`Trees are like ele­phants'

Down to Earth - - REVIEW - @adityamisra09

These are fas­ci­nat­ing facts—al­most too bizarre to be true—be­cause most of us have grown up be­liev­ing that while trees do have life, they are not so­cial and do not com­mu­ni­cate. These con­cepts are in­cor­po­real when it comes to the plant kingdom. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion, for in­stance, can­not hap­pen un­less there is an idea, a brain to process that idea and a lan­guage to con­vey it. It also re­quires the judge­ment to de­cide that the idea needs to be con­veyed. The phys­i­ol­ogy of a tree, as we know it, ex­cludes these con­cepts, as we know them. It blurs the dis­tinc­tion be­tween the two big­gest cat­e­gories of life on earth—the an­i­mal kingdom and the plant kingdom—be­cause brain and com­mu­ni­ca­tion are ex­clu­sively the do­main of the an­i­mal kingdom.

Trees, the au­thor says, are so­cial be­ings and, de­pend­ing on their neigh­bours and sur­round­ings, they can be happy or sad and lonely. Iso­lated trees are “deaf and dumb”, hav­ing lost their abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate, and have a shorter life­span. Trees in planted forests are lon­ers and be­have like “street kids” be­cause their roots are ir­repara­bly dam­aged and in­ca­pable of net­work­ing. Some trees are even bul­lies, ex­tract­ing more than their share of re­sources. But trees sur­rounded by their “tree par­ents”, live longer and are hap­pier. Par­ent trees take care of their young ones. Even un­re­lated trees of­fer help, nurs­ing their injured neigh­bours with nu­tri­ents. The au­thor cites the ex­am­ple of a tree stump in Ger­many that has been kept alive by its neigh­bours for al­most half-a-mil­len­nium.

So are trees in­tel­li­gent be­ings? They do have brain-like struc­tures at the root tips, says the au­thor, which helps them de­cide what to do when they meet a rock or a toxic sub­stance in their path. But the ma­jor­ity of plant re­searchers are scep­ti­cal about plants be­ing a “repos­i­tory of in­tel­li­gence”.

“Among other things, they [plant re­searchers] get worked up about car­ry­ing over find­ings in sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions with an­i­mals and, at the end of the day, about how this threat­ens to blur the bound­ary be­tween plants and an­i­mals,” says the au­thor. But blur­ring this bound­ary, he says, could be ben­e­fi­cial be­cause it might make hu­mans pay more at­ten­tion to trees.

But why do trees so­cialise? Just like hu­man com­mu­ni­ties, it is more ad­van­ta­geous


a for­mer forester in Ger­many, has au­thored sev­eral books on forests. Ex­cerpts from an in­ter­view

How much of the tree lan­guage is yet to be deciphered?

I think most of the tree lan­guage is un­known. It is like learn­ing a lan­guage just by step­ping on the feet of peo­ple around you and hear­ing what they call you then. We dis­cov­ered what they com­mu­ni­cate when they face in­sect at­tacks or droughts—that means we just know what they "talk" about when they are in dan­ger. But we don't know what do they com­mu­ni­cate if they feel com­fort­able or happy.

What are the dif­fer­ences, if any, that you see in the at­ti­tude to­wards trees in dif­fer­ent coun­tries/con­ti­nents? That was the big­gest sur­prise for me and per­haps one of the ex­pla­na­tions why a Ger­man book on trees is read all over the world. There are re­ally no dif­fer­ences. Forests and trees be­long to hu­mankind since it ex­ists; the only dif­fer­ences are the myths and tales about forests.

There is now a grow­ing body of aca­demic work that seeks to move be­yond the hu­man-cen­tric view of na­ture. You also tend to follow the same idea and present sto­ries from

for trees to work to­gether. A lonely tree can­not cre­ate or main­tain a con­sis­tent lo­cal cli­mate. But to­gether, trees can cre­ate a pro­tected en­vi­ron­ment that shel­ters them from the wind and weather. “If ev­ery tree were look­ing out only for it­self, then quite a few of them would never reach old age,” says Wohlleben. In fact, the af­fec­tion with which he talks about trees and for­est is quite re­mark­able. “When you know that trees ex­pe­ri­ence

the per­spec­tive of trees. Was that a con­scious choice?

I un­der­took guided tours in my for­est for 25 years. The par­tic­i­pants were my teach­ers. I in­stantly knew when my sto­ry­telling was bor­ing. So I de­vel­oped my sto­ries around trees in the way that facts could be eas­ily un­der­stood and that the par­tic­i­pants de­vel­oped a sym­pa­thy for trees. Af­ter­wards, very of­ten they would ask where to read more about trees—and that's how my books were born. They are writ­ten guided tours.

En­vi­ron­ment pro­tec­tion is al­ways posed in terms of how cru­cial it is to save trees to en­sure hu­man sur­vival. Does this per­spec­tive need a rethink? Yes, I think it is time for a new look on na­ture. Many of us are tired of the con­stant talk on how badly we treat our en­vi­ron­ment. I think there are two im­por­tant things: one is that we should recog­nise that na­ture pro­tec­tion means first we pro­tect our­selves. The other as­pect is that we should en­joy na­ture more. What we love, we will pro­tect. And that is my main aim: to show that trees are some­thing like ele­phants. They live in family bands, they have emo­tions, they have mem­o­ries, and they care for each other. The main dif­fer­ence is that they are so slow that they are re­garded just a lit­tle more than stones. So I would like the read­ers to have more fun with trees and to dis­cover hid­den se­crets of WKHVH kVORZO\y EHLQJV 3URWHFWLRQ ZLOO follow au­to­mat­i­cally.

pain and have mem­o­ries and that tree par­ents live to­gether with their chil­dren, then you can no longer just chop them down and dis­rupt their lives with large ma­chines.”

So be care­ful be­fore you thought­lessly pluck a leaf or step on a shrub next time. The act won’t go un­ob­served. And the wit­nesses can com­mu­ni­cate. Who knows, they might even know how to cast a spell.

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