Their Ancient Song
On a late July hike in the Appalachian Mountains, I was suddenly surrounded by an explosion of white blossoms on 15-foot-high bushes, and the air around me became so quiet and SOFT. I felt myself transported and floating; lifted by thousands of cotton ball-like hands, each made up of 20 or more flowers, opening to show the lime green speckles at their center. Fallen petals lining the path were like a trail left by fairies. I stood with my jaw hanging open in wonder as a feeling of primordial joy washed over me.
Wild Rhododendron blooms each year, but it is only every two to four years that a big profuse bloom like this occurs. Since they normally bloom in late June to early July, I was not expecting this celebratory greeting that took my breath away. What called forth this big bloom? What abundance were they celebrating? In their unmistakable jubilation, I felt a timeless mystical chorus of great joy and devotion, that became a deep keening as well, where the lines between joy and sorrow disappeared into the vast eons of the millions of generations of Rhododendrons that have danced on these oldest of mountains.
Great Laurel and Rhododendron maximum are the names of this wild evergreen shrub whose ancestors are over 50 million years old. Growing 10 to 20 feet tall in dense patches, they dominate the understory of taller oaks and other trees. Their gnarly twisted branches and roots remind me a bit of watching my dad dance a jitterbug, with his knees and elbows flying every which way.
Clinging to the rocky hillsides and mountaintops, it feels like the mountains themselves are in bloom, and the Rhododendrons are their song. We see them as a feast of beauty with our eyes, but beauty is a sound too—just one with a vibration too slow for our human ear.
What is their true name? The Cherokee called them large laurel in their language. But what do the mountains call them? What do the bees & birds call them? The Europeans named them from the Greek words rhodo for rose, and dendron for tree. But Rhododendron is not a rose at all, and the name is terribly cumbersome. What do they call themselves? Perhaps we can hear them whisper their name if we sit with them, listening deeply, drinking in the beauty of their blossoms. Or perhaps their name is simply too old for words and can only be known as a song.
How many eons have all the beings who lived and died on these mountains before us witnessed this annual celebration? At a time when our paleolithic ancestors were hunting game, gathering plants for food, and making simple tools from stone, they also made flutes from bird and animal bones. Found in the mountains of Slovenia and Germany, where Rhododendrons also grow, these flutes date from 35,000 to 60,000 years ago and are remarkably constructed to produce musical intervals that musicologists call perfect fourths and fifths, which is very common in musical systems throughout the world today. Our minds cannot grasp how our ancestors, who were living eons before writing and agriculture, could have developed these wind instruments. Who first sang the songs that inspired these flutes?
Consider this story of the ancient flute maker:
It was time to prepare, since the sun was reaching its furthest point on the horizon, marking the height of these warm summer months they spent hunting in the mountains. The ancestors, the animals, the plants—all who came before—were honored each year at this time of the Great Blooming of the Laurel. For Amias, it was his first ceremony to call forth the ancient ones through his flute. All the signs indicated this would be a year of a Super Bloom, when the flowers exploded twice as much as they normally did, meaning an even greater presence of Those-Who-Came-Before would likely be among them this year, bringing their messages and songs through the flowers. The Great Laurel embodies the ancient ones, giving them voice. To be entrusted to bring forth the song of the blossoms was a great honor. Amias had been working on his flute for months and resetting the holes for just the right sound that would allow the music to flower into his fingertips. Then the song in his heart would flow through his flute. These songs had been coming to him in his dreams from the Great Laurel for a long time. In the mysterious way of dreams, he could hear the Great Laurel actually singing. This was important work the Great Laurel had chosen him for, to be their voice.
The Great Silencing
A Gnarly History
Once Rhododendrons covered most of the northern hemisphere, 50 million years ago, when the Earth was warm everywhere and the land masses were all still connected, like a ring around the north pole. Scientists tell us that they evolved from Camellias, who in turn evolved from the truly ancient Magnolias who are twice as old. As the climates shifted over the eons, many of them were not able to survive the glacial onslaughts and as the land masses shifted and separated more, the remaining Rhododendrons were broken into pockets separated by ice, invading grasslands and desserts. They survived in steep temperate valleys in such diverse areas as the newly formed Himalayas, the Asian islands of Java, Japan, Appalachia the American northwest, southern Europe, and the Caucasus Mountains.
