”I talk to the trees…

…but they don’t listen to me” – This song from the 1969 musical film Paint Your Wagon is performed by Clint Eastwood as Pardner. It was composed by Frederick Loewe and written by Alan Jay Lerner for their 1951 stage musical of the same name.

Do Trees Talk to Each Other?, by Richard Grant, appeared in the March 2018 issue of Smithsonian Magazine. Grant interviewed a range of contributors. He starts with “a kind of tree whisperer”, Peter Wohlleben, a German forester and author of The Hidden Life of Trees (2018), who talks of the “wood wide web” (mycorrhizal networks to a scientist). As Grant takes a “fairy tale” walk with Wohlleben in the Eifel Mountains of western Germany, he notices how the forester’s anthropomorphic metaphors make vivid points.

British scientist Richard Fortey was formerly a palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum, London, and is now a research associate there, and visiting Professor of palaeobiology at Oxford University. He acknowledges that “trees are networkers”, but is concerned that writers like Wohlleben represent trees “like the Ents in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings”.

Lincoln Taiz is a retired professor of plant biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He believes, writes Grant, that:

“human beings are fatally susceptible to the mythology of thinking, feeling, speaking trees. In ancient Greece, trees delivered prophecies. In medieval Ireland, they whispered unreliable clues to leprechaun gold. Talking trees have starred in any number of Hollywood movies, from The Wizard of Oz to The Lord of the Rings to Avatar. Taiz sees the same old mythological impulse underlying some of the new claims about tree communication and intelligence, and the success of Wohlleben’s book and (Suzanne) Simard’s TED talk “How Trees Talk to Each Other,” which garnered well over two million views online.

Suzanne Simard, who is Professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia, suggests to Grant that “We don’t ask good questions about the interconnectedness of the forest, because we’re all trained as reductionists.” Simard takes the threat of accelerating climate change to forest trees as a major new focus of her work. She recently launched a 100 year experiment on Douglas firs, Ponderosa pines, lodgepole pines and western larch in 24 different locations in Canada – and called it the Mother Tree Project.

Grant writes: “Wohlleben’s favorite example occurs on the hot, dusty savannas of sub-Saharan Africa, where the wide-crowned umbrella thorn acacia is the emblematic tree. When a giraffe starts chewing acacia leaves, the tree notices the injury and emits a distress signal in the form of ethylene gas. Upon detecting this gas, neighboring acacias start pumping tannins into their leaves. In large enough quantities these compounds can sicken or even kill large herbivores. Giraffes are aware of this, however, having evolved with acacias, and this is why they browse into the wind, so the warning gas doesn’t reach the trees ahead of them. If there’s no wind, a giraffe will typically walk 100 yards— farther than ethylene gas can travel in still air—before feeding on the next acacia. Giraffes, you might say, know that the trees are talking to one another.

Grant observes that Wohlleben is smiling as he comments: “Scientists insist on language that is purged of all emotion….The wonderful research about giraffes and acacia trees, for example, was done many years ago, but it was written in such dry, technical language that most people never heard about it.”.

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