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.

Letting the desert in

I know the news may be properly shocking, but there it is: Trees are not our enemies.

Trees are not dirty. Yes, sometimes they produce pollen or fruit, and if you park a car underneath, it may get dirty. Sometimes they are even home to birds, and birds–the horror!–defecate like any other animal. Sometimes they grow roots under the asphalt and bend it a little. It’s not convenient when you carry a wheeled suitcase or pram, I’ll grant you that. Some people even call it dangerous. People could fall and everything. And there’s the shadow, too, it’s not like we can afford to waste an single sunray when we spend our days locked up in offices under artificial lighting, can we? I understand.

Recently, I’ve heard talks to:

Suggest that we destroy the shrubbery around the building we live in to create new parking space.

Suggest cutting trees that ‘threaten to fall any moment’, also around our building (I’ve yet to find out which trees that would be, as they are all perfectly healthy).

Cut off most plane trees in the city centre–as a matter of fact, I had to get up early last Wednesday to protest against their (unadvertised) destruction. The city council argues that they are hopelessly damaged by parasites and could fall off any day. When pressed to prove why trees were so dangerous, they had to produce an example of a tree falling and killing a little girl a few years ago, in a city not our own. If one death every few years makes trees dangerous, I wonder how we can still live around cars.

Cut off the main branch of a venerable pine tree that is guilty of creating a little shadow in the neighbour’s garden. Despite being planted north of said garden, at a respectable distance.

I’ve also learned that the reason why most plants have been left to die in the school yard is that they were too costly to water.

I have news. Something that kills one or two people every few years in a country as large as France cannot be considered a danger, especially since we don’t seem to consider that all the deaths from pollution and road accidents don’t represent a significant danger either. Trees make cars dirty, yes, but… seriously? Have we even paused to wonder how ridiculous we sound when putting forward such arguments? Cutting a tree because then it will be easier to have a nice shiny car, really? I mean… I’m not even sure how I could argue against this one. Unless some people live in a parallel universe where clean cars save lives, I don’t even see what this has to do in actual reality.

Here is what trees do. They provide shade. They cool down the temperature in summer, incidentally helping reduce deaths from heat waves. They provide a home to birds and insects, including pollinisers. They smell good. They make people feel less stressed. They are beautiful and they make people proud. They’re quietly working to clean up our mess by absorbing carbon dioxyde. They prevent soil erosion. They give fruit.

My mother and I recently watched a documentary about the southern end of Patagonia, where, at some point, a man from Punta Arenas thus reffered to his father: ‘He did what any man should do in his life. He planted a tree, raised a child, and took part in social activism. That’s all.’

What anyone should do with their life indeed. As for those who call to destroy trees because they disliked the sight of pollen stains on their cars, how will they make up for it?

It’s a godless world. And it’s perfect.

After coming back from Tierra del Fuego and thinking about it a lot, I realised one thing. In our culture, there are many works that describe the sudden revelation that there is a God in the universe. It’s said to be a glorious thing, finding faith, pieces coming together all at once, sudden understanding, purpose and meaning found. Even lesser spiritual experiences are described as wonderful moments.

The opposite, realising that there is no God, or starting to doubt, is almost always portrayed as a grim experience: thinking there was someone with you and realising you are alone in a cold, empty universe that doesn’t care. I’ve yet to find a book or a film where the protagonist faces the certainty that God doesn’t exist and is not instantly distressed. Yet that is exactly what happened to me over there.

All right, not exactly. I’ve never believed in God. Unlike what our culture at large seems to believe, I’ve never imagined that there was a special spot for God or spirituality in my brain. It’s not that I’ve replaced God with materialism or a blind belief in science, or that somehow, my atheism has become some kind of faith to me: it’s just that everything I believe or value fits very snugly together in my head and leaves absolutely no space for any form of religion. Actually, I don’t even think of religion much, except on the (sadly more and more numerous) occasions when the media thrust fundamentalisms of all sorts in my face. But I did think about God on the Beagle Channel, although not in the way we’re taught to expect.

When we sailed between glaciers on the channel, everything was pure alien splendor. Everything existed quietly, outside the sphere of human activities, and we could have tried as hard as we wanted, there was nothing there that told us humans had any reason to be the centre of the world. It was a world for dolphins and albatrosses and tiny rayaditos fluttering on the shore, not people. And that was fine. A bit unsettling at the very first, but you get used to it, very quickly. And in that place so perfect by itself, how could one believe that there could be a God? How could one believe that one being could have orchestrated something so complete it didn’t need anything from humans? The idea of God seems trite when petrels whirl around you. A petrel doesn’t need a god. It doesn’t need an explanation, or an origin story. It is too perfect for anything that could be imagined by humans.

And that was fine. Being more certain than ever that we have no creator and we’re just going our merry way in a universe that doesn’t care felt comforting, not distressing. Who needs meaning when you can have perfection? I’ve been struggling to write although I would love to write pages upon pages about this place, simply because it’s a place that exists beyond words, a place where you don’t need words. The world is so much more precious when you’ve seen what perfection it could contain. The idea that it is a mere creation would taint it. I couldn’t doubt now that God doesn’t exist, and that is fine. It’s great.

