The offices of a Manhattan law firm seem like an unlikely place to try to read the minds of a forest. But after showing IDs at the skyscraper entrance, we walked our polished shoes across a marble-floored lobby into the elevators.
Doors closed. We freed ourselves.
The soft ring of the elevator bell signaled our arrival. Leaders of environmental advocacy groups, senior executives of a lumber company and a small group of scientists entered a room with large windows overlooking the city.
At stake was the ecology and health of Tennessee’s forests. Did the company harm the ecological health of the forest? Should the company stop converting native oak-hickory forests into monoculture pine plantations? A forestry professor allied with the lumber company trash talked about a scientific report written by another forester and some biologists. The biologists cut back and slapped graphs onto the screen. Environmentalists made it clear, “We have satellite images of clear-cutting and data on biodiversity loss after logging. Work with us or we’ll intensify a campaign targeting your fire.” The satellite images directly contradicted it the requirement of a leading timber manager that there was no clearing plant on the company’s land. PowerPoint, actually. Afterward, the lumber company’s CEO wouldn’t shake hands.
The boardroom was full of talk about the forest, but the forest was hardly there.
Of the people in the room, the most powerful had apparently spent little or no time in the Cumberland Plateau forests in question. They had never wormed their fingers into the mushroom-stained leaf litter of the oak-hickory forest or smelled the tannic, nutty glow of the litter. The bite of the pine plantation, the brick-like smell of tanned mineral earth without a trace of duff, had not entered their nostrils. The varied webs of birdsong—impenetrably thick in the brush of a 5-year-old plantation, beautifully ornamented in oak hickory, and thin as worn muslin in the older plantations—were nowhere in their memory.
Others in the room had visited forests and plantations, flown to Tennessee for short meetings, sometimes flown in via private jets to touch the ground for a few hours. Some scientists and land managers had spent more time in the forest, dozens or hundreds of hours, crossing logs, measuring trees, or supervising work crews. I was one of these scientists at the meeting to report my statistical analysis of hundreds of bird surveys in forests and plantations. But I, like everyone else in the room, had only experienced a small part of the forest’s many natures. A fragmented human society further removed us from the forest. We did not allow ourselves to learn from the experiences of others, from our supposed opponents. Conversation? Not in the playbook.
With so few listeners, the forest’s thoughts, its sylvan intelligence, went largely unheard.
Talking about intelligence in a forest is on its face an anthropomorphism, a violation of the creed of ecologists and science writers alike: Don’t treat other species like charming little humanoids! Trees are not leafy people, and forests are not woody brains. But just as dangerous as projecting human adventures onto forests is the overzealous rejection of any analogy between human minds and the networked flow of information in ecological societies. Mind arises from relationships between living cells. We experience a manifestation of these conditions inside the bony plates of the skull. Other minds may exist in other living networks. To talk about the mind and intelligence of a forest is not to impose caricatures of humanity on other species. Rather, our human experience of the mind allows us to imagine what might be possible in “the other.”
Consider this rich substrate for thought: In a gram of forest soil lives between ten million and one trillion bacterial cells and dozens or hundreds meters of fungal mycelia. Each of these cells is in chemical conversation with those around it. Should a plant root poke its head into this network of microbes, the chatter becomes tumultuous. Bacteria that glorify the root tip send hormone signals promote plant growth. Plant chemicals feed and house bacteria. Mushroom and root at the same time converse and if the conversation goes well, press membrane-to-membrane, allowing faster and more open exchanges. When danger arises – pathogens or herbivores – the network brings this news through its multifarious threads. Above ground is each leaf packed with bacteria and fungi which, through the exchange of material and information with plant cells, conveys the leaf’s life. Each square meter of forest contains = billions of connections, and within these the forest gathers information, makes decisions and carries memories.
Animal networks sew neurons into the mind of the forest. Insects live at the intersection of signals plantsOther things animalsand microbes. Some signals are far-reaching—the aromas that perfume the forests are conversations between trees, herbivores, and predators—and others act at the microscopic level of insect cells talking to their internal bacterial compatriots. As they carry seeds and prey on larvae, birds and other vertebrates associate them wishes and Memories for plants. Parasites connect blood, soil and saliva and transmit up to 75 percent of links in the food web. Each gut, breath, feather or exoskeleton is a microbial community relative to the rest of the forest. Man’s understanding of the forest—whether carried in the oral traditions of hunter-gatherers, the experiences of loggers or birders, or the zeros and ones of electronic scientific journals—is also part of this mind.
