Since my meditation on plant mind a couple of days ago I have been rereading The Hidden Life of Trees, a book I’d first read a half dozen years ago when it was published but wanted to refresh my mind about as I have become more intrigued with the notion of plant sentience over recent years. I didn’t remember the following thought though it undoubtedly had unconscious influence on my ideas: “So, let’s get back to why the roots are the most important parts of a tree. Conceivably, this is where the tree equivalent of a brain is located.” (p. 82) He then referenced research suggesting that the key site might be the root tips where chemical and electrical impulses occur as well as molecules and processes similar to those of animals. “Can plants think? Are they intelligent?” (p. 83) He doesn’t say and acknowledges that most of his fellow plant researchers are skeptical, to put it mildly, but he is clearly open to the prospect. As am I. This research process and the reactions of the scientific establishment remind me of an almost exact parallel in animal research, which for decades now has been unreeling evidence about animal behavior—their ways of going about the world, solving problems, obtaining what they need, and experiencing existence in their particularized ways and places—that steadily pushes back the margins of what was thought of as their narrow, programmed, machine-like, dully predictable lives. Suddenly they are found to be far more interesting and alive than was imagined and, although it should not have required this, it has sharpened the ethical compass in our relations with them. Animals have lives and ways of life. Don’t we owe them moral consideration, too?
Late yesterday afternoon I sat under a tree in camp reading. I had noticed that things were going on within the tree, which is similar to but not a shrub oak, about the same height and density. There were conversations in the form of clicks and occasional particles of moisture would land on my arms that I could only imagine coming from the clicking creatures, bug pee, perhaps, if bugs peed. I had looked and noticed a few cicada-like insects on the limbs, not moribund but definitely lethargic; they moved in response to my approaching finger but not much and not far. They were about an inch and a quarter long with veined, transparent wings that extended beyond their posterior and with orange delineations around their dark bodies. Occasionally it seemed these were joined by others, but I wasn’t aware of any leaving. I figured they had business to do and left them alone. After a while a small gray bird landed directly above my head and began preening and cleaning his bill on the limb. He didn’t seem on a search for a meal but the cicadas (I know they aren’t common here but that’s what they look like to me) weren’t sure and were far more alert than I’d given them credit for. A space 2-3’ in radius erupted around the bird and dozens of cicadas sped away, the bird seemingly oblivious. He moved to another nearby limb, another eruption. He had a game going. But then he left, perhaps closer to me than he liked. I had not seen more than a fraction of these insects; their stillness and color tended to blend them into the tree and shadows, besides which I am never as observant as I would wish. Such abundance that I had not fully noticed is part of what interests me in this encounter, but more than that, the bugs had not seen me as a predator despite my size, but they did the see the tiny bird as one despite his size. Maybe this isn’t so surprising since humans rarely fly into trees snatching insects for meals and birds do. But I had misread their seeming lethargy and unawareness; before the bird arrived, they didn’t need to display energy and attentiveness beyond noting and classifying my presence (“tall, two-legged, nonflying, white-haired creature, not an insectivore”), but they were not dozing. In spite of appearances, they knew what was going on around them. Surprises never end.