Some of you may remember a comic strip called “Rick O’Shay” that ran from the late 50s until the early 80s. It was set in the western mountain town of Conniption where Rick is the deputy sheriff and his best buddy is a somewhat reformed gunslinger called Hipshot Percussion. I always enjoyed the strip’s images of snow-capped mountain ranges to visualize some landscape other than the flat dreariness of West Texas where I grew up.
Hipshot was not a religious person in the traditional sense. Many Sunday frames showed him riding his horse past the town church toward a wilderness that was vastly superior to any cathedral in order to say hello to “Boss.” That approach to spirituality resonated with me and helped inform my approach to nature.
I have long felt a connection to plants, one that made me wonder if there was some innate intelligence to these beings that provide humans with oxygen and nutrition. Science is now providing tantalizing information about how trees interact with each other and their environment.
This information comes from studying the symbiotic (beneficial) relationship between a root and a fungus, which is called mycorrhizae (mai·kuh·rai·zee). You could look at it as the original internet, with Mother Earth as the developer. This underground pipeline connects tree root systems, and instead of bytes of data being transferred, plant nutrients and water are exchanged between the trees.
Dr. Suzanne Simard is a professor at the University of British Columbia who has been studying this vast underground network for over two decades. She and other scientists now talk of plants possessing intelligence like animals regarding learning, memory, and decision-making.
Dr. Simard says the following regarding plant intelligence: “I’ve used the word intelligence in my writing because I think that scientifically we attribute intelligence to certain structures and functions. When we dissect a plant and forest and look at those things — Does it have a neural network? Is there communication? Is there perception and reception of messages? Will you change behaviors depending on what you’re perceiving? Do you remember things? Do you learn things? Would you do something differently if you had experienced something in the past? Those are all hallmarks of intelligence. Plants do have intelligence. They have all the structures. They have all the functions. They have the behaviors.”
Human brains have a neural network of links and nodes. In the forest, the trees are nodes and the mycorrhizae are the links. If you or I had Superman vision, we could look underground and see a vast network of information flowing between tree nodes in much the same manner as information is transferred between our brain’s neurons. Plants mainly communicate with each other via chemical signals. When a caterpillar starts munching on a plant’s leaves, that plant starts emitting volatile compounds that alert nearby plants to the danger. If the warned plants are healthy, they will start producing cellular chemicals to ward off the hungry caterpillar. The nearby plants have received the message and changed behavior accordingly. Scientists are even measuring acoustics in trees and learning about sounds that we can’t hear, so we may need to move beyond our concepts of vocalization.
You might scoff at the idea of this communication having any purpose or awareness of the information being exchanged. The research that really blows me away is that of kin recognition between trees and seedlings of their own kin. The biggest, oldest trees in a forest ecosystem are called the mother trees and they will provide more nutrients to their kin seedlings in relation to a strange seedling. Even when the mother tree is ill and dying, she will provide more resources to her kin. There is a purposefulness in the mother tree’s actions. The depiction of the mother tree in the movie Avatar is a great visualization of what research is now proving.
It is easy during spring and summer to observe plants as being alive, what with the burst of greenery and flowering. However, we tend to look at them at this time of year as in a deep slumber. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even during the time of winter solstice, the “internet” is humming with messages being shared. Maybe they even have their own version of reminiscing around the fireplace while warming their “toes.” Who knows… stranger things are now known to be true.