The Secret of Communicating with Trees. Yes, Trees!


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“We’re all cannibals.”

That’s the last thing I expected to hear as an answer to my question.

But, here I was with my back against the giant sycamore in the middle of Welles Park, talking to a tree.

Now, you may be thinking that the most odd thing about this scene is that I’m conversing with a nonhuman.

People talk with their dogs all the time. And, their dogs answer them with barks, growls, and facial expressions. We don’t think of this as strange or impossible.

But, a tree?

Stephen Harrod Buhner, a poet and naturalist, believes communication with trees is not only possible, it is an essential part of caring for the planet. He proposes that in learning to function in acceptable society, we also learn to close down our ability to experience the extraordinary.

Buhner points to a scientific phenomenon called neural gating. Essentially, as we become more structured in our daily lives and less imaginative, our nervous system blocks out any material that deviates from what is considered our “normal.”

Musicians and artists tend to have more open neural gating. They can literally translate experience and emotion into music or onto the canvas. But, even their neural gating is toward the specific function of colors, brush movement, and musical note variance.

But, that’s a far cry from chitchatting with a sycamore tree.

None of these doubts enter my mind as I stand in the middle of a park in Chicago. I just nodded my head and laughed out loud. Yes, I suppose we are all cannibals when you think about it. The tree looked so stoic, and I think she laughed a little with the rustling of her leaves in the cool morning breeze.

You see, I had come to talk with her (it seems like a ‘her’) about a problem. I have been studying amateur herbalism for years, but always came up against a block when studying trees.

I felt like there was something in my way, and I set out to find it.

After meditating on the subject, a memory surfaced of myself as a young child pulling branches off a sapling. My neighbor, a kindly white-haired gentleman who always bought my Girl Scout cookies, confronted me. His face was wet with tears as he asked me why I was hurting a living being that had done nothing to harm me.

I had no answer. I climbed in trees all day. Their branches held me up and provided support. And here I was, being cruel to my friend.

That memory had haunted me in some way or another for years. My feelings about those actions were unresolved, and prohibited me from learning more about trees.

Trees have so much to offer us other than oxygen.

They have stories and history.

Many live for hundreds of years, and are silent witnesses to great and terrible things.

They also offer us food, and even medicine.

Trees help the soil stay in place and provide shelter for an endless number of mammals, insects, and other plants. And, I believe, they communicate not only with each other, but with us—if we are open enough to hear them.

But, isn’t it just your imagination?

Sure. Maybe it is, but I’m not the only one having this hallucination. Plant communication used to be a regular part of society, especially for shamans.

Eliot Cowan, author of the book Plant Spirit Medicine, recounts how shamans put themselves into trances to be able to journey to the plant realm and get answers to specific questions.

Even Western science admits that there is evidence that trees care for other trees that are ill, funneling nutrients and resources to them through root systems.

The HeartMath Institute is currently conducting a study called the Interconnectivity Tree Research Project that aims to prove that trees are much more aware of their surroundings than previously thought. And, the Japanese tradition of Shinrin-Yoku, or Forest Bathing, has become popular in the West for the positive effect it has on blood pressure and cardiovascular function in humans.

I could be imagining it. Or, maybe my neural gating is just open in that particular way.

Either way, my talk with this sycamore tree lead me on a yearlong adventure. I started by telling her my memory of traumatizing that young tree, and that I didn’t know how to make amends. She told me to get some tobacco, a big bunch of it, and sprinkle a little on each tree I meet. And that I should ask every tree for forgiveness, and ask that they see me worthy to communicate with, and to bestow their knowledge on.

So, I did. For one year, I walked around with tobacco in my bag. And, I stopped by every tree I saw in this city of three million humans and one-hundred-fifty-seven million trees. I put my hand on each tree I met, and asked for forgiveness and to be worthy of their attention.

And, it worked.

I now happily learn about my friends, the trees, with no feeling of a block hindering my progress.

Once I asked the sycamore, “But, why tobacco? It seems a little cannibalistic, doesn’t it?”

She knowingly replied with a little shake of her leaves, and instantly my mind heard the words, “We’re all cannibals.”


Suggested Reading List:
Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets
Plant Intelligence and The Imaginal Realm by Stephen Harrod Buhner
The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben
Plant Spirit Journey by Laura Silvana
Thus Spoke the Plant by Monica Gagliano
Herbal Allies by Robert Roger and Matthew Wood
The Accidental Shaman by Howard Charing
Medicine for the Earth by Sandra Ingerman
Plant Spirit Medicine by Eliot Cowan

Online:’s article on plant intelligence with Michael Pollan
HeartMath Institute’s study on the Interconnectivity of Tree Research Project

Suggested Watch List:
Judi Dench: My Passion for Trees
David Attenborough: The Private Life of Plants

author: Sarah McLaughlin

Image: Screenshot /

Image: Author's own

Image: Ecofolks on Instagram

Editor: Julie Balsiger


The Elephant Ecosystem

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mikejmartella Feb 16, 2019 1:04pm

Thank you for this article!! My journey into essential oils (which has come to a screeching halt after learning about the damage done to Frankincense tree populations) introduced me to the idea of communication with plants. It feels right. And just yesterday, I had one of those scream-into-the-mountains days, surrounded by wild white sage. I felt it there as a witnessing and comforting presence and friend. It seems like my neural gating is opening in that way as well. I especially appreciate your inclusion of scientific evidence that supports these behaviors that our ancestors have been in tune with for thousands of years. It’s so fascinating and inspiring!! Have an amazing day 😀

    Sarah McLaughlin Feb 16, 2019 6:49pm

    Thank you, for your kind and thoughtful comment! 🙂

Jennifer Edwards Feb 14, 2019 5:38pm

Sarah! I absolutely love this article! I’ve been talking to trees and other plants my whole life and I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about it. I’ve also been a little shy about sharing… thank you so much for writing this! I’m glad to know I’m not completely crazy- and if I am, I’m not totally alone.

