Plant brain

Did you know that trees can talk?

No, they don’t listen to Mozart, and you can’t make them grow taller by talking to them in soft voices. That’s superstition. The truth is far better: they talk in ways we don’t even imagine, without voices, without facial expressions. But they do communicate, in ways we’re only just starting to understand.

When you plant a tree in a pot, it will eventually stop to grow, even if you feed it fertiliser. Why? Don’t trees grow every year? Isn’t that a completely mindless process? Shouldn’t it keep growing until it fills all the space in the pot and then some more, and it starts choking itself to death? Except it won’t. Trees sense the limit of the space they have at their disposal, and will stop of their own accord. They won’t be happy, but they’ll make do, sometimes for years (the tropical fig in my living-room is giving me a nasty stare while I’m writing this, but then I can also sense the limits of the available space and I can’t give it a bigger pot. Sorry, fig). Have you ever wondered why trees grow full and lush when they stand alone in parks, but spindle-thin in a forest, as if they could somehow sense that if they grew as large as they could, they would all tangle together and hurt each other? That’s because they do sense it. And they’re polite. Men who sit on trains with their legs on each side of the wagon could take a lesson from trees.

When a fire starts, some trees can smell it. Cypresses will sense a catastrophe coming, but they know just what to do. They send all the aromatic molecules in their body into the air. That way, when the fire reaches them, it will only meet a bag of water which will be terribly hard ot burn through, as anyone who’s ever tried to start a fire using green wood can attest. But something even better happens. Fires travel in the same direction as the wind, which means that the cloud of molecules will sail ahead. When other cypresses pick it up, they will understand that this is a signal, and that they should get rid of all flamable components, too. As a result of being warned in advance, they will suffer even less damage than the first tree. Trees talk, and they do each other favours, too.

It’s funny how we talk about intelligence. When we talk about humans, we’re all about ‘understanding’, ‘reasoning’, ‘consciousness’, ‘invention’ and so on. When we talk about animals, and even more, plants, we’re still all about ‘instinct’, ‘automatism’, and chemicals and adaptive behaviours and so on. We humans think. The rest of the worlds mindlessly reproduces behaviours and processes that have helped species survive the ages. As if our own thoughts weren’t the result of mingling chemicals, too. As if everything in our bodies had somehow managed to be the result of an evolutionary process, except, for some reason, our intelligence. We’re the annoying special snowflakes of the world. And as a result, we feel it’s okay to slaughter everything else.

Don’t say anything bad about trees. One day, a complex evolutionary process will lead them to produce just the right concoction of chemicals to make them walk up to us on the tip of their roots, strangle us in our sleep and throw a massive party afterwards.

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From the Beagle Channel

As I mentioned, I recently visited my brother on his ship, in Tierra del Fuego. In nearly a year, I had talked to him very little, technology being much less helpful than we sometimes imagine. Inside Sonate, it smelled the same as on the day of their departure, a mixture of tar, iron and coffee, although it was considerably tidier than I remembered. According to everyone on board, leaving your dishes in the sink for the next day is a mistake you only make once on a ship. Finding food scraps and plates scattered everywhere after a rough night out at sea is the sort of thing that teaches you about cleanliness, and fast.

We met in Punta Arenas, on Magellan Straits, in the middle of the lanyrinthine pattern of channels and islands that makes up the south of the Chilean archipelago. My brother rode eleven hours on a bus just to welcome us, and then we rode back together, he and my mother and I, towards Ushuaia, or, Not The Southernmost City In The World as we found out. This honour belongs to Puerto Williams, a tiny little town cobbled together from corrugated iron on Navarino Island, where horses and dogs roam the streets freely and the customs occasionally open late if there was a party the night before. Going through the customs when you arrived on a sailing ship takes ages, but that’s just one of a million things you don’t ever realise if you’ve never spent time on a ship.

Sailing on the Beagle Channel is the sort of experience that is hard to put into words. After a few hours, there are no traces of human passage at all, anywhere. Have you ever been to a place with not a single pigeon in sight? Not a dandelion? Absolutely nothing brought there by travellers? That’s what it looks like over there. Of course, it wasn’t always like that. Extermination of the Fuegian people did not happen so long ago, and it’s a bit unnerving, in fact, to see so many pictures of them in Ushuaia, people clad in fur seals and staring at the camera with a blank expression, probably unaware of the fact that their genocide would be turned into a tourist attraction decades later, once all their land had been turned into pasture.

Now the channel is home to legions of birds, more than I had seen yet on any sea I’d visited, and cetaceans too. Dolphins followed us at times for brief moments, and we spied the blows of whales in the distance — or very close, on one occasion, when a humpback whale emerged right in front of the ship and sank under the hull, leaving everyone on board baffled and squealing.

