Intelligence in Nature?

Similar to running around an oval, quarter-mile track, I was back where I started – had returned to the source that introduced me to a new concept challenging Western bedrock beliefs about forest-management … among other things more esoteric.

It all started with a trip to my roadside mailbox, from which I pulled the latest “Orion” magazine. Once indoors, reading a story teased on the cover as “What Tress Know,” I knew I had come full circle. Yet, still, many more laps to go. An old saying quoted in the essay about oak trees really stuck. It read: “Three hundred years growing, 300 years living, 300 years dying.” Hmmmm? Profound. Where has that kind of thinking gone? Many times since, on my daily walk with the dogs, I have pondered that same question while passing two majestic, maybe 200-year-old, red oaks reaching high and wide to the heavens from an escarpment overlooking a secluded Green River floodplain I call Sunken Meadow. What’s the chance those two giants will stand 700 more years? I would guess slim indeed. Their lumber is valuable.

Now, I don’t claim to be an expert on the new 21st century paradigm aimed toward promoting old forests. Far from it, in fact. But I am aware of it, have spoken to and exchanged electronic mail with experts and activists, even had the good fortune to tour the old-growth Mohawk Trail State Forest with a group of respected forestry doctors. So, yes, I’m learning. That is reading, chatting, listening, absorbing, processing. Keeping an open mind, the wheels at times humming to a shrill scream.

The previously mentioned article from the most recent “Orion” is written by forward-thinking New York City arborist William Bryant Logan. Titled “The Things Trees Know: A Look Inside Their Secret Lives,” it’s another treatise accepting trees as intelligent members of Mother Earth’s family, not a profitable resource to be economically exploited. Huh? Trees as sentient beings? You must be kidding. Trees as intelligent communicators? What are you smoking in that Catlinite bowl?

Well, bear with me. This is new. Exciting. Cutting edge. Driven by doctors of science; one a Nobel Prize winner, no less. So, how can we not take notice, even if we accept the model of forest as crop cut in 80-year, income-generating cycles?

We’re led to believe that the entrenched Western concept of forest management for profit actually promotes health of the ecosystem and the critters within. Not so, says a growing fraternity of botanists and foresters and environmental scientists who warn that forest-management as we know it is good for neither. They say forest management as we know it is bad for forests and, most importantly, the planet – that left to their own wild devices and allowed to grow old, forests can manage themselves just fine, thank you. Yes, they say forests allowed to mature to old age are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, of fighting off plagues and pests without human intervention. Better still, forests of wise, old trees are healthier, more dynamic and better for the health of the ecosystem and our planet. Why the planet? Because large trees are crucial players in a natural carbon-sequestration process now needed to combat global warming fueled by human burning of fossil fuels.

So how do we convince the timber industry to back off? How can we reshape attitudes of investors and heirs who own forests and pay property taxes on them? It’s a vexing dilemma. Maybe there’s a way to offer incentives for those allowing forest stands to grow old and filter harmful carbon from the atmosphere. Perhaps there’s a way to shift public opinion, which seems now to favor our commercial forestry-management model. Maybe the policy shift should begin on publicly owned land, as proposed right here in the Bay State to a chorus of boos.

The first time I read about wise, old trees communicating and mobilizing against pestilence and plague was several years ago. Robin Wall Kimmerer introduced the concept in “The Council of Pecans,” an “Orion” excerpt from the Potawatomi botanist’s acclaimed 2013 book of essays “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.” Check the SUNY Buffalo professor on YouTube if you want to be introduced to a refreshing new way of thinking about man’s relationship to nature.

Myself, despite being versed in Native American and Far Eastern spirituality that gives plants, animals and even inanimate objects like stones, cliffs, waterfalls or spring holes a living spirit and even a soul, I was at first hesitant to write about it in the local newspaper for fear of ridicule. Yet Kimmerer constructed a solid argument that trees and plants can communicate to fight off danger. A difficult concept for Western Christian culture or the Chamber of Commerce to get their heads around, I feared there’d be talk that I didn’t have both oars in the water, was going off the deep end. Deeply engrained in Western culture is the concept of humanity created in the image of God and placed on earth to rule nature and exploit its resources. At least I think I’ve got that little nugget of Christian Doctrine right. If not, close enough for our purposes here.

Which reminds me … when pondering this new paradigm of trees and forests, I often entertain a salient memory from my innkeeping days. Watching a Patriots game on a brilliant, sunny, fall, Sunday afternoon, I heard car doors slam out by the carriage sheds. Soon, through the inset porch’s screen door, I noticed two strangers walking up the flagstone sidewalk. I went outside to greet them and discovered they were European tourists. A Belgian father and son, they were leaf-peeping through New England to celebrate the son’s recent high school graduation. They wanted a room, spoke English and were eager to chat. Always willing to engage in enlightening conversation, I invited them in.

My guests had been through Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont and were dropping south through western Massachusetts. They would leave in the morning for Lake George and the Adirondack wilderness. Both were impressed with what they had thus far seen, and enthusiastic to share their impressions, starting with the colorful mountain landscapes framing our highways.

“We don’t have forest like this at home,” said the college professor dad. “Your forests are vast and beautiful. Ours have been cut.”

I responded that were he to backtrack 130 or so years, he would have found much different scenery. Our forests, too, had been cleared by the mid-19th century. Now, due to the industrial revolution and loss of family farms, much of that open land has been reforested, bringing back wildlife that had long ago vacated unsuitable habitat.”

Given that memorable discussion many years ago with my Belgian guests, isn’t it interesting, maybe even ironic, that perhaps the single-most important book about trees and forests to hit the American market in recent years was written by a European forester – one who’s seen the light, manages a rare German old-growth forest and advocates a return to primeval forests. Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate; Discoveries from a Secret World,” was published in German in 2015. The English translation hit the street in 2016 and became an instant American best-seller, with many reprintings – including an illustrated coffee-table edition with stunning color photography. So, yes, there is hope.

Wohlleben’s work has become a bible for the new forestry school committed to treating trees as living beings and saving wise old trees and old-growth forests for the good of our planet. This new way of Western thinking is now prominently featured in our best environmental-writing. The national exposure couldn’t have come at a better time for the likes of William Moomaw, Robert Leverett or Michael Kelllet, three erudite spokesmen for the new forest paradigm they’re advocating to the objection of many. Google them, read them, watch their YouTube videos and attend their local lectures. Rudely shouted down and aggressively challenged at some public events, dismissed as obstructionists by the status quo, they’re well worth listening to.

So, lend them your ear. We have destroyed our planet long enough. It’s time to rethink the way we do things before it’s too late. Then again, there are those who proclaim we’ve already passed the point of no return. Yes, they say it’s already too late to reverse catastrophic climate change. For a taste of that doctrine, try author/activist Paul Kingsnorth on for size – just another wise, articulate, progressive voice worth reading or watching on YouTube.

If you’re really daring and ready for a walk on the wild side, explore anthropologist author Jeremy Narby. Some would say he’s “out there.” Others would tell you he “gets it.” You be the judge. Google him. Watch his YouTube videos. He’ll take you on a magical mystery tour to the shamanic, esoteric realm of the Amazonian rainforest. There, the so-called witch doctors intimately understand the non-Christian concept of intelligence in nature, one that is in the Western world taking root as we speak.       

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