General · 18th December 2016
Although the sophistication of tree intelligence may stress some people's credibility, Dr. Suzanne Simard — who has documented it with rigorous scientific protocols — contends it is an established fact.
Peter Wohllben has done the same. By examining the metabolism of trees over time, he has found that trees in a beech forest synchronize their photosynthesis so that each grows “into the best tree it can be.” This is not competition but a system of “mutual support”. Indeed, a forest is a community that functions for the betterment of all its members.
Wholleben, in his more poetic description of trees, notes that they have “individual characters”. Some, which he describes as having more “anxiety” than others, will drop their leaves early to avoid the damage of autumn storms. Others are riskier, willing to take the chance for a little extra growth. Some are more gregarious than others, doing more communicating and trading — cedars, apparently, tend to be loners.
We, of course, would attribute this tree behaviour to genetics. But couldn't we say the same about the character of any human being? Children clearly have innate personalities, pre-packaged in their genetic structure. They grow up expressing these qualities. Why would we expect a tree to be any different?
The human analogy comes even closer with Dr. Simard's discovery that parent trees give preferential treatment to their offspring when exchanging sugars and nutrition. While they may share with fungi and other trees, they give particular care to their own seedlings. The “mother” trees, in Wholleben's terminology, are “nursing their babies.” Since they can't move to protect them from threatening conditions, they can supervise their growth so they become strong, disease resistant, insect aware, and ready to inherit the space when their parent dies. (These ideas, incidentally, fit with previous research that trees emit pheromones to warn other trees of disease or insect attacks. In response, the forewarned trees change their leaf chemistry to be less susceptible to the disease or less appealing to the insect.)
We accept that dogs, ant and robins all live in a different reality that we do. But the more we know about them, the better we can imagine what their lives must be like. Unlike a hummingbird, we don't have wings to flap many times per second or the minds to routinely remember 500 flowers in succession, so we let them be themselves and appreciate the marvel of their existence. Now we have scientists opening our doors of perception about trees. Consider this a necessary part of the growing awareness if we are to function mindfully and wisely on this most amazing of all planets.
If our sense of forests and trees changes because of this new awareness, it is for our betterment and, ultimately, for the betterment of the place in the universe where we must learn to live.
So, the sense of peace, order, design and collective intelligence we get when being in a mature forest is now supported by scientific evidence. Indeed, the feeling of cooperation, harmony and tranquility exuded by such forests derives from multitudes of species all living together in a community of sharing, nurturing and communicating. The complexity and sophistication is comparable to a human culture or civilization.
a related good read
Comment by Francesca Gesualdi on 22nd December 2016
If you enjoyed this article you might like Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Its a poetic read by a First Nations botany professor that explores what we might have to learn from plants who she calls the "old ones." dr.dood