We’re not the centre of the universe. Many places can thrive without us, and it’s a strange feeling to arrive in the middle of a land that is doing very well without humans and where everything, the cold, the gigantic ice fields, the forest growing in steep bogs where every step costs more than usual, tells you that you’re not quite welcome here. It’s even stranger to realise that the only reason that you cn be there at all is that you were part of the few people wealthy and lucky enough to make the trip in the first place, so I won’t pretend that this was some sort of humbling spiritual experience. I’ll just put it in coarse words because subtler ones have been failing me since: sailing in the Beagle Channel slapped me in the face with the fact that I didn’t deserve any of this beauty. Entire people were slaughtered there because other humans wanted more unnecessary meat to eat; whales were slaughtered all so that we could have whale oil to grease machinery and light our cities with, and now we seek contact with a lost natural wonderland as if it was a nurturing experience for our souls, when in fact our souls are the very last thing that matter there. We don’t matter. We should just thank the universe for being randomly born in it.

The last butterflies

Cycling around Aix is a breath of fresh air, on so many more levels than the litteral one. The fields alternate with groves of pines and white oaks, there are few sounds aside from birds, and one just has to glance at the side of the road to see more plants than in a whole week working in Marseilles. Then there are the smells, too, those smells of early summer you could spend hours picking apart: wet leaves, drier leaves, earth, elderflowers, rosemary, wheat fields. One hour out there and it feels like the part of you that got the best workout was not your legs, but your brain. There is so much going on: a jay taking flight from a cherry tree, a bid of prey soaring up with a snake in its talons, willow pollen tormenting your eyes, the sweet, sudden smell of elderflowers, unknown plants pricking at your legs, roots working their way under the roads and making them bumpy, the temptation to snach almonds from a branch leaning out of a garden, tiny streams that would barely have registered as rivulets back in Qu├ębec, but that are dignified with a name and a signpost here, the red assault of a cluster of poppies, your whole body feeling the change when you leave the side of the field and enter the drier regions of pine woods, with their dry warmth and deep aromatic scent, the changing silhouettes of trees, sinuous for oaks, straight for pines, mangled for plane trees, bushy for elders…

There is an ongoing debate about whether spending your time on a computer is likely to make you less intelligent in the long run, and I’m not going to voice an opinion on it, but I wonder if we are not missing something crucial from that debate. The point is, perhaps spending your time online may allow you to reach more information, or perhaps it only allows you to memorise paths to that information and cripples your capacity to remember things by yourself, I have no idea. But what about all the information that cannot be found online? The smells, the feelings, and the dizzying diversity that remains there even though we have done an awe-inspiring job so far at destroying as much as you can? Half of the butterflies are now gone from European fields. Yet when you cycle through the countryside for a couple of hours, you come across half a dozen species, at least. There is more diversity in the last of the butterflies than in what the average person browses online in a week–and for that matter, in what could be found in most libraries of the world. There is a certain type of knowledge we have learned to conveive as all-important, and that is knowledge that can be expressed through words on a page. I’m not denying the importance of that knowledge. But what about all the information we are depriving our brains of, the sound of a lizard in the grass, the prickly touch of weeds, the way the smells change in the spring?

I recently read about a species of ants that evolved to live underground, then came back to the surface after a few thousand years. While living underground, their brains adapted to their new conditions. But they did not simply become different; they became atrophied. Life underground is much simpler than life overground. There is almost no light, there are fewer sounds, the touches and smells are mostly all the same. With so little information to process, brains can become lazy. They simply stop being ready for an overload of information that will never come.

We couldn’t turn into ants underground, could we? I hope not. I hope that there is something I’ve failed to notice in the videos and online conversations my student spend their lives following on their smartphones. I sincerely hope so, because if there’s not, our descendants will know the fate of the ants underground. Their brains will be shut to the flutter of a butterfly’s wings. And so much will be lost to us.

Indoor plants

Last time I was walking in the city centre, I noticed a shop I had never seen before. It said “indoor plants”. My tropical fig was in bad shape and I still couldn’t figure out why, so I walked in.

The shop was encumbered with plastic boxes and bags and looked like it wasn’t really designed to have customers. The lady at the entrance raised her eyebrows. I explained the ficus problem, but she said she had no idea, and motioned me to a man at the back with a “Talk to the expert”. So I did.

“Er… give it some fertiliser?” he said, munching words and looking puzzled. “I dunno, I’m not really the expert on tropical figs. Yeah, fertiliser. Sounds right.”

I would probably have asked how a guy who sold materials to cultivate indoor plants could be “not really the expert on tropical figs”, since they’re the most common indoor plants in this country, and basically everybody has one. But the while he was talking, I had noticed the seeds on the counter, the bright, psychedelic colours, and the label saying “Biocanna”. The situation was fairly embarrassing already, so I just mumbled something about coming back one day maybe for some fertiliser, flashed my most reassuring smile, and walked as if I hadn’t just massively embarrassed everybody in the shop at the same time.

That sort of things make me wonder how people can still pretend we should have a public debate on the consumption of cannabis. The streets of Aix smell of cannabis smoke half of the time, one of my neighbours used to farm it on his balcony, my friends use it, and you can walk into a shop that’s plainly specialised in drugs in broad daylight and get nothing worse than a brief moment of not quite understandable embarrassment. You’d have expected this guy to just laugh and tell me I’d walked into the wrong store. It’s everywhere, and it looks like people want to pretend it isn’t, just so they can make a fuss out of it.

At least it keeps them busy, I suppose.