December 3, 2020

Never Underestimate the Intelligence of Trees

Never Underestimate the Intelligence of Trees

Here is an article from Nautilus reprinted in Getpocket by Brandon Keim.  Brandon Keim is a freelance nature and science journalist. He is the author of “The Eye of the Sandpiper: Stories from the Living World” and “Meet the Neighbors” from W.W. Norton & Company, about what it means to think of wild animals as fellow persons—and what that means for the future of nature.

Here in this article he considers the work of Suzanne Simard, a professor in the Department of Forest & Conservation at the University of British Columbia.  Her specialty is mycorrhizae: the symbiotic unions of fungi and root long known to help plants absorb nutrients from soil. Beginning with landmark experiments describing how carbon flowed between paper birch and Douglas fir trees, Simard found that mycorrhizae didn’t just connect trees to the earth, but to each other as well.  The article says:

Simard went on to show how mycorrhizae-linked trees form networks, with individuals she dubbed Mother Trees at the center of communities that are in turn linked to one another, exchanging nutrients and water in a literally pulsing web that includes not only trees but all of a forest’s life. These insights had profound implications for our understanding of forest ecology—but that was just the start.  It’s not just nutrient flows that Simard describes. It’s communication. She—and other scientists studying roots, and also chemical signals and even the sounds plant make—have pushed the study of plants into the realm of intelligence. Rather than biological automata, they might be understood as creatures with capacities that in animals are readily regarded as learning, memory, decision-making, and even agency.

In the interview with Keim, Simard also made the following points:

  1. Root systems and the mycorrhizal networks that link those systems are designed like neural networks, and behave like neural networks, and a neural network is the seeding of intelligence in our brains.
  2. All networks have links and nodes. In the example of a forest, trees are nodes and fungal linkages are links. Scale-free means that there are a few large nodes and a lot of smaller ones.
  3. Systems evolve toward those patterns because they’re efficient and resilient. In our brains, scale-free networks are an efficient way for us to transmit neurotransmitters.
  4. Plants do have intelligence. They have all the structures. They have all the functions. They have the behaviors.
  5. Indigenous people have long known that plants will communicate with each other. But even in western science we know it because you can smell the defense chemistry of a forest under attack. Something is being emitted that has a chemistry that all those other plants and animals perceive, and they change their behaviors accordingly.
  6. Do plants have a self that is making those communications? The best evidence we have is kin recognition between trees and seedlings that are their own kin.
  7. Memory is housed in the tree rings of all trees.

Tree Whisperer: “I think that we’re so utilitarian with plants and we abuse them to no end. I think that comes from us having our blinders on. We haven’t looked,” says forest ecologist Suzanne Simard (above). Photo credit: Jdoswim / Wikimedia.

Simard notes that she made these discoveries about these networks below ground, how trees can be connected by these fungal networks and communicate.  But she points out that the indigenous people along the western coast of North America knew that already. It’s in the writings and in the oral history.  They knew that the mother tree communicated with her kin, her seedlings. They used to call the trees the tree people.  But Western science has always had a utilitarian ethic towards plants i.e.  How can we use them to our benefit?

Keim asks her, “What other relationships are possible? What does it mean to be giving, to be empathic with the vegetal world?”  Simard answers:

There’s two words that come straight to mind. One of them is responsibility. I think that modern society hasn’t felt a responsibility to the plant world. So being responsible stewards is one thing. And also regaining respect—a respectful interaction with those trees, those plants.

If you’ve ever read Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, she talks about how she’ll go into the forest to harvest some plants for medicine or food. She asks the plants. It’s called respectful harvest. It’s not just, “Oh I’m going to ask the plant if I can harvest it, and if it says no, I won’t.” It’s looking and observing and being respectful of the condition of those plants. I think that’s the relationship of being responsible—not just for the plants, but for ourselves, and for the children and multiple generations before and after us.

