Understanding plants and animals
By Jim Poling Sr.
Published Feb. 14, 2019
Tree branches whisper in a summer breeze, or creak in an icy winter wind, and I wonder if they are talking to each other.
A wolf howls from a far-off hill and I wonder if it is mourning a loss. Perhaps a mate is sick, or a member of the pack has gone missing.
It might seem far-fetched, but there is growing belief that plants and animals have feelings and are capable of expressing them. It is a belief found in a number of recent books.
In his bestselling The Hidden Life of Trees, German forester Peter Wohlleben writes that forests are social networks in which trees communicate with each other. They share food, help members that are struggling and warn of dangers such as invasive insects.
He supports that view with scientific data showing that trees exchange information, nutrients and support through their large and intricate root systems.
In The Wisdom of Wolves, filmmakers Jim and Jamie Dutcher share their observations from living among a partially domesticated wolf pack. Their observations told them that wolves, the world’s most despised and feared animals, are social beings with emotions. They show concern and compassion for other pack members, and even demonstrate grief at the loss of a pack member.
The 400 people attending the annual Forests Ontario conference in Alliston last week heard similar views about plants and animals having feelings. A most interesting view came from Tom Longboat, director of Indigenous studies at Trent University.
Longboat, a Mohawk, said science is beginning to understand that trees and plants are living beings that have spirit and feelings. That’s an understanding that Indigenous people have had for centuries.
“Look at them as creations not just natural resources,” he said in the conference keynote address. “Think of them as relatives. We need them.”
“We live in the most complex time in human history,” he said. It is a time that demands collective efforts to achieve a balance between our lifestyles and the environment.
Combining science and cross-cultural dialogue is one way to achieve that balance. In other words, combine what we learn from science and technology with Indigenous knowledge gathered over centuries.
I take that as a call for more diversity to achieve the balance needed to save our planet. More diversity in forests, animal populations and our own societies.
Diversity is hampered when we try to eradicate species we don’t like or fear, such as mosquitos and wolves. It is hampered when we reforest with single tree species or when we try to wall off people from other cultures and other countries.
Trees and animals may not have the intellectual abilities of humans but somehow seem to know that diversity is critical to balance in nature. Acres of pines planted in rows do not a forest make because they discourage other plant growth. A mountain range without wolves allows overpopulations of elk and deer to wipe out plants and leafed trees.
The world’s forest area decreased from 31.8 per cent of all global land area to 30.6 per cent between 1990 and 2015. Scientists say that deforestation now is the second leading cause of climate change after burning fossil fuels.
The world needs more trees, plus a better understanding of what they are and why they are important to all forms of life.
Urban areas in particular need more trees, plants, and greenery in general. Studies have shown that not only do trees and plants absorb urban pollution, they provide relief from the mental fatigue of living in the city.
Roughly 50 per cent of the world’s population lives in urbanized areas yet many of those urban areas have too few trees.
For instance, Myles Sergeant, a Hamilton physician, told the Forests Ontario conference that his city has only 19 per cent tree cover, far below the 30 per cent recommended for cities. He said Hamilton needs one million more trees.
There is evidence of a growing understanding of forests and their importance to all forms of life. There also is some evidence that the rate of world deforestation is slowing slightly, hopefully because of a growing understanding that trees and plants are much more than just a resource.
Positive signs, not just for plants and trees, but for humans.