Were you a tree climber as a kid? I certainly was, and I had a favorite tree in the backyard, a hemlock with nice easy branches and a decent perch two-thirds of the way up with a good view of the neighborhood. That tree heard a lot of my kid-sized secrets, and it was comforting to think it might be listening.
Eight-year-old me might have been more right than I knew.
If you haven’t had a chance to explore our new Art & Nature Center show, Branching Out: Trees as Art, be sure to check out our Tree Communication station when you get there, featuring a video with scientist Suzanne Simard. I find a lot to inspire me as I help research upcoming ANC shows and plan programming, and sometimes that carries over into my own creative endeavors as a writer and poet. While I love a great many artworks and ideas featured in Branching Out, Simard’s research really caught my imagination.
Suzanne Simard is a forester who studies the invisible life of the forest: the ways trees and fungi connect underground into vast networks of resource exchange. “Under a single footstep” she said in a TED talk, “there are three hundred miles of fungal cells stacked end on end, moving stuff around.” These networks carry nutrients and chemical signals from old giant “mother trees” to saplings and back again, creating a bustle of activity in a process that Simard compares to social media.
Right across from Simard’s video in the exhibition is David Yann Robert’s piece, Bokträd, which is a visual interpretation of the bioelectric signals produced by a beech tree during the 42 minutes of sunrise, with accompanying audio. As the leaves, branching systems and colors grow and pulse across the screen, stuttering a little in the pre-dawn light as if the tree is not convinced it wants to be awake yet, I recognize the feeling. And in fact, trees’ bioelectric signals and human brain alpha-waves have a lot in common, so if you too have talked to a tree and felt like it understood, it possibly did.
All this led me to consider the kind of invisible electric stew we swim in all the time: TV and radio signals, the nearly omnipresent wi-fi —and made me wonder— What happens if the trees are listening in to all of that as well?
And what if they decided to do something about it? Here’s my story:
It’s another peaceful afternoon in AgriTower 313, tending the hydrolines, talking to my rows of radishes, romaine and rosemary. They do seem unusually noisy: more rustling, creaking and susurration than you’d expect. I note on my tablet to check the ventilation system. We don’t get as much wind down here as on the upper floors, so something’s clearly off.
“Bet you guys want the radio on, right?”
More rustling, so I click on the broadcast to something mellow. The herbs like that repeating, vine-like Celtic stuff. It helps I like it too, dancing a few jig steps down the nutrient rig. Pretty soon, though, the sound cuts mid-reel to the anthem snippet that starts every presidential address.
“My fellow Americans. At nine o’clock this morning, Eastern Standard Time, every non-renewable energy plant on this continent shut down. Within thirty minutes, every similar power plant across the globe had ceased to function, as had any factories producing gasoline-powered vehicles and appliances. We have determined the cause to be a fatal fungal growth introduced to the organic control circuits. This has resulted in intermittent power blackouts worldwide.”
I stare at the humming UV lights that supplement the sunshine mirrored down the tower’s center, and then dash to the window, kicking over a bucket of nutrient wash. From the twelfth floor, it’s easy to see swathes of the city are down, not a blinking ad or traffic light for blocks.
“Although several eco-terrorist groups have claimed responsibility for this act, evidence suggests it was carried out by the most vast yet most ignored intelligence network on this planet. Since the early twenty-first century, we have known that forests communicate in a web of root systems and fungal colonies, transferring resources and electrical impulses to sustain the strength and diversity of the ecosystem. It was this discovery that first inspired the delicate organic circuitry upon which our global infrastructure is based.”
The President breathes deep, but still sounds composed as a history text. I wonder how many traffic accidents are happening on the tangled streets below.
“It now appears that in addition to absorbing sound and radio waves, through the organic circuitry and cabling that runs through urban parks, across wildlife preserves, and to the edges of human civilization, these ancient beings have been listening in to the electrical impulses that are the heartbeat of the Internet. The trees have listened, they have learned, and this morning, they have intervened.”
I shiver. My pants are soaked in nutrient wash, but that’s not why. My cousin works at that old coal plant they’ve been promising to decommission for over fifty years. I scrabble blindly for my tablet on the windowsill.
“Though humanity has made progress in the attempt to mitigate global warming, we have not done enough. Just as forests send each other warnings of drought, insect damage and fire, the world’s vegetation has delivered the message: only those human activities which promote global health will be allowed to continue.
I ask for your patience, faith, and cooperation in these unusual circumstances as we meet with scientific leaders from around the world to resolve this situation. Please remember that this power overturn has resulted in no loss of human life, and refrain from panic. Thank you.”
There’s a buzz of rising static. I turn slowly back to the farm rigs. All the roots I can see are waving in their baths, and I swallow.
“So, do you want me to change the channel, or do you have that covered?”
“Are you going to Scarborough Faire? Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme…”