    Sarah McLaughlin Feb 14, 2019 7:49pm

    Jennifer, if we’re crazy, then we’re crazy together. 🙂 I’ve gotten so many great responses from kindred spirits, and am happy to know you found the article helpful.

Haley Sage Feb 13, 2019 1:07am

That was beautiful! I live a couple miles from Henry Cowell State Park, Felton, CA where a scene in “Vertigo” was filmed (James Stewart & Kim Novak are seen walking in the grove of the 2,000-year-old redwoods, and the scenery looks exactly the same today!)

It’s my sanctuary & cathedral. The Redwood is a totem for me to call upon, when I need both deep-rooted groundedness, coupled a spiritual, crown chakra connection that reaches up to the highest realms. Thank you for speaking for the forests!

    Sarah McLaughlin Feb 14, 2019 7:47pm

    Thank you, Hayley Sage for telling me about your sanctuary. I still haven’t made it out to the redwoods, but am planning to soon! Thank you for your kind words.

seektao Feb 10, 2019 12:09pm

Thank you for sharing your adventure with communicating with trees. Plants have such amazing spirits and are great helpers. It’s important that we meet them with respect and honor and in this medicine they share in reciprocity unendingly.

    Sarah McLaughlin Feb 10, 2019 3:24pm


      Sarah McLaughlin Feb 10, 2019 3:25pm

      Oops! I was trying to leave a tree emoji. Thank you for your feedback. I’m so happy the story resonated with you.

paulsrud Feb 10, 2019 10:01am

Thanks for the inspiring article, Sarah. It doesn’t surprise me to learn that you speak with trees. Finding forgiveness among them with the ceremonial gift of tobacco was especially touching.

Christine Day Feb 10, 2019 8:43am

This is brilliant writing! I live about a mile from the Ceiba tree in Costa Rica that (allegedly) inspired James Cameron to create The Mother Tree in the movie Avatar. It is over 500 years old and 200 feet high and many who visit her are moved to tears by the energy she puts out. Your article reminded me of her. Thanks for this wonderful piece!

    Sarah McLaughlin Feb 10, 2019 3:26pm

    That sounds magical! I’m headed to Costa Rica in a few weeks. I feel like I need to seek out this beauty. Thank you!!!

4sheep Feb 10, 2019 7:36am

I loved this article; it has me thinking about how I need to approach my work going forward.

    Sarah McLaughlin Feb 10, 2019 3:27pm

    Yay!!! Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Judy McCord Feb 10, 2019 7:11am

What a delightful article! Your words are taking me back to memories and outside to greet my trees. Thank you.

ldavisclarke Feb 10, 2019 5:52am

Great read Sarah, thanks! I love picturing you walking from tree to tree communing with them!

Jacqueline Hathaway Levin Feb 10, 2019 5:43am

I love this so much, I read it twice. My friend Lana hugs trees on our afternoon walks sometimes. This brought me so much joy. Thank you. 🙂

    Sarah McLaughlin Feb 11, 2019 1:51pm

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it!!!

natorrence1 Feb 9, 2019 9:45pm

Thanks for the reminder, Sarah…. that we are connected to all living things and spirits. Super interesting about the neural gate theory. Also interesting that a scientific mindset can be used to either to smother what we feel and sense, or in this case, remind us that we have access to feelings and levels of perception that we’ve forgotten. But most touching was how you made amends with your leafy friends. That part was really inspiring to me.

arlene Feb 9, 2019 6:22pm

I talk to trees, too and they have a lot of wisdom to share. In every Tai Chi class, we start by rooting like a tree, bringing awareness to our bodies and alignment. Great article, Sarah – thank you!

juliamassageandyoga Feb 9, 2019 5:51pm

What playful inspiration! Thanks for the unusual article! Loved it.

Innervoyaging Feb 9, 2019 12:46pm

Your story is wonderful! Well written, too.

I’m a tree person, too. Energy is my thing, of course, since I am also a Reiki person. Trees send me energy when I place my palms on their trunks. Then we talk.

    Sarah McLaughlin Feb 9, 2019 9:18pm

    I’m so glad the article resonated with you. Thank you!!!

Laura Ross Feb 9, 2019 10:29am

Can’t even begin to tell you how I loved this piece! I have always felt an affinity to trees and often imagine myself as a tree with strong deep roots giving me stability in the face of storms. Thank you so much for your eloquent thoughts.

Stacioien Feb 9, 2019 9:58am

Loved the story and your writing!!

Katey Foor Feb 9, 2019 8:30am

Sarah, Thank you for bringing this information to my attention! Your story is eye-opening and friended my love and respect for trees. I love connecting with trees. I love to walk among them and occasionally place my hand upon one. It is the most beautiful feeling of calm and peace. Great book suggestions too! I can’t wait to read them!

    Katey Foor Feb 9, 2019 8:32am

    Deepened my love* not friended. Sorry for the typo!

    Sarah McLaughlin Feb 9, 2019 9:17pm

    Thank you for all your support, Katey!!!

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Sarah McLaughlin

Sarah McLaughlin is a lover of all things hidden. An avid meditator and sometimes yoga teacher, Sarah lives in Chicago. She is a full-time licensed massage therapist and advocates for her profession by helping to create meaningful legislation. Sarah walks to work most days, and can be found walking aimlessly among the parks of Chicago.