It used to be so easy: humans were different to all other animals, made in the image of god and given dominion over the world (at least in some cultures). Now we know we are not so different, because virtually everything we thought was unique to humans can be found in other animals to some degree. Still it seemed clear that animals were different to plants (I am sure I wrote an essay on the subject for A-level biology); except research now shows that plants react to their environment in far more sophisticated ways than could have been imagined fifty years ago.
If an insect chews on a leaf, the plant may respond by chemical signals that lead to untouched leaves producing anti-herbivore defences. If the signalling compounds are released into the atmosphere this may mean that a different individual plant gets a ‘warning’ of the potential threat. My undergraduate degree stressed the importance of mycorrhizae for forest tree growth through the lectures of Professor Jack Harley: even then (the early 70s) he talked about the mycorrhizal condition probably being the normal state for most plants everywhere in the world. More recent research has emphasised just how crucial fungal connections between trees are, not necessarily only those of the same species, in transfers of mineral nutrients (the focus of Harley’s studies) and of water and carbon as well. The Canadian researcher and writer Suzanne Simard has championed these ideas and provides a very readable account in her book ‘Finding the Mother Tree’.
Analogies are drawn between this chemical signalling and human conversations and arguments are made as to whether trees – or at least wild trees – should be given rights as sentient beings. The possibility of communicating directly with trees was discussed for example at a recent on-line conference ‘Toward a new way of being with plants’ https://www.beingwithplants2021.org/home. The presentations are being loaded at conference’s YouTube channel
There was also an emphasis on the respect that indigenous forest peoples show towards trees and forests, contrasted with a more rapacious western/colonial attitude to trees and forests as a resource. Certainly, we must become more respectful of the land generally (not just trees and woods) if we are to move towards more sustainable life-styles, but what does respect mean in practice?
Some of the arguments expressed in the North American/Canadian discussions do not translate well to British conditions. How would we define indigenous peoples for example; ultimately we are all descended from immigrants, from the colonists of the early Holocene to those who may be about to move here from Hong Kong. If at some point in the distant past there was an indigenous veneration of trees and woods in Britain it did not necessarily lead to better conservation and management of our woodland. From the onset of farming through to the beginning of the twentieth century the tree and woodland cover of Britain has been in a steady decline: from perhaps 50-60% cover in the pre-Neolithic, to 15-20% cover a thousand years ago, to about 5% a hundred years ago.
Woodland cover tended to survive best where there was a market for the products of management (whether charcoal from coppice working or timber for shipping). Collections of ancient trees seem to have survived best in what were formally deer parks and royal hunting forests, i.e. at the whim of the ruling classes, not through some inherent popular regard. The twentieth century revival in forest cover (including a more than doubling of the area of broadleaved woodland since 1924) has similarly been driven largely by economics. The markets in future may be for carbon, recreation, or biodiversity but further expansion looks likely to have to be paid for.
Much of my career and retirement has been spent in woods. During that time were the trees trying to communicate with me? I don’t know, I can’t know. Ideas and feelings come to me when in a green shade, but once they have appeared in my mind they are my thoughts; there is no way that I can say whether they are from an external rather than an internal source.
I am also struck by the way that those who do feel they can communicate with trees seem always to receive positive messages. If my ancestors had been relentlessly cleared and regularly mutilated with axes, I think I would be tempted to give humans a harder time. Perhaps only the elms are showing us their true feelings when they suddenly drop their branches on those beneath:
‘ellum she hateth mankind and waiteth’.