A Not-So-Ordinary Walk in the Woods

To what degree do we view the world with mental patterns that may hinder our awareness of the world around us?

I am reading The Genius of Birds (Jennifer Ackerman) and listening to an audiobook of The Hidden Life of Trees (Peter Wohlleben). Increasingly I am interested in epistemology–the study of the nature of knowledge, and in particular, the nature of truth and belief.

As I read,  I am struck by the fact that most of us go through our days with a surface understanding of the natural processes happening around us.The writers of these texts ask us, quite frankly, to evolve.

I generally had viewed birds as pretty oddities. I found it difficult to relate to these creatures with their quick, robotic movements; such a sharp divide between Mammalia and Aves.

But I have started to think that I have been limited in my observations–limited by deeply ingrained beliefs. For example, I did not recognize the cognitive abilities of some of the plainest looking birds, who have the ability to hide up to 30,000 seeds and remember where they are several months later. I had never thought about their social abilities–“They deceive and manipulate. They eavesdrop. They give gifts. They kiss to console one another. They blackmail their parents. They alert one another to danger. They summon witnesses to the death of a peer. They may even grieve.” There are birds who give a certain number of calls to indicate the size of a predator.

In “my neck of the woods” (a small farming village located along the Rio Grande), there are acequias (an irrigation system that is over 200 years old) lined with cottonwood trees. A wonderful place to stroll, walk, ride. Yesterday, as I was running there, I passed closer to a flock of Sandhill Cranes gathered in an apple orchard. The birds became agitated, trumpeting loudly. I wondered whether they were communicating to one another about the level of threat that I posed . . . I wondered about them and their relationships.

Perhaps that’s the beauty of opening the mind to new information–wondering; a richness of awareness.

Some insights from Ackerman’s book:

–Birds’ “intelligence” (which involves memory, problem solving, social skills, and other cognitive abilities) seems directly related to the complexity of tasks they must complete in order to survive. Even the same type of bird living farther north or in mountain (snowy) altitudes develop greater cognitive abilities than others who live in places where inventiveness or memory is less necessary.

–When large flocks of birds seemingly read each others’ minds and maneuver quickly as a unified group, really each individual bird is reacting to the several birds directly around it. No mind reading involved. Why I find this interesting is it isn’t telepathy (as I had thought), but it does involve the bird integrating direct experiences into its memory. Just like when we learn a skill so well, we can do it in our sleep.

Slow down a minute and let’s also think about the “intelligence” of trees, which looks a little different than the cognitive abilities of birds and mammals, because, well, trees don’t have brains. Or in a way, do they?

Here are some insights from Wohlleben’s book on trees that relate to our consideration of intelligence (the bolding and italics are mine):

In conjunction with his colleagues, Frantisek Baluska from the Institute of Cellular and Molecular Botany at the University of Bonn is of the opinion that brain-like structures can be found at root tips. In addition to signaling pathways, there are also numerous systems and molecules similar to those found in animals. When a root feels its way forward in the ground, it is aware of stimuli. The researchers measured electrical signals that led to changes in behavior after they were processed in a “transition zone.” If the root encounters toxic substances, impenetrable stones, or saturated soil, it analyzes the situation and transmits the necessary adjustments to the growing tip. The root tip changes direction as a result of this communication and steers the growing root around the critical areas.

Right now, the majority of plant researchers are skeptical about whether such behavior points to a repository for intelligence, the faculty of memory, and emotions. Among other things, they get worked up about carrying over findings in similar situations with animals and, at the end of the day, about how this threatens to blur the boundary between plants and animals. And so what? What would be so awful about that? The distinction between plant and animal is, after all, arbitrary and depends on the way an organism feeds itself: the former photosynthesizes and the latter eats other living beings. Finally, the only other big difference is in the amount of time it takes to process information and translate it into action. Does that mean that beings that live life in the slow lane are automatically worth less than ones on the fast track? Sometimes I suspect we would pay more attention to trees and other vegetation if we could establish beyond a doubt just how similar they are in many ways to animals.
Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from A Secret World

Wohlleben presents the fact that in well established old growth forests, trees communicate through a network of roots, fibers, mosses, fungi. They adjust water intake to support weaker trees; older trees deprive saplings of light, monitoring the slow growth of the others. At first thought this seems stingy, but in reality ensures the strength of the young ones. The slower a tree grows, the stronger the tree. He says that you do NOT see the same level of communication and social development in a planted forest. Trees seem to need much more time to develop their quiet strength, to develop an ecosystem that ensures resilience.

I encourage you to explore a seemingly mundane topic, something you encounter in your daily life, in a way that inspires you to “see with new eyes”, outgrow rigid mental patterns. One of the joys in life!

 

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