Had I read this 15-20 years ago I would have dismissed it out of hand as (literally) tree-hugging nonsense and New Age (phony) mysticism.  Now, as we teeter on the brink (or have we gone over the brink?) of anthropogenic climate-change disaster (the western U.S. is on fire- for God’s sake), I’m wondering if maybe this isn’t all nonsense?  Simard notes:

But even in western science we know it because you can smell the defense chemistry of a forest under attack. Something is being emitted that has a chemistry that all those other plants and animals perceive, and they change their behaviors accordingly… let’s say you have a group of plants and stress one out, it will have a big response. Botanists can measure their serotonin responses. They have serotonin. They also have glutamate, which is one of our own neurotransmitters. There’s a ton of it in plants. They have these responses immediately. If we clip their leaves or put a bunch of bugs on them, all that neurochemistry changes. They start sending messages really fast to their neighbors.

That’s not hand-waving New Age mysticism; that’s measurable, quantifiable science. Here’s what I hear the trees are saying:

OH MY GOD, HUMANS, DO WE ALL HAVE TO LITERALLY BURN TO DEATH BEFORE YOU GET A HANDLE ON YOUR ABUSE OF NATURE!!! ARE ALL YOUR MINDS MADE OF METAL AND WHEELS AND DO ALL OF YOU NOT CARE FOR GROWING THINGS, EXCEPT AS FAR AS THEY SERVE YOU FOR THE MOMENT!!!

What are you hearing…

Comments

  1. For at least the last couple of hundred years, the default thinking in the western world has been to view our cultures and advances as superior to the rest of the world. But it has never been true. Eastern cultures and native cultures have always had deep knowledge and insights that our western cultures never had and often even destroyed.

    Closely related to this is the fact that probably since the Enlightenment, western cultures have viewed stories largely as simply entertainments, works of fiction or fancy, not as things that hold and preserve and convey deep truths.

    These failings have always made western culture poorer, but until now other strengths of our cultures have been able to obscure that paucity. Now we have events that are magnifying it exponentially. It’s past time for our default approaches and thinking to change. It may be too late.

    • In many traditional non-Western cultures the idea that “It may be too late” is alien in many ways. Yes, it may be too late for certain things, but there will be others; death, life, death, new life, the cycle continues, and the end is never just the end but always a beginning. But to see that there must be an acceptance of limits and mortality, most especially one’s own and that of the world one has made, an acceptance that is opposite of the West’s project.

    • The idea that the trees and forests “talk? and should be listened to is common to Native American religion and philosophy of life. We wouldn’t have to look to the East for ancient wisdom if we really payed attention to the cultures of the First Peoples of the West, instead of continuing to marginalize them and abrogate our historic agreements with them.

      • Correction: ….and forests “talk”…

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        The ‘Old West’ has them aplenty; the skogsra, hyldemoer, leshy, and on and on. My fraternal grandmother would not have even lifted an eye brow at a mention of the forest’s mood.

        It is more, IMO, an impoverishment of the modern [*1] imagination than a straight-up cultural deficit.

        And I suspect – with no verification whatsoever beyond anecdotal conversation – that this impoverishment is most profound in the western most west [America]

        [*1] modern, meant in the chronological sense

      • Hell, the Psalms time and again attribute human emotion and actions to nature. St. Francis attributed person good to nature in ways that might make modern Catholic fundamentalists flush. It’s not alien to the Bible or Christianity – just our perverted perspective of it.

        • Chief Seattle

          “Every part of the earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.
          We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the dew in the meadow, the body heat of the pony, and man all belong to the same family.
          The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you our land, you must remember that it is sacred. Each glossy reflection in the clear waters of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father.
          The rivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst. They carry our canoes and feed our children. So you must give the rivers the kindness that you would give any brother.”

  2. NO.

    There is a justification for integrating knowledge and wisdom from other cultures. But the masochistic “the Western world is the worse, everything we’ve ever done is evil, there is no such thing as progress, we all deserve to die” is just objectively, and morally wrong.

    All those poor people fleeing their “shithole” countries to get into the West apparently don’t buy the superiority of their cultures.

    I love the science, but am very wary of the extrapolation into the rest of life. Forests were burning before humans ever turned up, so it the trees are suffering (and if we suffer), blame God first.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > the Western world is the worse

      This post didn’t say that.

      • The refusal to admit Western superiority in all things is routinely interpreted as saying that the West is inferior by many of its committed defenders.

      • No; but it’s implicit in the term ‘western’ science.

