Learning from the forest
I recently watched a documentary called Intelligent Trees, featuring the work of the Canadian professor of forsest ecology, Suzanne Simard, and the German radical forester, Peter Wohlleben.
The intelligence of trees is extraordinary, but it is also a deeply foreign language—we have to proceed by metaphor rather than imposing anthropomorphising language on living things that might be a thousand years old. We don’t know if we can describe their communication as consciousness as we would normally understand it and yet sentience surely involves not only an awareness of our environment and an ability to respond to it in automatic ways, but also the power to look ahead, which in turn must draw on previous experience. In other words, sentience must include an awareness of experience. For us as humans, this is a self-awareness, but perhaps for trees sentience is a communal awareness. Is it any less intelligent?
Simard and Wohlleben would suggest it’s not and the descriptions of how trees undertake ‘mutualistic facilitations’ for one another, how mother trees feed more nutrients to their genetic kin whilst also nourishing strangers and their whole community or how beech trees parent their young by blocking light so that the saplings put energy into growing straight and tall in order to reach it, thereby becoming more robust, are fascinating and convincing.
They look at how pain and fear work in oak trees and how they pass on messages of threats to other trees which rapidly put up defences. And they examine how after a tree is cut down its neighbours will keep the stump alive to preserve its stored wisdom. It seems likely that memory is stored in the roots, which Wohlleben describes as the brain of the tree and Simard talks about how the pattern of roots and mycelium is like a neural network.
Why does this matter to writers? Because we have so much to learn as witnesses to our world—about how to live well in vibrant, creative, diverse and healthy communities. About how connection and co-operation are so much more vital than competition and not the antithesis of individual thriving that we often fear. Because writers know that if we don’t listen to all life on this planet then we will perish.
Learning from the creatures
For most of our history humanity has assumed unique ownership of consciousness. Descartes’ assertion that other animals are without sentience or feeling was taken as fact and when Jane Goodall challenged this with her work with primates in the Gombe National Forest in the 60s, she was first treated with ridicule. It wasn’t until the 21st century that an international group of neuroscientists signed the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, listing other animals that are conscious.
But others got there ahead of them. Writing in The Compass Rose, Ursula K Le Guin, included a beautiful description of penguins incubating their young, describing them as poets whose bodies were their literature and language.
The beauty of that poetry is as unearthly as anything we shall ever find on earth… Imagine it: the ice, the scouring snow, the darkness, the ceaseless whine and scream of the wind. In that black desolation a little band of poets crouches. They are starving; they will not eat for weeks. On the feet of each one, under the warm belly feathers, rests one large egg, thus preserved from the mortal touch of the ice. The poets cannot hear each other; they cannot see each other. They can only feel the other’s warmth. That is their poetry, that is their art. Like all kinetic literatures, it is silent; unlike other kinetic literatures, it is all but immobile, ineffably subtle. The ruffling of a feather; the shifting of a wing; the touch, the faint, warm touch of the one beside you. In unutterable, miserable, black solitude, the affirmation. In absence, presence. In death, life.
Listening to the diversity of intelligences
We have grown more used to the idea that there is more than one kind of intelligence. And to be writers in touch with inspiration, intuition and invocation, we need to reach for these multiple intelligences in how we listen to the world that we witness to and story. Our human intelligence might stand or fall by our willingness to be permeable to the many ways of being intelligent that exist on our struggling planet. As Simone de Beauvoir puts it in The Ethics of Ambiguity:
Intelligence supposes good will. Sensitivity is nothing else but the presence which is attentive to the world and to itself.
Without the generosity to hear what other lives are saying we will not thrive.
The artist James Bridle spells this out in Ways of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence.
The tree of evolution bears many fruits and many flowers, and intelligence, rather than being found only in the highest branches, has in fact flowered everywhere.
[…] There are many ways of “doing” intelligence: behaviourally, neurologically, physiologically and socially… Intelligence is not something which exists, but something one does; it is active, interpersonal and generative, and it manifests when we think and act. We have already learned — from the gibbons, gorillas and macaques — that intelligence is relational: it matters how and where you do it, what form your body gives it, and with whom it connects. Intelligence is not something which exists just in the head — literally, in the case of the octopus, who does intelligence with its whole body. Intelligence is one among many ways of being in the world: it is an interface to it; it makes the world manifest.
For Bridle, the goal is not to test intelligence, but simply to recognise it and then to respond to it:
This process is itself one of entanglement, of opening ourselves to forms of communication and interaction with the totality of the more-than-human world, much deeper and more extensive than those which can be performed in the artificial constraints of the laboratory. It involves changing ourselves, and our own attitudes and behaviours, rather than altering the conditions of our non-human communicants.
This is a bigger definition of intelligence than we are accustomed to and when we take this on board we open up new ways of relating to our non-human neighbours.
Enlarging our intelligence and our story
Simard and Wohlleben are remarkably optimtistic about what the intelligence of the forests offers our planet. And if we listen, we might even get to be part of it. Simard notes that the scientific discoveries about the communication and wisdom of trees and the models of community that they offer us, chime with what people tell her they have always sensed when walking in forests. We intuitively know that they are communicating beings who can save our earth. We are inspired and healed simply walking among them and can invoke their wisdom—community, connection, listening, slowness…
As those writing stories, in poetry, in essays, in prose, in memoir… we need this wide and generous intelligence.
Here’s to having the permeability to the intelligence of all life as we become a different story.