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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Plants do have intelligence. They have all the structures. They have all the functions. They have the behaviors.
- 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.
- 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.
- Memory is housed in the tree rings of all trees.
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…