles and blackening vines. They’d grown to bear flowers beaded with resin. And they’d produced seeds while attracting clouds of hoverflies and legions of spiders and beetles and being festooned with webs and gossamer. And their leaves had curled as August wore into September. And they’d stooped in front of that wormy old log finally to drip their divine medicinal wisdom into the leaf litter with the October rain.
1 Culpeper, Nicholas. 2007. Complete Herbal. London: Wordsworth Editions. p. 307
2 Durkheim, E. 1915. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London: George Allen & Unwin, p.10.