Trees as neural networks

This topic has been bounced around the press a fair amount lately, but I found Anil Anthaswamy’s article “Roots of Consciousness” that was publish in the first December edition of New Scientist especially poignant (see below).

(By the way, if you are at a loss what to get yourself for Christmas, you could do a lot worse that to blow yourself to a New Scientist subscription. New Scientist is a sort of in-between publication between really specialist journals and the mainstream press and gives you an greater insight into a wide range of topics than the run of the mill media does)

Anthaswamy writes about how plants have a keen perception of their environment, respond to it, learn to recognize threats and have a memory.

This reminded me of Lena and Gernot’s presentation Wie schnackt der Baum? that they held at a number of industry events, amongst others also at this years Climbers’ Forum in Augsburg. They also talked about these complex, cooperative networks, that are very much at odds with the rather Victorian tooth and claw  vision of nature. One of the points we talked about afterwards is the risk of anthropomorphizing trees in this discussion, i.e. to project human behaviour into them. Trees are not humans, period. Their awareness is radically different, they have no neurons, for starters, so to talk about a brain is a flawed premise. Yet what recent research is showing increasingly is that there is a high degree of electric activity and impulses – essentially information – being shuttled around the tree in an extensive neural-type network, see Anil’s article for more details on this.

Now I am definitively not a scientist, but as a person with an open mind and senses, after all theses years of working in, on and around trees, I have come to the conclusion that trees are highly-energetic beings. Also, no two trees are the same: Two trees of the same species and age can be standing next to each other, yet they “feel” different. My explanation for this is that we are essentially dealing with different and unique characters. I also believe, that when we work on trees, we are – at some level, even be it chemical– perceived and responded to by the tree.

All the more reason to be respectful in our interactions with trees. They are truly extraordinary entities, from the most humble to the most majestic, I am always stunned by how a blueprint deploys from a minuscule seed and these highly-complex structures emerge. Of course, sometimes in the line of work we do, we fell trees. But even then, this can be done in a more or less respectful fashion. Felling a tree is not the same as taking an old washing machine to the recycling plant – it is, after all, a living, breathing being.

Oh yes. And did I mention that without them, we would be choking? Sometimes it is good to recall that trees are not merely a commodity,  there to supply us with wood for our IKEA furniture, but also rather importantly supply our planet with the Oxygen that is the basis for all life.