When we stand in a forest, we are surrounded by billions of conversations. The compounds that make up the forest come in many forms. So, unlike the human brain, forest thinking is different in nature, but no less complex, flexible, intelligent or creative. Actually our own 86 billion brain neurons — are structurally and functionally quite uniform and all serve the same organism — produce thoughts that are decidedly monotonous and narrowly focused compared to those that spring from decentralized connections between cell types drawn from the entire tree of life.
The forest understands. Com prehensive: “together” “grasp.” The forest grasps and knits many threads of understanding: biochemical, genetic, physiological and cultural.
“B“diversity” is the conventional metric by which we assess the conservation value of different habitats. In Tennessee, conversion of oak-hickory forests to pine plantations around halving the number of bird species living in the forest, surely a sign that plantations have an ecological price in this region. But measures of forest biodiversity are like counts of neurons in a brain: They outline a general pattern that tells us little about how the loss of species or brain cells affects the intelligence of the whole.
At present, our quantifications of biodiversity are completely inadequate to the task of representing these forest conditions, communities where information is shared, experiences and new ideas are developed. Science is still in an exploratory phase, uncovering the existence and nature of signals and connections. No one has yet cataloged and enumerated all the creatures in any forest (although DNA sequencing combined with new methods of growing bacteria in the laboratory can provide a glimpse), let alone described the dynamics of the network of connections between them. How creative, restrained and flexible are the thoughts in an oak-hickory forest? Is a plantation purposeful, focused on one thought to the exclusion of all others? As a species whose culture is partly built of paper and wood, how should we talk to the forest? Can we encourage creativity, new thinking patterns in the forest network? Science will ultimately allow us to ask these questions—just as neuroscientists who build brain models are ecologists mapping parts of forest communities – but so far forest networks mostly live beyond scientific description.
However, scientific measurement is not the only way into the mind of the forest. A complementary way to access intelligence is through sustained bodily and mental conditions. An fMRI can glimpse the nature of creativity in musicians. But stepping onto the stage to make music with the players gives us a direct experience of creativity, with less technological precision, but no less truth. In the Manhattan boardroom, each side brought their calculations to the table, using scientific measurements to illustrate their points. These graphs were enough to show that the ecological community diminishes when a forest is converted to a plantation. But the question: “How do we belong and participate in the music of this forest?” went uninvited. We could not ask such a question about belonging, because the answer can only come from within, from people in conversation with each other and the forest.
The meeting produced a memorandum of understanding and a Press release. The company agreed to stop converting native forests to plantations. In print, all parties congratulated each other. The governor added a supportive statement. By the standards of a technocratic world this was a success, albeit one whose effects were mitigated over the following decade of fluctuations in the prices of newsprint, mill closures, company mergersand disposal of land. Now, a dozen years after that 2005 agreement, the pressure is on convert forests to plantations continues in the southeastern United States. The gap between people in space continues, as does our collective deafness to the forest.
It may be absurd to suggest that lawyers, scientists, lobbyists and MBAs spend more of their time listening to trees, smelling the leaf litter, visiting paper mills and talking to each other in the woods and logging yards. In a data-driven world, a world governed by quantifiable economic and scientific information, a practice of open listening and bodily engagement seems out of place, a distraction or an irrelevance. But financial and scientific data are abstractions. The forest is not made of abstractions. It’s not even made of separate, interacting objects. The forest is instead made of relationship. To engage in this giant conversation is to connect our bodies and brains with beings and processes beyond ourselves. This is ecological “big data” linked directly into human cellular and cultural networks.
Then it’s time for some unconventional further education: immersion in the mind of the forest. No polished shoes under tables, no ground-covering marble slabs, no slides of graphs delivered as slapshots at a target. Let us instead become sommeliers of forest soil (smell the various overtones of ascomycete), listeners of wood (what crackle of dryness do we hear in twigs, what rustle of unmade paper in the pine?) and interlocutors of root tips, bird memories and human experience. We do not do this to bury ourselves in mystery or to run away from disagreements in the boardroom. Listening in the forest is rather a radical – radixfrom the root – form of empiricism.