Dispatch 04 — Jan 17, 2020


This Dispatch regroups some excellent reads on these essential organisms and I’m taking a somewhat liberal approach to the theme by including things like legal personhood for natural phenomena, fungi, and the metaphorical tree of knowledge. Note that the Simard and Solnit pieces have already made an appearance in the weekly Sentiers some months back. If you didn’t catch them then, you should click through now, and if you did, I assure you they are worth a re-read!

The Past and the Future of the Earth’s Oldest Trees

When I picked the theme, I still hadn’t read this piece by Alex Ross for The New Yorker about the Great Basin bristlecone pine but it’s the perfect first thing to read. Trees that can live to four, five, possibly even six thousand years old; the official record holder which started growing not long after the Great Pyramid at Giza was completed; an old school curse story; the recalibration of carbon dating; “Miyake Events”; volcanic eruptions and frost rings; the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research; a message from the gods following the assassination of Caesar; history, and science. It’s all in there.

Many tree species live for hundreds of years. A smaller but not inconsiderable number, including the sequoias and certain yews, oaks, cypresses, and junipers, survive for thousands. Once a bristlecone has established itself in the unforgiving conditions of the White Mountains, it can last almost indefinitely. […]

Empires rose and fell; wars raged; people were enslaved and freed; and the tree from 2500 B.C. continued its implacable slow-motion existence, adding about two-hundredths of an inch to the diameter of its trunk each year. […]

As the millennia go by, bristlecones become contorted and wraithlike. The main stem, or leader, dies back. Entire branches, even the trunk itself, become fossils. At first glance, the tree may look dead. […]

What is most astonishing about Pinus longaeva is not the age of any single organism but the collective oldness and otherness of its entire community. No two super-elderly trees look alike, to the point where they have acquired the characteristics of individuals. […]

Humans tend to make a cult of trees. Many ancient traditions posit the existence of a primal tree that embodies eternal life. Reverence surrounds the Bodhi Tree, in Bodh Gaya, India; the Cypress of Abarkuh, in Iran; the Hibakujumoku trees, in Hiroshima, which withstood the atomic blast. There are trees of life, and trees of death.

Should this tree have the same rights as you?

Not specifically about individual trees but rather about various natural “things” like rivers, lakes, and mountains. Robert Macfarlane looks at how giving “personhood” and legal rights to natural phenomena could work… and not work, including whether these rights would actually be respected (are “declarations of climate emergency” changing anything?), how valid this idea is when humans themselves are often not respected equally, all woven through with references to various books and novels examining animism.

When these legal pronouncements are announced I’m always happy about them, couldn’t we “simply” respect nature, our home, and the ecosystems which keep us alive, without have to make them “fake humans” and using weird legal loopholes?

“It has become necessary,” the bill declares, “that we … extend legal rights to our natural environment to ensure that the natural world [is] no longer subordinated to the accumulation of surplus wealth and unaccountable political power.” […]

“How can a culture as educated as ours be so oblivious, so reckless, in its relations to the animate earth?” […]

All these efforts, as Amitav Ghosh puts it, “seek to recognise something we had turned away from: that is to say, the presence and proximity of nonhuman interlocutors.” […]

“The uncanny and improbable events that are beating at our doors, seem to have stirred a sense of recognition … that humans were never alone, that we have always been surrounded by beings who share elements of that which we thought most distinctively our own: the capacities of will, thought and consciousness.”

Climate change and deforestation: These 3 supertrees can protect us from climate collapse

Very well done and fascinating “longscroll” article at Vox, explaining, showing, and detailing the workings and superpowers of 3 supertree varieties in Brazil, Indonesia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

We traveled to protected areas deep inside these countries to learn the superpowers of three tree species that play an unusually important part in staving off environmental disaster, not just locally, but globally. These trees play many ecological roles, but most impressive is how they produce rainfall, remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and support hundreds of other species. […]

The Brazil nut tree makes, well, tasty nuts. But its real superpower is channeling an extraordinary amount of water from the soil to the sky, making the rainforest rain. A single tree can pump more than 260 gallons (or 3.5 full bathtubs) of water per day up its trunk and through its leaves into the air. […]

Indonesia has 23 percent of all the mangrove areas on Earth — covering 7.1 million acres, the size of Belgium. […]

Rainforests get a lot of credit for being carbon sinks. But scientists have discovered that an acre of mangroves can store five to 10 times as much carbon as an acre of rainforest. […]

A wide, tall tree with dense wood, Afrormosia is an important carbon sink in the Congo Basin rainforest. But its superpower is its resilience and ability to support other species — and the entire ecosystem — around it.

More → You can follow that up with three longreads from the same report: The Amazon’s Brazil nut tree creates its own rainfall — and it’s in danger, Meet Indonesia’s mangrove, the tree that stores carbon underground, and Meet Congo’s caretaker of the forest, the Afrormorsia tree.

Soil’s Microbial Market Shows the Ruthless Side of Forests

Although space has quite a sheen of the unknown, the undiscovered and of the glamorous exploration, there are at least two fields right here on the planet which are just as fascinating and almost as unexplored; the deep oceans, and fungi. This piece looks at some of the recent research around fungi and microbes, and how they cooperate, communicate, deal, and compete with trees.

