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Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Tree That Talked to Me

Maggie walking with me in the woods.
Last Halloween as I was taking my morning walk in the woods with my dog, I heard a tree, maybe fifty feet or so to my right, moaning and groaning. I stopped and looked to see which tree it was that seemed to be distressed. There was very little wind that day, only enough to barely cause the dried leaves on the young beech trees to flutter. I’d never heard that sound from this area of trees before, although further on where my walk is almost ending, it isn’t unusual on windy days to sometimes hear the trees in that area making sounds like those coming from a haunted house in a horror movie. But then I could notice the trees swaying and their branches connecting. This day there wasn’t any movement in the branches of those trees. I moved on and the tree grew silent. My path looped around so that I was approximately the same distance from that tree, but it remained silent.

The next morning, All Saints Day, the same thing happened. It was another quiet day until I grew closer to that tree, and it started moaning again. I tried to figure out which tree it was and couldn’t pick out anything that would cause that sound. Even stranger was that as I moved on a little further, the younger trees to my left at the edge of the woods, started making noises, too. Not quite as eerie as the larger tree, but still unusual in that I’d never heard them before, especially since it was a relatively quiet day. That was the last time I heard those trees last fall even though I continued my morning walks in my woods until the winter became so brutally cold in January with copious amounts of snow which stopped my walks until late March or early April. Even then I was too busy to take more than several walks plus there were a lot of rainy days.
Trees in my backyard 

The morning after Easter I headed for the woods, and that solitary tree started talking again. I still couldn’t pick out exactly which tree it was then, either. I haven’t heard it since that day although I’m back again taking my morning walks weather permitting. Was it saying “Welcome back?” I know this all sounds like some weird paranormal event, or maybe something a demented mind is making up, but it was real.

I’ve heard before that plants do communicate so last fall I consulted my old friend, Google, who had so many articles on the topic that it was too overwhelming to download and read all of them, but I did download and read enough of them to realize that as amazing as it sounds,plants do communicate with one another. From Ecology Global Network, under “Trees Communicate; ‘Mother Trees’ Use Fungal Communication to Preserve Forests” by Jane Engleseipen writes that Suzanne Simard, forest ecologist at the University of British Columbia, and her colleagues made a major discovery that trees and plants do communicate and interact with each other through an underground web of fungi connecting the trees and plants of an ecosystem. This symbiosis enables the purposeful sharing of resources consequently helping the whole system of trees and plants to flourish. Many of these fungi have a symbiotic relationship with host plants, in the case of trees, with their tree roots. The fungi actually move carbon, water and nutrients between trees, depending upon their needs.

That still didn’t satisfy my curiosity about my tree so I found an article in Science, Tech & Environment titled New research on plant intelligence may forever change how you think about plants based on a radio interview with Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire.  On the idea of plant intelligence, he said some plant scientists insist they are – since they can sense, learn, remember and even react in ways that would be familiar to humans. However, he said at one time believing this would have you labeled “a wacko” but now it is comforting to people who have long talked to plants or played music for them.

One of my dahlias 
Pollan explains, “They have ways of taking all the sensory data they gather in their everyday lives . . . integrate it and then behave in an appropriate way in response. And they do this without brains, which, in a way, is what’s incredible about it, because we automatically assume you need a brain to process information.” He goes on to say that even though plants have no ears,“When researchers played a recording of a caterpillar munching on a plant leaf, the plants react. They begin to secrete defensive chemicals, even though the plant isn’t really threatened. It is somehow hearing what is, to it, a terrifying sound of a caterpillar munching on its leaves.”

Michal Pollan also says, “Plants have all the same senses as humans, and then some. In addition to hearing and taste, they can sense gravity, the presence of water, or even feel that an obstruction is in the way of its roots, before coming into contact with it. Plant roots will shift directions to avoid obstacles.

How plants react to pain, is still unknown since they don’t have nerve cells, but they do have a system for sending electrical signals and even produce neurotransmitters, like dopamine, serotonin and other chemicals the human brain uses to send signals. “However, we don’t know why they have them, whether this was just conserved through evolution or if it performs some sort of information processing function, we don’t know. There’s a lot we don’t know,” Pollan says.

An older picture of me with Molly, my previous collie
This was just part of the interview of Michael Pollan, and one of the other articles I downloaded. One of the things he ended with is “That the line between plants and animals might be a little softer than we traditionally think of it as, and plants may be able to teach humans a thing or two, such as how to process information without a central command post like a brain.”

As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, there is an incredible amount of research you can easily access through Google out there.

Okay, now I’m feeling less like a wacko because I feel guilty tossing house plants that look like they’re on their last leg – well, they don’t have legs, but you know what I mean. I equally feel guilty when thinning vegetable seedlings or even perennials that I like, but are overrunning the beds.

Was that tree communicating with me in some way? I don’t know, but I’d like to think it was and not in a way that said “Go Away,” but rather saying “Hello. How are you today?”

What do you think about plant communication?


E. B. Davis said...

I've never heard of talking trees, Gloria, but I know that some beetles hibernate (so to speak--maybe go dormant?). When they "awaken" in the spring, they make a strange clicking sound. I learned that from the deadly high school insect collection my son was required to do. I don't doubt that plants have a certain intelligence. All living things must strive to survive.

