Santiago Eslava-Bejerano and Carolina Sánchez

Sacred Plants: Mirrors and Messages 

Stigmatization and prohibitionism hinder access to first-hand knowledge of the sacred plants of the Americas and the Caribbean. In addition, many virtual sources of information increase the distance between people and plants through the collection of data or the creation poor-quality information that criminalizes the plants and those who use them. Thus, the lack of meaningful communication deprives people of experiencing the agency of plants as “chemical messengers” of visions or experiences of well-being. Faced with this limitation, Microcosms: A Homage to Sacred Plants of the Americas is a virtual space that allows contact and closeness with sacred plants whose spiritual power has an aesthetic correlate. This digital archive arises from a collaboration between art and science, open to conceiving new links between the two disciplines. 

We would also like to highlight the collective nature of this work, which creates a space for free access and virtual encounters with medicinal plants. Some of the members of the collective are the researcher and writer Steven F. White and the scientist and Microscopy Specialist Jill Pflugheber. The researchers also benefited from the active support of other people, such as the poet Esthela Calderón, in addition to the collaboration of the living plants themselves, the confocal microscope of St. Lawrence University, the Internet network, among other agents.  

The experience of accessing the website differs from the distant gaze of someone strolling through an exhibition of curiosities or a natural history museum. It could be characterized instead as the entrance to a new dimension of reality. A virtual, universal, specular layer that reflects the intimate skins and forms of plants that resemble the images of neuronal connections and the tissues of our own bodies. In this way, a play of mirrors and inversions is created between what is inside and outside the plant, human, animal, geographic, and planetary bodies. This is possible thanks to the vivid nature of the confocal images that capture the beauty of microscopic botanical structures and invite us to linger within them as places of contemplation and encounter. The microscope thus becomes the messenger of messengers, the bearer of the “daydream of life inside life”, as Steven White says, quoting Susan Stewart. 

In these images of hypnotic beauty, the plants do not so much flourish as fluoresce with the emissions of the microscope. That is, to generate aesthetic experiences from images, the plants act on the microscope: the molecules of the plants emit fluorescence as a reaction to being exposed to the laser. The emissions of this fluorescence are the images that resemble neon drawings, reptile skins, bright jellyfish, among other colorful transparencies that connect us to them. 

After contemplating the images, which could be compared to a visionary experience, a way is opened for plants to regain their rightful place of power in our daily lives. Thus, art and science become allies of the plant. In the case of Erythroxylum novogranatense, the images, which recall the skin of both reptile and river, can be interpreted as being part of what the Colombian artist Wilson Díaz has called the “Movement for the liberation of the coca plant”. With the help of the plant itself, these confocal images of coca, as in the work of the artist Edinson Quiñones, help us to unlearn the criminalization of the plant in order to abide in its powers of healing and companionship, in the energy that the plant gives us to climb mountains and connect with what surrounds us.  These microcosmic portraits contribute to the fact that coca continues to be the plant that is chewed, like thought, in the Andes.

Santiago Eslava-Bejarano and Carolina Sanchez 


Plataforma Latinoamericana de Humanidades Ambientales

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