They have protected themselves in steep mountain valleys all these eons, keeping themselves far from civilizations that may not have tolerated their gnarly ways otherwise. Their deep shiny green leaves are mildly poisonous, enough to keep the larger animals like deer from eating much of them, and they emit chemicals in the soil to deter other plants from growing near them. Where the Rhododendron grows thick and continuous, the local people have been known to call them laurel slicks or laurel hells, with their nearly impenetrable, low branching woody growth, keeping others out or protecting those who made them a home. Below ground their tenacious roots must be even more tangled and dense, scrambling around and between the rocks to lodge themselves deeply into the mountains heart.
These wild Rhododendrons have been highly successful in the parts of the world where they have remained native the past few million years, most notably in Asia where 90% of the Rhododendron species grow. But the amazing beauty of their flowers became so highly sought after by Europeans, and the English in particular, that in the 1700’s and 1800’s a huge industry of importing them (kidnapping them) from North America and Asia and then hybridizing them (mating them with strangers) exploded.
One species, R. ponticum, that is native to southern Spain, has become so successful in the wild in the British Isles over the last century, that they are now considered invasive. Perhaps it is more that they are a prodigal child coming home to the perfect habitat for the future, after being cut off by ancient climate change and the formation of the English Channel millions of years ago.
Now there are over 30,000 hybrids and varieties of cultivated Rhododendrons and their subgenre Azaleas. They may have brighter, showier flowers than their wild cousins, but their songs have become all the same. They have lost their uniqueness, their wild diversity, the depth that comes from a wild ecosystem tied to the mountains. They are a pale memory of the songs of a whole mountain of Rhododendron flowers that most people have never seen, much less heard. They feel a bit like a strip mall of chain stores in suburban America, rootless and bland.
Do these hybrid garden varieties still feel the pulsing of their feral ancestors in their genes? Do they feel the pull of the wild mountains calling them? Or have they been so suppressed by generations of cross breeding and careful tending that they are more comfortable being cultivated in the garden where they are groomed to be restrained and contained?
Ears To Hear
On my hike, after walking through the Rhododendron thicket in full blooms, I came out onto a rock out-cropping where I could see waves of mountain ridges rippling into the distance. In my mind’s eye, I could see the Rhododendrons’ bloom covering all these mountain ridges and valleys. Thousands of them, grouped in clusters, with their mouths open, singing their ancient song. Who are they calling with their song? Who answers? Who do they hear in return?
This is not a metaphorical question. Science is showing that plants respond to sound frequencies, including ones in both higher and lower ranges that we humans can’t hear. Recent studies by researchers in Tel Aviv have shown that it is the flower itself that is the receptor of sound, making flowers the plant’s ears. In particular, the studies showed that the flowers hear the buzz of passing bees and immediately produce more and sweeter nectar. With this recent research, a whole new world of possibilities opens. If they can hear the buzz of bees, what else can they hear? Can they hear the deep thrum of the Earth, the movement of Her magma? The murmuring of baby robins ready to hatch?
What can a whole mountain of flowers collectively hear? What is carried on the currents of air to them, like sound that is carried in the deep currents of the ocean to the whales? Can they hear the murmurings of the hummingbird migrations? Can they hear the silence and then the keening after a neighboring forest is clear cut? How far away can they hear the howling of the coyotes longing for that perfect nourishment? Do they hear the cicadas waking up in the ground, as they throw off seventeen years of slumber? Do they hear the mountains themselves, with their deepest and slowest of sounds? How many flower generations does it take to hear one full groan of a mountain?
Our ancestors used to talk to plants routinely, and receive messages from the plants—in dreams, and intuitively—until several hundred years of preaching the gospel of science has separated us so far from the plant realm that we no longer trust our instincts and other ways of knowing that science has not been able to access yet. A great silencing has happened between us and all other life on this planet. Stephen Harrod Buhner said in his book, The Lost Language of Plants: “That we take plant words in through our nose or our skin or our eyes or our tongue instead of our ears does not make their language less subtle, or sophisticated, or less filled with meaning.”