It appears that you have a small pond in your backyard. Was it built? Always loved water features. Fish? I was also wondering if you dug up your Dahlias every fall?

Gloria Alden said...

EB, no this wasn't insects. It was the sound I hear when there is wind and some branches rub against other branches, but there wasn't any movement in any branches the times I heard this.

Yes, I do have a small goldfish pond and originally it had a small waterfall, but when I had to buy a new filter, it didn't fit the hose that connected to the filter. My grandsons started digging it, and then the father of one of my students who was in charge of all the Animals at Sea World that used to be in Ohio, came out after school was over with his wife - who originally volunteered him - and their three children, plus more rocks to add to what I already had, goldfish, and plants for it. I had the liner. Ted Turner - that was the father - and his son, my student, worked all day on making it bigger, putting in the liner and rocks, etc. while his wife and I hauled rocks and worked at other things. I had some wonderful parents over the years, but none that did as much as those parents did. They also paid for a bus and took my whole class to Sea World before it opened for the season and gave us all Sea World hats. I love my little pond, especially in the warmer weather when I plug in my filter and I can hear the gurgling water.

Warren Bull said...

Scientists are now saying that plants and animals are more connected to each other and are smarter than our old stereotypes of them held. Birdbrain used to be an insult but crows communicate and remember at complex levels. I can believe that plants have a system of communication we only vaguely know about. Homo Sapiens might not be the only sapients around.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

A talking tree! what a great story. Beautiful you lift them in the winter or treat them as annuals? I've never been able to grow them in Cincinnati (hot and humid summers with yellow clay soil).

Margaret S. Hamilton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gloria Alden said...

From all I've read on the topic,I agree with you, Warren. On my morning walk I just returned from, not only that tree but others around it were creaking, and although there was a breeze and the tops of all of the trees were swaying gently, only those trees made any sound. Again, when I walked on they grew silent. I'm a scientist at heart, but I still think there's something more going on there.

Gloria Alden said...

Margaret, I live in a clay soil area, too. Terrible stuff, isn't it! Can't weed when it's wet without bring up huge clumps of it from the roots, and when it's hot and dry it becomes to hard to get a trowel through. Yes, I dig up my dahlias and cannas each fall and pack them in dry leaves or sawdust if I have it and store them in boxes in my basement. Then when it's warm enough I put them in pots with soil until I have time to plant them - at least the ones that made it through the winter.

Shari Randall said...

I think the world is full of mysteries we can't explain - yet - with science. We can just enjoy them.
I've also got clay soil here in VA. Ugh. I'm just planting in pots. Thank goodness I have some day lilies that keep blooming every year without any help from me.

KM Rockwood said...

A friend of mine and her husbband own a landscaping & "hardscaping" business. When I mentioned a pond, he said, "My advice is, whenever you can incorporate a water feature in your landscape, don't."

Harrisburg, the capital of PA, had a huge non-functional fountain that they couldn't use because no matter what they tried, it leaked into the parking garage underneath. I don't know if it's still there or if they filled it in & planted things in it.

That said, I love ponds and fountains! Our property is very rough & wooded. We keep a tiny pond that the toads spawn in & the wildlife uses for drinking when it gets really dry.

This whole area was logged over, once early on for charcoal furnaces, and later for lumber, so we don't have too many wonderful old trees. It breaks my heart when I see those pictures of early loggers so proud to have taken down trees so big each chunk takes up an entire railroad car. They took hundreds of years to get to that size! I wish they had left some.

Kara Cerise said...

My mom had a magical way with plants. Even delicate ones like orchids thrived under her care. I don't remember any dying, ever. She lovingly cleaned off their leaves and even talked to them. I don't have that ability although I haven't killed any house plants recently.

Kait said...

Glorious post and wonderful photos. Makes me long for my own woods up in Maine. The discussion about communication and feelings (more or less) of plants reminded me of some lines in The Thing from Another World (classic version). there is an exchange between the journalist (can't remember his name) and Dr. Carrington about plants communicating. Sounded very sci fi in the 1950s context - it's neat to know it's true.

Patg said...

Sure they have a form of communication, all life must. But too much guilt about it. Tossing a plant doesn't have the same death knell like we have.
Kait, the 50s version of The Thing is one of my all time favorites. I'm sure I've seen it 100 times. However the later version gave us a look at what we might really expect in all its unimaginable glory.

Gloria Alden said...

Shari, daylilies are among my very favorite plants because they're so hardy and almost indestructible.

KM, I disagree with that landscaper. Yes, they're a little extra work, but I love having them and especially the frogs they bring as well as the sound of spring peepers at night this time of the year.

Kara, I don't talk to my house plants, and I know I should clean their leaves more often, but almost all except for my orchids, go outside when the threat of frost is past and I let the rain clean them.

Gloria Alden said...

Thank you, Kait. I don't know how you can stand being away from Maine. The five or six times I visited Maine, I loved it. I've never read "The Thing from Another World. I'll have to see if I can find it.

Pat, so what Kait mentioned was a movie and not a book. I wonder if I could still find it at the library.

Patg said...

The Thing from Another World was based on a John W Campbell story, Who Goes There. It is a classic SF, and it is on Amazon.

Gloria Alden said...

Pat, even though I've only read one SF in my life, I may check that out, or see if the library has it.