Posts Tagged ‘plant intelligence’

The Standing Still Beings

Redwood stump

Redwood stumps, Jack Peters Gulch, Mendocino, CA

With enough imagination, any group of two or three lines or dots can become a face. Sunlight filtering through the forest one afternoon this week made me see faces in an old redwood stump I passed as I strolled down the service road to our neighborhood’s pump house in Jack Peters Creek. The “eyes” and “mouth” are actually slots hacked by long ago lumberjacks to cantilever the boards on which they would have stood to saw down the giant tree.

 I was drawn to these “faces” because of a recent New Yorker article, “The Intelligent Plant” by Michael Pollan.  In it, Pollan notes how wary many scientists are of any hint of parallels between animal senses and plant senses, or of suggestions that plants have intelligence, which he defines as “capable of cognition, communication, information processing, computation, learning, and memory.” Pollan goes on to describe a number of plant studies that do indeed demonstrate such capabilities.

 The problem is language. The words we have for intelligence in the animal world (brain, neural networks, etc.) and for the tools of sensory information (ears, eyes, nose, etc.) don’t work for beings whose mode of communication is complex biochemicals: pheromones transmitted by leaves through the air, and electrochemical signals sent by root tips through a network of mycorrhizal fungi. It’s as if we were trying to comprehend and describe the lives of beings on an alien planet.

 What I took away from Pollan’s article was a renewed respect for the beauty and complexity of our natural world, and a renewed awareness of how much we humans don’t yet understand. I know the “faces” are just human-made gashes in the trees. But they serve to remind me that I, who have legs to move around, live among the standing still beings, of whose lives I am ignorant.