With colorful snowshoes strapped to my feet I try to maneuver through the forest covered in white snow on this January day in the new year 2010. Moving about is difficult in sections of this quiet forest because there are still hundreds of trees still lying about the ground as the result of the great ice storm of 13 months ago. The snow is not deep enough to completely bury the debris on the floor of these great woods and stepping over the tree tops is not easily accomplished with the 30 inch snow shoes that are necessary to support my large frame. My main strategy in navigating these woods is to walk around most of the tree sections that have made the forest floor their final resting place thereby avoiding the clumsy process of hoisting my snowshoes over branches extended from fallen trees and tops. As I look back at my tracks it looks like some sort of disoriented maze flying in the face of the old adage “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.”
The purpose of my jaunt today is very specific. I am on a mission to “commune with nature” as they say. Lately I have been on a pursuit to understand communications in the world of plants. Given I live in the midst of a large mixed deciduous/conifer forest I thought I might begin in my own back yard where there are thousands of acres of accessible plant communities.
I find it fitting that we use the term “plant communities” when describing a system of plants that share the same environment. These plants have interdependent relationships with not only the other plants that live within the community but all of the other creatures and non-living entities that share that environment as well. These are a true community; organisms that have mutualistic relationships for the sole purpose of survival. As is the case with human communities, these various ecosystems (or communities as some might say) intersect with other ecosystems and the dominant subset of human communities. At this level there is also a mutual codependency that assures that each ecosystem survives. The relationship between ecosystems gets larger and larger until we assemble, in my belief system, one living organism that I will refer to here as Gaia, also known as the planet earth.
I am considering all of this while standing in 8 degree temperatures and a fifteen mile per hour breeze; perhaps heady, rambling thoughts for such conditions. I look about the forest that surrounds me and I am struck by how much information the forest leaves behind that enables me to understand its history and condition. Along a decrepit stone wall to my left there is a row of large, well branched, sugar maples. I know from their position and shape that they are the result of a forest thinning years ago where other trees were eliminated and the maples were left behind for the gathering of sap and maple sugar production. The large, open branching tells me that these now massive trees were at one time growing in a large open space, likely a pasture used by sheep or cows.
On the hillside in front of me there are dozens of tall, straight trees. There are many different species and most are about 70 to 80 years old. This is pretty clear evidence that this area was a fallow pasture. The trees grew close together creating tall trunks with few branches. Competition eliminated the weaker and smaller trees. The spacing between the mature trees is not equidistant signifying to me that this area has not undergone any forest management practices up to this point in time. If I were to cut into one of the fallen trees buried underneath the snow at my feet I could examine the tree rings. Not only could I discern the age of the tree but I might also be able to tell what kind of growing season the tree had each year by the width of the growth rings.
On the other side of this hill where the slope faces southeast the nearly vertical terrain holds wide ledges where huge oaks dominate the landscape. These trees are hundreds of years old and were not easily reached by those who might want to chop them down for firewood or logs. The very steep, rocky terrain allowed a piece of ecological history to remain free of human influence, giving the observer a glimpse of a forest several hundred years old. The mere site of these giant trees flourishing on bedrock ledges brings chills that reverberate through each individual cell of my body all the way down to my soul.
And although these artifacts of the forest that reveal a part of its history may not be obvious to those who have not learned the art of landscape interpretation they contain information locked into this terrain that may remain as buried as a relic in an ancient ruin or a lost book covered with dust in the bowels of an old library.
I notice that I am standing next to a mature red oak tree. It is unusually old; no doubt it has survived hundreds of years. It stands alone in this section of the woods with large overhanging branches that spread far out into the landscape. The cover that these branches provide has prevented other trees from growing in the immediate area. The thick bark is deeply furrowed like the lines in an old man’s face which somehow imparts a feeling of wisdom to this observer. Yet the tree is solid and strong. It is not yet near the end of its life. It has a story to tell and I would love to hear the mysteries held within the essence of this tree.
Red oaks have an interesting behavior. When they produce peak crops of acorns all of the red oaks in the same region will produce peak crops during the same year. This allows the acorn production to exceed the rate at which they can be consumed by animals in the forest which makes it much more likely that the acorns will successfully germinate into oak seedlings that hopefully will grow into the next generation of oaks. But how do all of the red oaks in a certain area know when to produce peak crops of acorns? One theory is that the trees emit pheromones or volatile chemical compounds that signal all of the trees within a certain proximity that this is the year to produce a peak crop of acorns. This process is not fully understood yet, but it is a perfect example of how trees communicate; a pretty sophisticated communication system I might add. I am also aware that when elms are attacked by the elm leaf beetle the tree emits a volatile chemical compound that invites an elm leaf beetle parasite to come to dinner to consume the little herbivore before it does irreparable damage. Plant roots, mycorrrhizal bacteria and fungi share a communication system that seems to be operated through neuron-like fibers that each of these entities shares. This communication system allows this nearly perfect symbiotic relationship to harmonize their activities to benefit each individual in the relationship.
As I consider all of this my mind turns to an old memory. A fellow by the name of Cleve Baxter, a renowned expert in polygraphs during the 1960’s, attached a lie detector to a plant in his office. Not only did the plant have a measurable response to watering and threats but it also responded to the thought of threats. For those paying attention the way we perceive plants was forever changed. In the Secret Life of Plants Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird explored the sentient life of the plant world. Through this book readers learned that not only do plants respond to external stimulus but to the thoughts of animals, as well. The fact that plants may be able to effectively understand human intentions is nearly unfathomable. By many this notion is considered bizarre. But why? If plants can send messages via volatile chemicals then perhaps we unknowingly send messages to plants; perhaps with similar chemical compounds. It is certainly not outside of our imagination to understand that this is, at least, a remote possibility.
This idea leads to me thinking, as I have often before, about how humans seem to prioritize animals over plants. It is easy to understand how a species prefers its own kind; it is likely that self survival of a species is built into its genetic code. It is also understandable that we identify strongly with other mammals and perhaps anything that is alive, mobile, and has a face. And while I suppose it is completely normal to have a preference for other animals it also seems irrational to me. Plants seem to have some sort of visceral connection to the planet that we just don’t quite understand. Perhaps it is that lack of understanding that allows us to think that we are very, very different. In my own judgment animals have more in common with plants than we have differences. We are both alive, and more importantly we are both just a part of a much bigger living organism known as the planet earth.
A strong gust of wind blows snow off of the frozen landscape into my face. This brings my thoughts closer to the here and now. As I lean on this large red oak I look up to the long, thick branches that reach out toward the sun. The tree is dormant now, but still quite alive. I listen to the tree. I try to absorb its energy by placing the palm of my hand on the deep grooves of the rough bark. There is no evident transition of wisdom, thought, or energy detected by me from this keeper of secrets but there is a vision in my mind that hints of a content red oak that has witnessed more than I can ever dream of. I long for this old tree to speak to me. I long to interact with this lord of the forest. I would like nothing more than to exchange information at a cellular level with this wonderful living member of the Gaia community. Perhaps if I keep paying attention to all the various clues, and absorb messages by means of some semblance of extra sensory perception I will benefit from the wisdom and experience of this tree’s long, long life. I can only keep trying and hope that someday, at some level, I will be successful.
Originally written for the Heath Herald in January 2010