        Anti-colonialism has been around for 50 years or more. A bit more nuance and actual understanding could be expected by now. The idea that the noble savage was fine until the white colonialist turned up, and that all these countries would have been paradises if they’d been left to their own devices is naïve and ignorant.

        The West’s tendency to feel guilty about everything finds an unhappy match in certain non-western cultures’ readiness to blame everything on someone else.

        Sorry for the rant…

        • “Anti-colonialism has been around for 50 years or more. A bit more nuance and actual understanding could be expected by now.”

          Another Western conceit – that a quick apology, the passing of some laws, and a “let’s forget all about it” are sufficient to undo a long history of abuse. The restitution offered in no way matches the crimes committed.

          • Right. When I was born, Jim Crow still existed. You can’t expect to undo centuries of systematic persecution and oppression with a little effort over one lifetime. It’s not even reasonable to think it could be undone in such a short time, or that the job is anywhere near done.

        • Ben does have a point here. I’m not aware of a culture before ours that has felt this amount of guilt for things done by previous generations against other people. Even in the Old Testament when Israel laments of its past it is for sins against God or their own people. I’m also not aware of a culture that is currently analyzed the same way ours is. If we talk about empires in the past, particularly if they are not European, we focus on the amazing civilization and technological innovation. We don’t seem particularly ready to condemn the human sacrifice, slavery, income inequality, and other atrocious behavior of non-European cultures. But for some people today, mostly white liberal people, there is a view of the history of western culture that lacks any nuance. It is all just focus on anything bad, and judge it by 21st century standards without any consideration of the context of that time period. Every culture is a mix of good and bad, and every “great” person, with the exception of one, had evil within them as well. Some might say it is necessary to focus on the bad because for too long we ignored it. But now they ignore the good. Maybe one day we will learn that two wrongs don’t make a right.

          • “We don’t seem particularly ready to condemn the human sacrifice, slavery, income inequality, and other atrocious behavior of non-European cultures.”

            Well, one Christian principle (which most modern Christians seem to have forgotten) is that we should be much more concerned with our own sins rather than the sins of others. Specks and planks and all that.

            “for some people today, mostly white liberal people, there is a view of the history of western culture that lacks any nuance. It is all just focus on anything bad, and judge it by 21st century standards without any consideration of the context of that time period. ”

            Funny – I thought we Christians believed morality was eternal and transcendent. But, as I’ve pointed out here before, there were voices back in those days calling out the problems – and they were mostly shouted down and ignored.

            “Every culture is a mix of good and bad, and every “great” person, with the exception of one, had evil within them as well.”

            I don’t think anyone here is denying that. The problem comes when power and circumstances allow one person’s (or culture’s) sins to impact others. As I pointed out elsewhere here, human cultures have been nasty to each other since time immemorial. But *we* have done so on a global scale – and at times, under the banner of a cross. THAT alone is much more abominable than what almost any other culture has done. By our own lights, we should have known better.

          • And are those cultures still practicing human sacrifice? No, but ours is still exploiting them politically and economically.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            I’m not aware of a culture before ours that has felt this amount of guilt for things done by previous generations against other people

            And it makes us easy targets for Guilt Manipulation.
            (A secularized version of what you hear from a lot of dysfunctional pulpits.)

            And once you’ve been Guilt Manipulated time and time again, you go all BFYTW! and wish you could have been a Psychopath who can never ever feel Guilt.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > No; but it’s implicit in the term ‘western’ science.

          Nope

        • The West continues to exploit and despoil less developed countries around the world. This is not just history, it’s current events.

          Nobody here said non-Western cultures are or ever have been perfect. But their imperfection doesn’t mean that Western culture is superior to them in every respect, or that it isn’t inferior to them in certain significant ways.

    • Those “shithole” countries have been exploited and despoiled by European and American based economic and political interests for hundreds of years. Governments in Iran, South and Central America were literally toppled by the US via the CIA in the interest of enriching the “homeland”; we continue to wreak havoc in the Middle East (and don’t tell me about the so-called peace brokered recently be the US — those are really just deals to consolidate and increase American power in the region via cooperating with oppressive regimes — same as it ever was) for our perceived interests: when we create hell in other places to make ours more comfortable and attractive, an ocean of refugees is what we should expect and have gotten. It has nothing to do with any superiority of our culture, but with its brutality and effectiveness in exploiting and thereby ruining much of what was good in the places it’s exploited.

