in search of

In Search of ‘In Search Of…’ – Episode 1: Do Plants Talk and Feel?

From the very outset of the 1977-82 series, Leonard Nimoy sews up a screwy premise with pitch-perfect narration
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As a kid in the 1970s and 1980s, I had a love-hate relationship with In Search Of, the Alan Landsburg Productions television show hosted by Leonard Nimoy. I’d wait a whole afternoon, ensconced in a pillow fort in my family home’s sun room, waiting for reruns of the program to appear on the modest black-and-white set we kept out there. And then, when it did come on, I’d get mad that the episode wasn’t about a big-name monster, a well-known legend, or at least something to do with UFOs. There was a lot of other stuff that In Search Of covered. You had to be patient.

Nonetheless, I loved the opening music so very much. The synth-y, groovy theme that Laurin Rinder and Mike Lewis composed for the program spoke to something central in the young me, something about what it felt like to love the mysterious and the weird. Still does. It gets me every time.

[Via] A Lurking Grue

In this new series of articles for Retroist, I’m reviewing every episode of In Search Of. I’m doing this for three reasons.

  • I believe the program has merit – and especially so in an age when TV and cable series about the mysterious and the unexplained have devolved into carbon-copy iterations of shaky-cam night-vision “ghost-hunting”. In Search Of is so much smarter and cooler than that.
  • I think it’ll be interesting to see what’s happened since, regarding the show’s topics. And so, every article in this series will look at the state of the episode’s subject, and at the experts depicted. Debunked? Debated? I’ll update you on what’s developed.
  • Also, the music. Now I have good reason to listen to it 144 more times.

So, here goes – a complete look at the series, 1977-82, as it appeared following a handful of specials that preceded its premier. We start with ‘Other Voices’. (One might note, as a kid, I would’ve been pretty mad about this one. But, in the first test of my new approach to the show, the adult me found this episode a bit silly but acceptably substantial and interesting.)

(Also, a note to readers, and especially the editors among you: throughout these articles, I’ve elected to cite the show as In Search Of rather than In Search Of… . Dropping the title’s ellipsis in the flow of text solves all kinds of punctuation hiccups – see the previous sentence ending, for example – and the change also eliminates the potential prompt to pause or suspect missing information in the line.)

‘Other Voices’*
Air Date: April 17, 1977
Alan Landsburg Productions

Written and Produced: Roz Karson
Directed: H.G. Stark
Photography: Paul Desatoff
Music: Laurin Rinder and Mike Lewis
Researchers: Herb Rabinowitz, Jeanne Russo
Acknowledgments: Backster Research; Mother Earth; Dr. Franklin Loehr
ISO_1_Nimoy with Plant

As with most episodes of In Search Of, ‘Other Voices’ opens with an atmospheric narrated teaser, which then cuts to opening credits. Based on the editing, here, one presumes viewers then caught a commercial break. The show next presents a second, very short, teaser. Its perennial disclaimer follows:

This series presents information based in part on theory and conjecture. The producer’s purpose is to suggest some possible explanations, but not necessarily the only ones, to the mysteries we will examine.

A brief segment of the theme music plays, and then we’re into the body of the episode.

Episode Summary
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The teaser takes us inside a giant greenhouse. Strange electrical and electronic sounds drift through the soundtrack, and Nimoy suggests these to be the sound of plants talking, as picked up by machines that can trace “fluctuations of energy.” Some key questions are posed: can plants talk to us, and, if so, what are they saying? Can we communicate with them, in response?

The first subject is Marcel Vogel, shown sitting with children, holding his hand over a plant, and telling the kids that plants can perceive people, and that they have “heart beats” like humans. Nimoy suggests that green thumbs may, in fact, be humans who can communicate better with plants than so-called brown thumbs.

In Denver, Dorothy Retallack conducts an experiment: controlling for a number of variables, she plays “semi-classical” music for some plants and “hard rock” for others. The plants listening to the softer music are shown to lean toward the stereo speaker. In a time-lapse segment, the plants subject to hard rock appear to wither and die.

