April is an exciting month for me as I get ready to watch the great performances that will be taking place over the next couple of months.
The cast is in dress rehearsal. The previews are looking good. I’ve seen a couple of teasers from bit players out before the main shows.
The first of the small acts were the daffodils, then a scattering of dandelions. The daphne odora recently took the stage with a fragrance strong enough to intoxicate a whole audience.
But the real stars, when the big performances begin, will be the trees.
I love trees. I love their woodsy, sometimes fruity, sometimes resinous scents, the ridges in their bark, their soaring branches, the lichen on them, and how they die and leave mysterious silver snags. The trees that I’ve transplanted onto our property, as well as the madrona, hazelnut trees, and Douglas firs that were here before us, have become friends. As I walk through our woodlands they offer beauty, comfort, and a sense of home. They spark my imagination.
The Hidden Life of Trees
Reading Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees took my respect for trees to new levels. Wohlleben, a forester turned environmental steward with a poet’s eye, invites us behind the curtain to see trees through the eyes of someone who has loved and studied them for decades.
He didn’t start out to be an observer of tree intelligence.
As a forester, he was trained to see trees in terms of their commercial viability.
He writes, “When I began my life as a forester, I knew as much about the hidden life of trees as a butcher knows about animals.”
That changed as he began to observe trees more closely, seeing how they behave as individuals and as a collective. After observing their remarkable power to communicate, he redirected his career and now works to create sustainable, tree-friendly forests.
The hidden world of tree communication
What he shared is fascinating. Do you know:
- That trees can communicate with each other over great distances, at times using mycorrhizae (a fungus that connects trees to other fungi), and fungi to send messages over a kind of forest “wood wide web?”
- That stumps may live on for centuries, nourished by the trees around them?
- That trees care for each other? Not like my grandfather who fixed me eggnog when I was five and ill, but care that includes sending warnings to other trees and sharing resources with weaker members of their tree communities. Tree behavior suggests that trees often collaborate.
A world of relationship
In an interview for the Yale School of the Environment, Wohlleben was questioned whether trees are sentient beings (an idea that could craze some scientists). He replied:
“We have this essentially arbitrary caste system for living beings. We say plants are the lowest caste, the pariahs because they don’t have brains, they don’t move, they don’t have big brown eyes. Flies and insects have eyes, so they are a bit higher, but not so high as monkeys and apes and so on. I want to remove trees from this caste system. This hierarchical ranking of living beings is totally unscientific. Plants process information just as animals do, but for the most part, they do this much more slowly. Is life in the slow lane worth less than life on the fast track?
Perhaps we create these artificial barriers between humans and animals, between animals and plants, so that we can use them indiscriminately and without care, without considering the suffering that we are subjecting them to.” [My highlighting.]
I certainly grew up thinking people were higher up the evolutionary pole and therefore “better” than trees and animals.
Our human brains may be more complex, and we have access to consciousness different than that of our dogs, mushrooms and maples.
But, thinking in terms of hierarchy blinds us to how we’re in this world together and how we need to support the web of relationships in which we all live.
Plants, animals, humans and mycorrhizae have different capacities, roles, and responsibilities. We all contribute in distinct ways to the whole.
What would it be like to live in relationship to the natural world outside of the hierarchical caste system?
When we acknowledge our collective participation in the community/ecosystems in which we live, we take away any permission to blindly hurt each other.
That doesn’t mean we won’t hurt each other. I continue to unintentionally hurt those whom I love.
But I strive to act respectfully.
Does this mean I don’t prune trees (ouch), dig them and move them, kill them with neglect (sadly, occasionally), or decide that a tree must be taken down (always sad)? I do all of those things. When I die, I may be sent to plant-abuser purgatory.
I also use many products that are dependent on wood and trees.
Despite my abuses, I cherish our trees.
Welcoming the trees
When my husband and I moved onto this land, I started “adopting” trees. Enlightened Seattle-area gardeners, forced to make tough choices between keeping a tree and having a vegetable garden, posted their trees on Plant Amnesty, a site that enabled them to put trees up for adoption. In exchange for promising owners a great home for their beloveds, I was given permission to dig up the trees and bring them home.
Each tree came to our property with a story. To this day, I remember my trees’ heritages and the good people who nurtured them.
As I walk across our property, I acknowledge these trees. I like to think they feel the gratitude behind my words to them, but if they don’t it doesn’t matter. Talking to them helps me to feel our relationship.
Knowing the facts about climate change is important. But when environmentalism only appeals to us with facts, it can feel abstract and cold,
In contrast, living with mystery, wonder, appreciation, and love for the trees brings my concern for the environment alive. That fuels my desire to act.
Seeing life as an ensemble
In our individualistic culture, it’s easy to forget how connected we are to the worlds around us, seen and unseen.
Nature never forgets those connections.
I can’t wait for the upcoming performance called “Spring” as our trees bud, bloom, leaf out, and fruit. Some of the stars will take my breath away. Yet as soon as these gorgeous specimens have bloomed and shared their beauty, they will move seamlessly back to their place in the ensemble.
They know, as I try to remember, that when it comes to living in the natural world, we’re meant to play together.