    • “But the masochistic “the Western world is the worse, everything we’ve ever done is evil, there is no such thing as progress, we all deserve to die” is just objectively, and morally wrong.”

      I get it, facing up to our sins is hard, but if you take a good hard look at the West’s overall legacy – the environmental exploitation, the literal steamrolling of local non-European cultures, and (until recently) our arrogant wiping of our mouths and saying we did nothing wrong, does merit some sackcloth and ashes on our part. Sure, other human cultures have done much the same – but never on the planetary scale we have done.

      Sorry if this bruises your ego, but we DO have a LOT to answer for. A little acknowledgement of that might become you.

      • thatotherjean says

        I think that we in the Western world have, for a very long time, taken the Bible a bit too literally, in accepting “dominion” over the earth and all its creatures, seeing those words as meaning that we could exploit them at will, and without restriction. Too many people have forgotten that we are also stewards of the planet, responsible for its condition, not just to ourselves, but to our offspring, and to the rest of the people on the planet. We need to stop what we are doing, do our best to repair what we have done, and sustain ourselves with less impact, while–if–it is still possible. We all need to become tree-huggers, in some sense.

    • Mike the Geologist says

      No need to apologize- rants are an expected part of IM comments. However… your rant seems to be directed against other comments because it is inappropriate relative to the post. The point of the post was to highlight how Dr. Simard, using western scientific methods of research, is reaching conclusions similar to non-western non-scientific wisdom of indigenous peoples. Simard points out that the mycorrhizal networks that link the root systems are designed like neural networks, and behave like neural networks, and a neural network is the seeding of intelligence in our brains. Then there is this quote: “Botanists can measure their serotonin responses. They have serotonin. They also have glutamate, which is one of our own neurotransmitters.” And Simard’s conclusions are pretty modest: “There’s two words that come straight to mind. One of them is responsibility. I think that modern society hasn’t felt a responsibility to the plant world. So being responsible stewards is one thing. And also regaining respect—a respectful interaction with those trees, those plants.” So I don’t see the need or the point of your rant. To say that the modern western scientific viewpoint might be able to be informed by traditional indigenous wisdom is not that much of a stretch.

  3. Susan Dumbrell says

    My son and granddaughter in London have had their Covid19 test come back negative.
    Thanks be to God
    Susan

  4. The fires out west are a tragedy. The people living through this are going through a literal hell. Is it possible that these fires are due to climate change. I guess. Is it also possible that the severity of the fires and excess damage are due to mismanagement. I think so. Both can play a factor, but one is certainly easier to fix than the other.
    Does anybody out west know of a good organization that is helping these people that we can donate to?

    • I’d check with local organizations in the areas in question. My wife’s credit union is doing some fundraising in that regard.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      It’s more than possible, it’s probable.

      When every year the fires and heat and X-treme weather set new records (to be broken by the next year’s), it takes a lot of effort to maintain “Global Warming HOAX! Global Warning SCAM! All FAKE NEWS! LIBRUL MEDIA LIES! JUST SO THEY CAN TAKE AWAY OUR GUNS!!!!”

  5. Very curious indeed. Human language is surely overestimated by us. So much communication in the universe, certainly the universe of spirit that we experience and obviously the whole rest of the temporal planet excepting humans, is done without a word. Not a word spoken but communication everywhere so it does seem plausible.

  6. No, not “tree-hugging nonsense and New Age (phony) mysticism” but how easily it turns into that! It does so to the degree we draw the wrong conclusions and anthropomorphize nature as the ancients did. What science does is reveal how these processes actually work. What should change here is not our perceptions of nature but our perceptions of ourselves, as something special and distinct from the rest of the natural world. The same evolutionary processes that produced a forest produced us. The same mechanisms that formed trees and fungi produced us. We should expect a certain amount of convergence because the same evolutionary processes are working on us as everything else. The eye has evolved independently in nature at least 40 times.

