A Sense of Being
Do you remember the first time you entered a forest? Do you remember how you felt? Safe? Protected? In the company of something unique? One of the strongest, most detailed memories I have is of entering a small, local forest behind our neighborhood when I was young. My (younger) brother and I would walk up our street, turn the corner, and enter into another world – a quiet, peaceful world filled with secrets. Those summer days consisted of sitting on a mossy stump eating huckleberries, gathering fir cones (to us, every cone back then was called a pine cone), and telling stories. He had a wonderful imagination, even at a young age. As summers passed, we spent more time with our own friends and less time together, and eventually, the forest was cut down to make space for a cul-de-sac filled with new houses. But the memory of Forest has remained with me.
A few years ago, in a previous blog, I wrote an article titled “Does a Tree know its Age?”. In that article, I referenced research done by Suzanne Simard, PhD. with Pseudotsuga menziesii trees (Douglas fir). In her research, she uses the term “communication” to describe the interactions between some trees: a parent Doug fir and its seedlings, and Doug firs and birch trees. For example, a mother Doug fir shares nutrients with her offspring via their root systems and their shared fungal network. Research with birch trees and doug firs has shown that birch trees share carbon with doug firs in a natural forest setting, and that when foresters remove birch trees in the belief that removal would offer the firs better growing conditions, the firs actually suffered in response. (Dr. Simard is located at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver campus. Some of her work is easily found online).
It has been known for some time that plants respond to insect attack by flooding unharmed leaves or needles with chemicals that create unpleasant tastes and/or aromas to the insects. Plants also have the ability to create volatiles that will entice different insects to eat the attacking insect population. In addition, some plants are able to detect insect eggs that have been deposited on their leaves and respond with chemical changes that will either alert other insects to the presence of those eggs, or to kill the eggs themselves.
Interpreting such plant responses to stimuli as evidence of awareness and the ability to communicate is very controversial among some scientists. There exists a belief that without a central nervous system, without an organ like a brain, awareness simply cannot exist. These plant responses are seen as exclusively caused by chemical – electrical – reactions to stimuli. But I agree with Peter Godfrey-Smith who states in MetaZoa: “As plants lack nervous systems, they also lack the large-scale electrial patterns that a nervous system generates. Some caution is appropriate here, as plants do have a wealth of electrical activity, new forms of which are steadily uncovered. Further electro-botanical surprises may be waiting.”
I have always felt something unique while in the presence of trees – something above and beyond what their beauty and age offers. A communication with the surrounding world that I cannot yet understand. A sense of history, of life above and beyond the present, a sense of enduring space – this is what I feel in the presence of trees.