In the Presence of Trees, Part 4

A Sense of Something that Is.

Consciousness:

  1. Awareness of oneself within and among ones’ environment.
  2. Sentience of internal and external being.
  3. Experiencing existence as one and as community.
  4. Descartes walks into a coffee shop, sits down at a table and reads the menu. A waiter comes up to him and asks, “Are you ready to order, sir?” Descartes answers, “I think not.” And disappears.

I have been reading the works of Peter Godfrey-Smith, PhD., recently. Specifically, Metazoa and Other Minds. Wonderful books, both, that focus on the origins of consciousness – its evolution and development throughout the animal kingdom. The primary subjects of these two books are octopuses and cuttlefish, although the books include the author’s experiences with other sea creatures. Many surprising findings with these animals have been discovered through research in recent years, but most impressive (though not surprising) to me is their creativity and intelligence – how these animals interact with each other, their environment, and with other species (including humans). Octopuses, in particular, are short-lived creatures with a lifespan of just one to six years depending upon species. But in their brief lifetime, they have highly developed interactions with other creatures. That an animal who lives such a short time can develop sophisticated problem-solving skills, a strong memory and, apparently, an keen awareness of self and others is a remarkable feat (according to many scientists).

How does consciousness manifest itself; how does it develop? What are signs of consciousness in beings? To start, in the animal kingdom an awareness of other beings is important. Being aware of who/what shares your environment and how those creatures respond is crucial in maintaining ones’ life. Memory plays an important role in awareness, also – being able to remember something/someone who caused pain or harm, memory of where food is most abundant and shelter most readily found, memory of solutions to problems or threats – all are crucial to a successful life (success being defined as finding adequate food and water, not being attacked, and living long enough to reproduce). In short, they learn and remember what they have learned. Consciousness is demonstrated through emotions, also. Countless examples of emotional life have been seen throughout the animal kingdom. Elephants, some corvids, whales, dogs, and many other animals grieve when one of their own (or someone they love) dies. In fact, many of the above animals have demonstrated behavior that indicates that they hold a funeral when one of their own dies. Joy and play are signs of consciousness, also. I can think of no clearer demonstration of joy than watching a dog romping through a field chasing a ball, a small animal, or playing with a companion. Awareness of others in your environment, memory, problem-solving, emotions – obvious manifestations of consciousness. What is most surprising to me is that even today some scientists refuse to ackowledge consciousness in non-human animals.

But what of plants? This is a very controversial subject, and one best not even considered according to some scientists. (Indeed, as I stated above, even with ample evidence to the contrary, some researchers in a variety of fields continually refuse to acknowledge that non-human animals demonstrate consciousness. Their loss, in my humble opinion.) But a few brave researchers are looking at the lives of plants with an objective mindset. Almost all plants respond to their environment – bending towards sunlight throughout day hours, curling their leaves in response to stress (drought, cold, insects, strong sunlight), flooding their tissues with noxious chemicals in response to insect damage – some plants will drop all their leaves in response to environmental stress and await better conditions before producing new growth. And most impressive to me, many plants share nutrients with their neighbors, even when those neighbors are not of the same genus or species. And communication and the sharing of vital resources between different species of trees has been proven in experiments conducted over decades by Drs. Suzanne Simard, Yuan Yuan Song, Theresa Ryan, and other dedicated botanists and researchers.

The question of where consciousness resides, or occurs, is unsettled at this time. Does it manifest from a brain or central nervous system? Dr. Godfrey-Smith writes in his book Metazoa, that the arms of an octopus have the ability to act independently from each other – “There is a primary or most complex self – the central brain – but also eight smaller ones.” He goes on to say, “The networks of nerve cells in the arms of an ocotopus are not only connected to the central brain, but connected “sideways” to each other, at the top of the arms.” These short-lived animals learn quickly and remember well, which allows them to interact with each other and their environment successfully. “Network” seems to be key here.

With the above definitions and examples in mind, how do we understand the learning capacity of some plants? For example, the plant Mimosa pundica has demonstrated that it not only learns (quickly) but remembers what it has learned (as discovered at the University of Western Australia, 2014). Slime molds have demonstrated the ability to learn and remember, also (2016 study by CNRS and Universite Toulouse). As I see it, the resprouting of a tree from its roots after it has been felled is that trees’ memory made tangible. From the interconnectedness of plant roots with the surrounding mycorrhizal fungal networks, and roots of neighboring plant communities, communication between individuals occurs on levels science is just beginning to understand. A Mother Tree supports her kin as well as trees of different species, and gives additional nutritional support to ailing individuals through the network of her roots and fungal companions. Dying trees give more of their carbon (and nutrients) to neighboring trees than do healthy trees. Doesn’t this demonstrate an awareness of self; in short, consciousness? The tree clearly demonstrates awareness of its condition, of its mortality, and responds by giving what remains of its health to its community.

Carl Sagan said, “humans are the stuff of the cosmos explaining itself.” I would only change one word of this insightful observation, and that would be to change “humans” to “life”. I believe that all life contains consciousness on some level – be it animal (human and non-human) or plant. There truly does appear to be a network of connection between living beings. The mystery of consciousness is being unlocked – slowly – and is bringing us the gifts of greater awareness and appreciation of life in all its miraculous forms. And with this knowledge and awareness comes responsibility – not of dominion over other lives but of shared kinship with other lives.

Trees show us how to respond to life – their knowledge has always been freely available to us – and now is the time for us to act in accord with that wisdom.

2 thoughts on “In the Presence of Trees, Part 4

  1. Insightful as always! I think that the subject is uncomfortable for some because it alters their self-identity. If other animate beings can demonstrate some – not all, at least yet – of interactions with the larger world, then are they on their way evolutionary-wise? Are they embodied for the moment in a cycle of life as in the Hindu concept? Octopi (I think the proper term is Octopus, singular and plural) are marvelous animals. I recommend ‘The Soul of the Octopus’ by a local author. I pass it on to those who order a dish of it hoping they will never, ever repeat that act. Re plants – I’m still of the mind that a tree resprouting is a natural reaction, not a conscious act – at least not of the type comparable to our actions. Some local cultures apologize to a tree that is about to be cut down which I practice myself. Less one think that all indigenous peoples were respectful toward the natural environment, think of how the Maoris devastated the native flora and fauna – a bigger scale of Easter Island. Thanks for the thought-provoking post! Walt

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    1. I agree that when species other than humans demonstrate their self-awareness/idenity it does make some of us uncomfortable. I hope that that discomfort is the first step in building a greater appreciation of and acknowledgment of our connection and responsibility to the huge variety of species we share this planet with. And I do believe that someday we will get there!

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