    • “we draw the wrong conclusions and anthropomorphize nature as the ancients did…. The same evolutionary processes that produced a forest produced us. The same mechanisms that formed trees and fungi produced us. We should expect a certain amount of convergence because the same evolutionary processes are working on us as everything else.”

      So really, were the ancients really more wrong to anthropomorphize nature? Does that accusation itself not presume the “special and distinct” separation of humanity from nature you remember rightly decry?

      • I guess instead of anthropomorphizing nature, we could de-anthropomorphize ourselves, but I’m not sure that would end up in a good place. It might be a lot like dehumanizing ourselves, and even more so our neighbors.

        • Depends on what connotations you attach to “humanization”. Mayhaps that St. Francis fellow might have some ideas about that…

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > we could de-anthropomorphize ourselves

          It is helpful to consciously recognize how non-rational we [humans] are.

    • The ancients weren’t “wrong”. They used the tools they had to the best effect they could. They told stories. But we can be wrong if we don’t use the tools we have. The way forward is not to go back.

  7. “The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility – not of its own will, but by the will of him who subjected it – in hope, because the creation itself will be set from from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation groans together and travails together up until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves groan inwardly, eagerly expecting the redemption of our bodies. For by hope we were saved…”

    Christ’s return and the resurrection of us all will have cosmic consequences. Death will no longer reign – no more decay of anything. The “futility” of creation is the inability to attain its proper end – our ultimate freedom and glory are necessary to that end, for all creation to finally come to fruition.

    Does that mean we do nothing in the meantime? Of course not. As we wait for Christ’s return, we can become better stewards: accept our limits, fight the consumeristic greed within ourselves, live as simply and as “green” as we can on a personal level, and advocate as we are able for governmental policies that will protect the environment. We can do all of this now, and some of us are. Christians should be leading the way. I don’t get why some of those who say they are dependent on Scripture can’t see this.

    Dana

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Christ’s return and the resurrection of us all will have cosmic consequences.

      Does that mean we do nothing in the meantime?

      Unfortunately, American Christians have only one contingency plan for every problem:
      THE RAPTURE.
      Where they get beamed up to Heaven to watch It All Burn as a Spectator Sport.

    • Agreed Dana, however I would say that most of us believe we are not doing “nothing in the meantime.”

      As in we drive our Prius’, therefore we’re allowed a vacation in Cancun (or a Princess Cruise if we can score a discount and we’ve got enough points saved up). Or we recycle our plastic which justifies no tap water passing through our self-aware lips. Or we eat locally, except of course for the mangoes, pineapples and kiwis. Hey, we all know it’s a waste of good and proper chutney without it.

      And don’t even start on the fair trade coffee. For gosh sakes, can’t you see our heart-felt sacrifice is clearly helping the Sumatran poor.

      Our localized rationalizing let’s us sleep at night. We drive hybrids – over a 100,000 miles a year, but hey we’re getting killer mileage and that’s all that matters. We recycle – what the heck else can we do with all those plastic bottles? And we eat out locally six nights a week – and with paper straws no less.

      It’s not us, it’s all those other people. If only they would start doing something about it.

      • I do have a Prius, actually; it’s 12 years old and just turned over 200,000 miles. I don’t have the money to vacation in Cancun, and I’m not a fan of cruises; our last flight was almost 2 years ago, to see one of our children who lived on the other coast. I have a filtration system (less than $100) that allows me to drink my tap water. I get all my produce from the local Co-Op store, which prioritizes local growers and in-season fruit and veg. What’s wrong with fair trade and recycling? We prepare most of our meals at home; we eat out about twice a month. You don’t have to have a lot of money to do it this stuff; you could even grow your own veg. Sometimes these things are actually inconvenient.

        Yes, I get the sarcastic tone in what you’ve written. I know there are a lot of people who think they’re doing all they can do. That’s part of my point. I feel like I can make the point because I do “practice what I preach”. And I’m sure I could do more.

        Dana

  8. On (slightly) unrelated note I just finished reading “The Hidden Life of Trees” which includes the research of Simard. An amazing good book describing how trees thrive together. Very readable book.

  9. May the filth of Saruman be washed away…