Burning Questions: What is communication? (Opinion)
Over the last few months Rupert, our family’s favorite Aspen tree, has graduated from a tongue-in-cheek arboreal mascot to something more: a quiet, lovely catalyst for a paradigm shift in the minds of the family who lives in the house twenty yards from him. (Okay, maybe just in the mind of the family’s middle aged-mom.)
Many, perhaps most, of us think of trees as inanimate objects: voiceless flora without awareness or the ability to communicate. Humans are flawed creatures — on this I think we can all agree — and I think one of our greatest flaws is our narrow conception, historically at least, of communication. We think of it as linguistic speech, spoken, written or signed, based on our admittedly advanced ability to conceptualize and articulate the world around us. But must communication be so narrow?
As I’ve written and thought about Rupert over the past weeks and months, I’ve gradually come to think about him differently. He isn’t a speaking, walking person, but he is a living being who thrives or suffers, stretches to the sun or droops under heavy snow. And according to the research of those who study trees, he does communicate with his environment in various ways.
In a 2018 Smithsonian Magazine article (full article: Do Trees Talk to Each Other? | Science| Smithsonian Magazine.), author Richard Grant says, “Forest trees have evolved to live in cooperative, interdependent relationships, maintained by communication and a collective intelligence similar to an insect colony… Alarm and distress appear to be the main topics of tree conversation, although [German forester and author Peter] Wolleben wonders if that’s all they talk about. ‘What do trees say when there is no danger and they feel content? This I would love to know.'”
I surely would love to know too. I wonder if Rupert is happier when the weather is cool or warm (Aspens as a species appear to prefer cooler climates, but does Rupert himself have a slightly different preference from the tree next to him?) or if the robins that land on his branches in the spring delight him or annoy him. And, for that matter, does the family living in the house nearby delight him or annoy him? Does he experience our presence as pleasant, even entertaining? Or does he quiver in frustration at our thoughtless mistreatment of the natural world? Does he marvel at our stupidity in failing to realize that we are a part of nature, just as he is?
I recently read a rather amazing book called The Overstory by Richard Powers, which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize and became a New York Times bestseller. It is about trees and humans, and how they interconnect in sometimes astonishing ways. I think Rupert would like this book. It gives the reader a sense of wonder at the astonishing variety and ingenuity of trees, and their perspective—so much wider and more far-reaching than ours, which is generally limited to the short spans of time that we concern ourselves with: today, tomorrow, next year maybe …. Certainly little beyond the average human life span, which is the blink of a metaphorical eye for most trees.
One of the main characters in The Overstory, a tree scientist named Patricia Westerford, was based on renowned real-life scientist Suzanne Simard (full article about Ms. Simard here: ‘Mother Trees’ Are Intelligent: They Learn and Remember – Scientific American) whose research into the subtle, quiet communication of trees has changed the way humans understand our leafy compatriots. As we move past the infancy of the twenty-first century into its yawning middle section, it’s becoming more and more clear that humans’ conception of communication –among many other things—has been myopic. Our challenge moving forward is to widen our perspective: to try to understand the world more like trees do: as something so much vaster than we’ve ever thought.
Rupert and his friends, I imagine, await our growing wisdom with the patience that is one of their great trademarks — and one of our greatest flaws.
Jaena Bloomquist is a Truckee resident and mother of two. She is a writer, editor, and climate advocate. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Lake Tahoe, Truckee, and beyond make the Sierra Sun's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.