Sunday, December 6, 2020

Trees can talk. | Here's hoping it's a Creative Commons work...
Every now and then, I come across something online that I find absolutely charming. (Apart from news about the National Zoo's new baby panda, I mean.)

This week it was a story in the New York Times Magazine called "The Social Life of Forests." It's a profile of Suzanne Simard, a botanist who specializes in forestry. Simard has discovered that trees and other plants in a forest communicate through fungi called mychorrizas. The fungi bond with the plants' roots and help the plants extract water and nutrients from the soil. In exchange, they receive some of the byproducts of the plants' photosynthesis.

But Simard has evidence the interaction is about more than just food swapping. The fungi also pass hormones and alarm signals from plant to plant -- even between different species. She has found that a so-called mother tree might nurture hundreds younger trees. Trees in the network that know they're dying will pass their nutrients along to other trees. And trees severed from the network have a worse chance of survival.

In short, a forest isn't just a simple collection of trees and other plants. It's a community. Maybe even a family. 

It's always interesting to see what people take from this kind of thing. Simard's colleagues, who were virtually all male, originally thought she was just a goofy girl -- until she proved her theories. After that, the materialists started complaining that she was attributing altruism to trees, which was impossible because everybody knows every species on Earth operates in survival-of-the-fittest mode. 

Besides all that, her findings open up an uncomfortable line of inquiry: What if plants are sentient?

I wrote about that very topic earlier this year. In that post, I quoted a Druidic philosopher named Emma Restall Orr. Here's what I wrote: 

[Orr] observes that a tree recognizes the resources available to it -- sunlight or shade, water, other trees nearby -- and adapts itself to them. It recognizes the seasons and understands what it is meant to do in each one. Just because we humans don't recognize all that activity as the sort of conscious thought we're used to, it doesn't mean it's not happening. And just because we don't understand the language of trees, it doesn't mean they don't have one.

I can't tell you how delighted I was to read this article about Simard this week. Trees do have language. They communicate with one another through mychorrizas. It's science!

Now, what you take from all this will depend on your own philosophical leanings. Some folks might see the hand of God, while others might see Lucifer spreading lies. After all, America was built on the theory of Manifest Destiny -- that God made humans the highest of his mortal creations, and gave us this Earth not to steward, but to exploit. And we are really good at exploitation. If we can make ourselves believe that a resource doesn't share our humanity, we will use it up to the last drop -- even if that resource is a Black person. Or a Native American person. Or a Tree person.

A materialist will have a lot of trouble with the idea of trees as persons. But science has proven that they talk to one another. They have a language -- we just can't understand it.

Possibly my all-time favorite Star Trek: The Next Generation episode is called "Darmok." In it, Captain Picard and his crew meet a Tamarian starship. The Tamarian language is inscrutable -- the individual words can be translated, but the phrases they contain don't convey any meaning. The captain of this ship beams Picard down to a nearby planet and joins him there. Together, they must defeat a dangerous creature, and to do that, they have to learn to understand one another. Picard, bless him, figures out that Tamarians speak exclusively in metaphors -- that, for example, "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" refers to a Tamarian tale about two heroes who become friends by facing adversity together. Tamarian civilization is sufficiently isolated that nobody who isn't a Tamarian would know the story, which of course means no other species could ever understand them.

As a Pagan and an animist, I have to conclude that to humans, the language of trees -- like that of the Tamarians -- is inscrutable, but is nevertheless a form of communication. That's a big step toward viewing them as sentient beings. And that's something we ought to think about when we look at a forest.


These moments of sentient blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Please stay home this holiday season, so your loved ones have a better chance of surviving until next year. 

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