The tantalizing research hints at a capability that has been suspected but never proved: that fungi might not be just nutrient traders but also sophisticated information processors. […]

“I had this realization … that I’m less interested in cooperation and I’m actually much more interested in the tension,” Kiers said. “I think there’s an underappreciation of how tension drives innovation. Cooperation to me suggests a stasis.” […]

Certain fungi spread through vast areas and commingle with just about every plant they encounter, even sending thready tendrils known as hyphae directly into plants’ roots. […]

But what really distinguishes the fungal world is its diversity and complexity. A spoonful of soil contains more microbial individuals than there are humans on Earth. “It’s the most species-dense habitat we have.”

What Makes a Church? A Tiny, Leafy Forest

Beautiful short documentary at The New York Times, about Ethiopia’s tiny forests protected around some of their oldest churches.

They are living by one another, they are embedded to one another. The church is within the forest; the forest is inside the church. In ecology culture the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There are millions of other creatures. It is so complicated, sophisticated–interaction you cannot explain. Because of the coexistence there is what we call emergent properties. It’s a new hybrid character. The mystery is to think beyond what we see. […]

The church forests are the blueprint. You can understand what kind of ecosystem, what kind of biodiversity, what kind of forest we had before. Everything is important and interlinked. So if you really care, we have to respect trees, the role of trees, and we have to learn to live with forests. […]

E.O. Wilson, in his book “Half-Earth,” declared the church forests of Ethiopia “one of the best places in the biosphere.” They are proof that when faith and science make common cause on ecological issues, it results in a model that bears repeating. We have the blueprint of life held in these tiny circles of faith, and that’s something to rejoice over and protect and expand with every resource we can muster.

Never Underestimate the Intelligence of Trees

This interview with professor Suzanne Simard about trees, fungi, their networks of communication, collaboration, intelligence, and “feelings” would certainly make for a super interesting conversation with people from other disciplines since her view of all of these would likely be interpreted differently. I still liked it a lot and it’s a good intro to the mind expanding research she has been doing on trees.

Fungi don’t register at all except for a sprinkling of mushrooms; those are regarded in isolation, rather than as the fruiting tips of a vast underground lattice intertwined with those roots. The world beneath the earth is as rich as the one above. […]

Simard went on to show how mycorrhizae-linked trees form networks, with individuals she dubbed Mother Trees at the center of communities that are in turn linked to one another, exchanging nutrients and water in a literally pulsing web that includes not only trees but all of a forest’s life. […]

Rather than biological automata, they might be understood as creatures with capacities that in animals are readily regarded as learning, memory, decision-making, and even agency. […]

I’ve come to think that root systems and the mycorrhizal networks that link those systems are designed like neural networks, and behave like neural networks, and a neural network is the seeding of intelligence in our brains. […]

We know these old trees are changing their behavior in ways that give advantages to their own kin. Then the kin responds in sophisticated ways by growing better or having better chemistry. A parent tree will even kill off its own offspring if they’re not in a good place to grow.

Rebecca Solnit on a Childhood of Reading and Wandering

Great essay on libraries and forests, reading and wandering, and the connections between all. I felt like highlighting all the quotes below, they resonate deeply. For someone who hasn’t spent nearly enough time in nature but a lot in libraries and bookstores, it doesn’t go unnoticed that I named this newsletter Sentiers (“Path”), often use images of threes in the header, and love this kind of writing about forests, books, and walking aimlessly. Pondering.

The same kind of shade and shelter that can be found in an aisle of books and an avenue of trees, and in the longevity of both, and the mere fact that both, if not butchered or burned, may outlive us. […]

Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. […]

They are in a sense allegories first for the act of reading, of entering an imaginary world, and then of the way that the world we actually inhabit is made up of stories, images, collective beliefs, all the immaterial appurtenances we call ideology and culture, the pictures we wander in and out of all the time. […]

[From Narnia.] It is the place where nothing happens, the place of perfect peace; it is itself not another world but an unending expanse of trees and small ponds, each pond like a looking glass you can go through to another world. It is a portrait of a library, just as all the magic portals are allegories for works of art, across whose threshold we all step into other worlds.

Further Reading

  • The tree of knowledge is not an apple or an oak but a banyan. “The remarkable Jaina philosophers make a distinction of fundamental epistemological significance when they say that as well as and in addition to epistemic principles (pramāṇa), there are also nayas, epistemic standpoints or stances, and that both are essential constituents in an epistemic culture. A naya is not a proposition but a practical attitude, a strategy or policy that guides enquiry: it is an approach to the problem of producing knowledge, not a proposition about the sources of justification.”
  • The Treeographer “The Treeographer is my attempt to bring my enthusiasm for trees to others – not by evoking guilt or pity, but rather by celebrating the interlacing history of man and tree. I may focus on a single organism, an entire forest, or even just a concept of a tree that holds significance.”
  • ?? Spectacular Mushrooms and Fungi Documented by Photographer Alison Pollack “The smaller they are, the more challenging they are to photograph, but I absolutely love the challenge, [m]y goal is to show people the beauty of these tiny treasures that are all around the forest but barely visible unless you look very very closely.”
  • ?Short ? by samim, featuring Paul Stamets on the wonders of fungi: “How fungi create soil and can be used for fungi remediation”.
  • Looking forward to this: Attenborough meets ‘trees that care for each other’. “Highlights will include seeds that can outlive civilisations, the ‘largest living things that have ever existed, trees that care for each other, and plants that breed so fast they could cover the planet in a matter of months’.”
  • Tara Tiger Brown’s More Trees Please is (was?) fantastic, seems to currently be dormant but subscribe just in case she starts writing again.