Nov 6, 2016

Did You Know That Trees Talk?

     "So tell me," said my scientist friend, my scientist friend who's an actual scientist working in a actual laboratory in an actual lab coat with actual Erlenmeyer flasks and actual microscopes and other actual sciency stuff. "What have you been reading lately?"
     "Well, actually," I told my scientist friend, "I'm just in the middle of this incredible book on trees, The Hidden Life of Trees. It talks about what they feel and how they communicate."
     "Ough," said my scientist friend. "Is it like a philosophical book?" Leave it to a scientist to question the awesome talking power of trees, right?
     I myself am not a scientist (luckily or unfortunately, depends on how you look at things) and have therefore known that trees could talk since forever, I just didn't have any substantial proof or data of any kind to show to all the naysayers — until now. Thanks to Peter Wohlleben, a German forester, I now can tell you that not just potatoes, but trees too in fact talk and so I can now justifiably keep on talking with them and hugging them on occasion.
     Of course I didn't share this last part about my hugging and other cuckoo practices with my scientist friend. Who knows, maybe she'd come to take me to see other people in white coats for a consultation or two to cure my kookiness. Although, to tell you the truth, the more I read and reflect and observe, the more I think it's the other way around: thinking that the world is this dead, silent, lifeless, soulless place is what's cuckoo. But maybe this blind lunacy is harder to cure since apparently my scientist friend was far from the first to raise an eyebrow to talking trees — to quote Walking Buffalo, a Canadian Indian, "Did you know that trees talk? Well they do. They talk to each other, and they'll talk to you if you listen. Trouble is, white people don't listen. They never learned to listen to the Indians, so I don't suppose they'll listen to other voices in nature. But I have learned a lot from trees." Can you?
     But before you ran off to the woods and start schmoozing with random trees just to prove Walking Buffalo wrong, maybe I should first share some interesting tree-related facts I found in the book and on the Internet. Then go bond and make some tree friends at will.

                    1.  As Old As Methuselah
Well, actually trees grow to be a lot older than the  mythological  Biblical creature Methuselah, who supposedly died at 696. For comparison, a hundred-year-old tree is only in its teens since it's not uncommon for a tree to live up to 500 or more years. A lot more, actually. You can easily find lists of world's oldest trees and their ages on the Internet, but you can't find them as easily in real life — their locations are kept secret so swarms of tourists wouldn't damage the venerable old timers. But how old is old for a tree anyway? According to Wohlleben, the oldest spruce in Dalarna province in Sweden is, get this, 9,550 years old. And that's not a typo. Scientists tested its roots using carbon 14 dating and that's what the test showed — nine thousand five hundred and fifty years of age. Imagine how big the cake would have to be to fit that many candles.

                    2. The Interconnected Global Network
You may or may not realize, but the world — aside from humans, unfortunately — is an interconnected unity. And to show just how important the equilibrium in nature is, here's a little 'story' from Wohlleben's book: "Katsuhiko Matsunaga, a marine chemist at the Hokkaido University, Japan, discovered that leaves falling into streams and rivers leach acids into the ocean that stimulate growth of plankton, the first and most important building block in the food chain. More fish because of the forest? The researcher encouraged the planting of more trees in coastal areas, which did, in fact, lead to higher yields for fisheries and oyster growers."

                    3. Trees Can Count
Just like dogs, who supposedly can count up to four or five, trees can count too. And they have to — how else would they know to start growing leaves in spring and not on just some random warm day during winter? To quote Wohlleben: "How often have we experienced warm spells in January or February without the oaks and beeches greening up? How do they know that it isn't yet time to start growing again? We've begun to solve the puzzle with fruit trees, at least. It seems the trees can count! They wait until a certain number of warm days have passed, and only then do they trust that all is well and classify the warm phase as spring. But warm days alone do not mean spring has arrived. Shedding leaves and growing new ones depends not only on temperature but also on how long the days are. Beeches, for example, don't start growing until it is light for at least thirteen hours a day."

                    4. Feel the Pain
Have you ever wondered if plants feel anything? I kind of knew they did, but it was nice to read it in black and white in Wohlleben's book, so I have something factual to say to all the doubting Thomases of the world: "Beeches, spruce and oaks all register pain as soon as some creature starts nibbling on them. When a caterpillar takes a hearty bite out of a leaf, the tissue around the site of the damage changes. In addition, the leaf tissue sends out electrical signals, just as human tissue does when it is hurt. However, the signal is not transmitted in milliseconds, as human signals are; instead, the plant signal travels at the slow speed of a third of an inch per minute. Accordingly, it takes an hour or so before defensive compounds reach the leaves to spoil the pest's meal," which we'll go into shorty. As you can see, however, "trees live their lives in the really slow lane, even when they are in danger. But this slow tempo doesn't mean that a tree is not on top of what is happening in different parts of its structure. If the roots find themselves in trouble, this information is broadcast throughout the tree, which can trigger the leaves to release scent compounds. And not just any old scent compounds, but compounds that are specifically formulated for the task at hand."