Nimoy then asks, if plants hear then how do they hear? We spend time with Kendall Johnson, who talks about plants as they relate to Kirlian photography – essentially, aura photography – how the colors and light that surround and permeate objects in his examples of Kirlian pictures respond pronouncedly to the hands of “green-thumb” people, when held close to leaves, and how the light on the film fades when “brown thumbs” do the same.

In the last segment of the episode, Cleve Backster demonstrates four experiments, using what he describes to be a pin motor – a needle and pen, like that of a polygraph machine – that is connected to a “biological amplifier” and other equipment.

The first test involves a plant wired to the machine setup. Backster slightly cuts his own hand with a scalpel. The line the pin motor draws does not change significantly. In the second test, In Search Of staff member Kay Hoffman lets Backster make a tiny cut on her hand with the scalpel. The pin-motor pen jumps noticeably just before she is cut. Backster suggests the wired-up plant feels her apprehension.

Backster’s third test involves yogurt. He puts a metal sensor into a test tube of yogurt, then adds antibiotics to a separate beaker of yogurt. No significant change occurs in the pin-motor scroll. When he next adds milk to a separate beaker of yogurt, the pin motor registers significant activity in the test tube. Backster suggests the test-tube yogurt perceives that the beaker yogurt is being fed…and that the test-tube yogurt wants to eat as well!

Nimoy closes the episode by suggesting that instances of humans reporting to know of far-away events before they are told about them might be messages carried to them by plants. However, if plants are speaking to us, he suggests, it is still a one-way conversation, aside from what machines (such as Backster’s) seem to detect.

Developments? Debunked? Debate?
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I don’t know what the average viewer would have known about Vogel, Retallack, Johnson, and Backster, in 1977. They come across as a bit kooky in the episode, but, as plant-communication experts go, they are even now fairly well-known. The following bullets highlight what’s happened to them and to their work.

  • Marcel Vogel died in the early 1990s. He’s still acknowledged as the father of some longstanding inventions for IBM in the field of magnetic storage, as a pioneer of black-light technology, and a creator of phosphorescent paint, chalk, and crayons. The mysterious and the unusual continued to be a focus of his later life.
  • Dorothy Retallack’s work with plants and music is still cited in recent articles about the subject. It’s also been subject to some botanical scrutiny, in recent years. She passed away in 1994.
  • Kendall Johnson died in 2011. His 1976 book on Kirlian photography is still noted by epistemologists here and there.
  • In 2006, an episode of MythBusters attempted to replicate Cleve Backster’s plant experiment, along with other examples of his tests, but failed to generate positive results. Backster maintained his theories, however, appearing on radio shows to espouse them as recently as 2007. He passed away in 2013.

Plant communications, overall, is still alive as a subject. From NPR to the BBC and The Guardian, stories continue about the effort to understand what could be lines of conversation and feeling among our leafy neighbors.

The Takeaway: ‘Other Voices’
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Do plants talk to us? And what about their feelings?

Well, it’s not exactly UFOs, Bigfoot, or the Loch Ness Monster.

No matter, Nimoy’s presence turns what should be a ludicrous episode into something fun and interesting to watch. Even when the episode veers into potentially loony territory – hungry yogurt! – Nimoy’s voice keeps the proceedings in check; it’s always respectful and the tone elevates the subjects, protecting them from ridicule.

‘Other Voices’ also illustrates a strategic approach that will potentially save the show whenever it gets into hot water: if staying with one subject too long strains an audience’s patience and credulity, keep moving along to new speakers!

In a sense, ‘Other Voices’ is a perfect first episode for this series. That is, if the producers have made something coherent out of the weird crossroads of plant-to-human communications, Kirlian photography, empathetic leaves and jealous bacteria, viewers can count on the crew to tackle almost any subject with a steady hand in upcoming installments.

Next Up: ‘Strange Visitors’ takes us to a mysterious rock chamber in the hills of New Hampshire.

*Episode Credits/Air Date Sources: in-video credits and IMDB.Com

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