“All things share the same breath — the beast, the tree, the man. The air shares its spirit with all the life it supports.”
— Chief Seattle, Suquamish and Duwamish Leader
If you were to design a tree, what would you call its ability to seek out water and nutrients from where it’s planted? And what kind of superpowers would you bestow on this ability? Would you design “feelers” that could not only absorb and transport this aqueous solution, but also locate it? And not just randomly and blindly worm their way through their environment, but actually seek out sources and then take full advantage of what they find that’s life-giving and sustaining for the tree?
Last spring, my daughter and her fiancée had a sewer backup at their house. The culprit? Tree roots in their sewer lateral between their house and the main in the street. Roots infiltrated the clay pipe through a joint, then grew into a dense mass until the water could no longer drain fast enough to empty the toilets without overflowing. It’s a very common problem. One that got me thinking.
How does a tree “know” how to find water? What “guides” it to the pipe? And then through the joints, its easiest access to the inside of the pipe? What then compels it to take full advantage of its “find,” growing the densest possible network of roots throughout this goldmine repository of water, oxygen and nutrients. And not just one tree. This intelligence seems to live in all trees.
My family (read, “wife”) claims that only I could stay fixated on a sewer lateral clog long enough to come across this most unlikely, related Radiolab episode:
Smarty Plants | Radiolab | WNYC Studios
Do you really need a brain to sense the world around you? To remember? Or even learn?
An eclectic mix of the curious explore the fascinating domain of Monica Gagliano, the Australian researcher leading the study of Plant Cognition. Start with an entertaining father-son home inspection team from Brooklyn, NY who routinely find tree roots strangling water and sewer pipes to gain access to that liquid gold. Then throw in a science writer and some Princeton scientists. It appears that indeed, a brain is not required to sense and learn about your world. Brainless plants can perform some amazing feats of learning and recall. Which makes one, or at least me, wonder about consciousness.
Our physical human senses, especially sight, seem to blind us to the incredible wisdom and awareness of all the living creatures around us, plants included. We look, but we don’t see. Our sight ends at the edges of form. But this is beginning to change.
Now, there are millions of accounts of people appearing to be unconscious, in coma or near death with eyes closed or taped shut for surgery, whose “vision” of their surroundings is both crystal clear and greatly enhanced. Not only are they fully conscious, they are aware as never before. They report 360 degree vision and the ability to travel anywhere through the power of thought while communicating with everyone and everything they encounter. And if that isn’t mind-blowing enough, there are experiences now confirmed for patients like neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander, whose brain damage was so severe that an experience of any sort was neurologically impossible, definitively eliminating brain function as the source of the experience.
So, what is a tree? Far more than we think it to be.
Perhaps the more poignant question is, “What are we?”
“This we know: the Earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the Earth. All things are connected, like the blood that unites one family. Whatever befalls the Earth, befalls the sons of the Earth. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”
— Chief Seattle