                    5. Ring the Alarm!
So, OK, trees feel pain and stuff, fine. But so what — it's not like they can do anything about it, right? Wrong. "For example," to further quote Wohlleben, "four decades ago, scientists noticed something on the African savannah. The giraffes there were feeding on umbrella thorn acacias, and the trees didn't like this one bit. It took the acacias mere minutes to start pumping toxic substances into their leaves to rid themselves of the large herbivores. The giraffes got the message and moved on to other trees in the vicinity. But did they move on to trees close by? No, for the time being, they walked right by a few trees and resumed their meal only when they had moved about 100 yards away. The reason for this behavior is astonishing. The acacia trees that were being eaten gave off a warning gas (specifically, ethylene) that signaled to neighboring trees of the same species that a crisis was at hand. Right away, all the forewarned trees also pumped toxins into their leaves to prepare themselves. The giraffes were wise to this game and therefore moved farther away to a part of the savannah where they could find threes that were oblivious to what was going on. Or else they moved upwind. For the scent messages are carried to nearby trees on the breeze, and if the animals walked upwind, they could find acacias close by that had no idea the giraffes were there." And acacias on African savannah are no exemption: oaks and willows produce defensive compounds that kill or at least repel munching insects. How cool is that?

                    6. Up in Smoke
Unfortunately, trees are helpless against some attacks — against attacks of drugged up meth addicts, for example. Four years ago, some druggie model burned down The Senator, a 3,500-year-old tree growing in Florida. She said she went to the tree frequently to smoke meth, but one day (January 16, 2012, to be exact) she lit a fire inside the tree so she could find the stash of drugs she was trying to smoke. The tree had successful withstood repeated adversity which surely befell it in its 3,500-year-old life — until a model/junkie came along. Well, fuck me. No wonder environmentalists don't want people to know the locations of world's oldest trees ...

                    7. Social Creatures
Trees are fully aware that "there are advantages to working together," says Wohlleben. "A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal if water, and generates a great deal of humidity." How do they do that? "Scientists in the Harz mountains in Germany have discovered that ... most individual trees of the same species growing in the same stand are connected to each other through their root systems. It appears that nutrient exchange and helping neighbors in times of need is the rule." But that's not all: so you won't think that maybe the trees connect with their neighbors at random, here's another fact from the book: "According to Massimo Maffei from the University of Turin, plants — and that includes trees — are perfectly capable of distinguishing their own roots from the roots of other species and even from the roots of related individuals," and so they 'form alliances' within the same species. Some species even weave an underground friendship with another species specifically.

                    8. Pine, Spruce or Fir?
You may think that pine, spruce or fir trees all look the same and maybe you simply couldn't care less which is which, but if you so happen to want tell those apart and avoid calling everything with needles a Christmas tree, here's a simple trick: take a closer look at the tree's needles. If needles grow in groups of two or more, then you're probably looking at a pine. If there are single needles on the twigs, then you're most likely dealing with a fir or a spruce. To tell those two apart, take a needle and roll it between your fingers. If it's flat and doesn't role easily, you're standing under a fir. But if a needle rolls easily (because it has for sides), then it's a spruce.

                    9. Hitler Made Them Do It
Apparently, each fall in Zernikow, a town 60 miles from Berlin, a group of larch trees formed a 200-square-foot swastika. The Nazi symbol was visible only from the air and thus the swastika had stood in the forest for 60 years before it was discovered during an aerial survey of the area. In 1995, the authorities had some trees cut down to make the illegal symbol unrecognizable, but the larches grew back and so they removed 20 more trees 5 years later and eliminated the symbol completely.

                    10. Anti-Freezing Conifers
To tie in with the just mentioned larch trees, there are three species of coniferous trees (trees with needles) which drop their needles like deciduous trees (trees with leaves): the larch, the bald cypress and the dawn redwood. But what about the rest of coniferous trees? How come they hold on to their needles — won't they freeze during winter and get damaged? According to Wohlleben, that can't happen: "To protect its needles from freezing, a conifer fills them with antifreeze. To ensure it doesn't lose water to transpiration over the winter, it covers the exterior of its needless with a thick layer of wax. As an extra precaution, the skin on its needles is tough and hard and the small breathing holes on the underside are buried extra deep. All these precautions combine to prevent the tree from losing any significant amount of water. Such a loss would be tragic, because the tree wouldn't be able to replenish supplies from the frozen ground. It would dry out and could then die of thirst." But conifers too have to shed their 'leaves' from time to time to "rid themselves of waste materials. They shed the oldest needles, which are damaged and don't work very well anymore. As long as the trees are healthy, firs always keep ten, spruce six and pines three years' worth of needles."

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