This Great Silencing, the forgetting, the refusal to hear, the denial of plant sentience is at the heart of our unravelling. We are fortunate that the Great Laurel has been able to stay close to their wild mountain origins and continues to sing deeply into their ecosystem. They invite us to open our ears and our hearts to hear them before it is too late.
Will they be able to stay in these mountains as the climate changes again, or are they already looking for new mountain valleys farther north? Will they hear the call of their next home through the deep slow river of the mountain’s stone? Will their fungi partners lead the way? How will their song evolve and change as they migrate? Will they keen for what is lost in the uprooting?
The Color of Song, The Sound of Beauty
What does Rhododendrons’ song have to say to us in our world today? Can we learn to hear them in our dreams again, as our ancient ancestors surely did? Could they help us expand our senses to hear our world in new ways?
The landscape of sound sensory information is so much vaster than we ever imagined. Bioacoustics technology has evolved rapidly to allow us to detect sounds that animals and plants make at frequencies we can’t hear, and to pick up the subtleties in them that we now understand are true sound communications. The researchers in Tel Aviv have also shown that tomato plants make sounds when they are dehydrated or wounded, at frequencies we can’t hear. Although science in the past centuries has closed our minds to this input, our hearts and our subconscious have never stopped giving us inklings in dreams, through our intuitions and in our meditations.
As we learn the depth of the complexity of how our senses have evolved, and how deeply we are intertwined with all life, it is no wonder that connections we have long forgotten are starting to resurface. Writer David Haskell, in his book, Sounds Wild and Broken, ties the origins of sounds and songs on our planet to the beginning of flowers. He says that sounds on the Earth exploded into a stunning variety between 150 million to 100 million years ago, before which there were only crickets and the sounds of wind, water, and bacterial hum. “The trigger for this explosion of sound was likely the evolution of flowers,” he says. “Literally a flourishing of sound. The first flowers offered …energy and ecological richness…rich in sugars, oils, and proteins…and spurred animal evolution…and a diversification of singing animals.” The concept that the bursting forth of sound in the world was spurred by the early flowers’ co-evolution with insects and animals, is extraordinary.
When is sound just sound and when it is something more? When is Beauty a sound? When is the color of a flower visual and when does it become a call and a song? When is a scent a sound? What happens when the chemical messages of smell act the same as a wave of sound? Have you ever felt a deep rumble before you heard it? Smelled the rain before you felt it? Heard a cacophony of color? Many people will tell you yes, colors do make sounds, and there is a word for this phenomenon called synesthesia. The people with this ability hear colors, feel sounds, and taste shapes, giving us a hint of how much wider and wilder the world of sense must truly be across the spectrum of the senses of all beings.
In his book, The Lost Language of Plants, Stephen Harrod Buhner said, “Those (meanings) contained within plant communications, as with all communications, generate feelings in us in response.” In this way, the feelings that the songs, the beauty, the scents, that the Rhododendrons create in us are true communications. We can trust the messages they generate in us as meaningful and real.
We are in the infancy stages of understanding the glorious intricacies of the world outside the limitations of our human senses. The plants and animals have so much to teach us, but only the wild ones fully connected to their ecosystems are able to wholly retain their wisdom learned over millions of years of living, generation after generation. Yet, every day more and more of this wild wisdom is lost forever. Treasuring every opportunity that we have to learn from the other-than-human world all around us is critically important and a glorious invitation.
When Rhododendron suddenly surrounds you with a soft explosion of their blooms, there is no choice but to dance with them—perhaps a jitterbug. Let them sweep you off your feet as a feeling of glory overwhelms you. Float with them in the breeze. Feel time lengthen out into eternity over the millions of years this annual celebration has occurred. What ritual or celebration is important in your life? It is such a joy to celebrate in community together. What we honor is nothing less than our very life force, the Sacred Earth that is our Mother, as the Rhododendrons do when they honor the mountains with their blossoms.
Rhododendron says: “I am the ancient voice of these oldest of mountains. The stone itself sings their song of joy and celebration through my flowers each year at mid-summer, and that song is Beauty. Come dance with me as I celebrate the joys of all the beings and lifetimes of the Earth.”
At home, I found an old picture of my dad dancing that jitterbug dance, and I pinned it next to my favorite picture of the Rhododendron.