The intelligence of trees – Part I

Some discoveries are revolutionary and so obvious that we’re surprised we didn’t know about them earlier.

The new perspective they provide begins to work its magic by shifting our awareness and values.

And we can never again return to our old way of understanding the world.

This has been happening with increasing frequency, particularly in biology.

At the very time when we are losing species and destroying ecologies with a prodigious efficiency, we are also gleaning remarkable insights about the astounding ingenuity and complexity of life.

The discoveries of a German forester, Peter Wohlleben, and a UBC forest ecologist, Dr. Suzanne Simard, are a striking example.

If living cooperatively in communities, rather than living competitively as individuals, has made more evolutionary sense for humans, why shouldn’t the same principle be used by trees? Indeed, as complex biological organisms, trees have existed hundreds of times longer than we have.  If cooperation has been beneficial for us, why would we think that trees should be exceptions?

Well, they’re not.

And this is precisely what Wohlleben and Simard are revealing with stunning clarity.

As they are discovering, forests are communities of trees, alive with marvellously sophisticated means of cooperation and communication.

Wohlleben departs from the tradition of the scientist by writing of trees in human terms. “I am a human being,” he notes as an explanation for the style in which he wrote his book,The Hidden Life of Trees.  “I use human language. Scientific language is full of insight and fascinating facts, but [it takes] the emotion out of your speech and the people you are talking to don’t feel what you are saying” (Maclean’s, Sept. 19/16). So Wohlleben’s intention is to make us feel an emotional connection to forests and the individual living trees that constitute them.

“Thus, his trees are both individuals and social beings: they nurse sick neighbours, lavish love and attention on their children, and even at times take care of the dead — keeping stumps alive through a sugar solution delivered from their roots to the stumps.

The trees ‘talk’ to each other, warning about pests and changes in the weather; they learn from experience and feel pain when injured,” the Maclean’s article reports.

If these claims seem incredible to us, it’s probably because our cultural habit has been to treat trees as objects. But, if they breathe and eat, grow and reproduce, then eventually die, they must be living.

And if we have failed to notice the complexity of their lives, this can be attributed to a failure in our imagination, experience and information.

Just consider for a moment what we have recently learned about the language and culture of whales and elephants, about the social and communication skills of ants and bees, about the problem solving abilities of chimps and crows, about the migration wonders of birds and butterflies.  In reality, we are living amid an incredible natural intelligence that we have failed to notice because of an obsessive and myopic self-centredness.

Through vivid anecdote, careful observation and disciplined study, scientists such as Whollenben and Simard are beginning to expose the intelligence of trees.

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