It’s perfect.

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.

Happy New Year everyone!

Hope the year is off to a good start for everyone reading this. A few notes from here:

Winter is back. That’s a relief. It’s not so much that I enjoy the cold (although two winters in Qu├ębec give you a very different perspective on what qualifies as cold), but there was a time when lamenting the changes in your natural surroundings was a thing only elderly people did. Being thirty and already noticing the animals that are not here anymore, the lack of butterflies or bees, and feeling the change in the temperature is not a great feeling. I know the changes are not stopping, but I still welcome the cold.

I’ve finally registered as a member of the local Family Planning. I don’t know what I’m going to do yet, exactly, but I’ll find out in time. So far I was given a very warm welcome and a cup of tea. I’ll find out more on Thursday when I go to the first meeting.

The moth infestation is mostly gone. Now the cupboards smell heavily of cedar oil (hopefully this will work out better than lavender) and our balcony is covered in yarn in plastic bags. My cat is not happy about this, but she’s a nice cat, so she hasn’t complained more loudly than usual.

Last time I went to refill the sunflower seed distributor on the window sill, I found myself half a metre away from a feeding goldfinch. I don’t remember goldfinches feeding here last year. I didn’t move until it was gone. It spent a little while bickering (not too agressively) with a crested tit before they both left. That makes it the fifth species to feed on our window sill: great, blue and crested tits, siskins and goldfinches. I’ve seen a couple of robins and possibly blackcaps (although they’re more difficult to identify, being extremely shy birds) feeding off the seeds that had fallen to the ground.

So far, the besting box is still up, which means I can probably count on my neighbours’ tolerance if I hang another one. No one has hung their dog’s house in the tree either. I knew we could all live in harmony…

Happy new year to you all!

Moana

On Thursday, we went to see Moana, Disney’s latest (which was translated as Vaiana in France for rather obscure reasons). Aside from the fact that the film was a little bit heavy on the cutesy songs, we loved it. Disney has gone a long way since the days of singing mice and wide-eyed princesses. They’ve yet to produce films as thought-provoking and imaginative as Pixar’s best gems, and the songs really get a bit kitschy for my tastes, but it’s well worth the price of the tickets. Also, I never imagined that a daft chicken on a boat could offer so many possibilities for comedy. And also, Mad Max: Fury Road references. Just what the doctor ordered.

But my favourite point, I think, is that this is what I would call a genuinely environmentalist film. I’ve struggled for a while to figure out what environmentalist art might look like: having a clear message about not hurting our poor planet is one thing, but 1) for the last time, our planet is doing fine; it’s the species on it that are suffering, and it’s humankind that’s going to be radically screwed over if we keep on like this; an 2) it’s not enough to deliver a message; if it’s going to end up like those countless movies that blather on about how the female lead is so strong and self-reliant and then show her tied up and helpless waiting for the hero to rescue her, then it’s completely useless to lecture the viewers.

However, Moana goes beyond delivering a message. In fact, there is no lecture to speak of. The film never says a single thing about respecting nature and living beings. It simply shows a group of people who are all going to die because they haven’t done so. At the beginning of the story, they’re not even questioning their way of life: as they see plants and animals dying out around them, they only consider planting trees in different places and sailing farther away to fish. Moana herself has no more reverence for nature than the rest of her people; she even eats pork ribs with delight right in front of her pet piglet. It turns out that they’re not even individually guilty: what caused their plight was the decision of a hero who thought he was only helping humans make the best of their environment. I think that, so far, it’s about the best ways to sum up our current environmental issues I’ve seen in any film.

There is another reason why I would say this was a great environmentalist film. The ocean is not just a setting: it’s a character in itself, and it’s portrayed in a gorgeous wealth of detail, all of them relevant. The heroine has to learn to interact with the wind and the water to sail her ship. Coral reefs are depicted up close, with dozens of different species, each one playing its part in the journey. The ocean is not just something Moana uses to get to her destination: she has an intimate relationship with it, she gets water and salt in her hair, she feels the current and the waves and learns to love every part of it. Her sidekick Maui turns into a variety of animals depending on the purpose he’s trying to achieve. Animals, plants and water are far from being decorative: their part in the story is as important as the humans’, and that’s all the more impressive considering that they’re hardly ever anthropomorphised at all.

I loved it, I was impressed that it too a child’s film to offer such a successful take on what the environment means to us, and most of all, I was grateful to see the sort of story children will grow up with today.

Creatures by the side of the road

Recently I came across a number of beasts I had not, or rarely, seen before. They were all somewhere by the side of a road. They were all striking enough to pause.

A badger, its black fur bristly and coarse.

A grass snake, probably a Montpellier snake, its back greenish and glistening, almost a metre long.

A green lizard with sparkling scales.

A rare species of kestrel (unless I misidentified it).

A boar.

It could be a lovely thing: so many creatures living next to us, in so little space. It could be wonderful, if three of these five creatures had not been dead. The badger was probably poisoned; its tongue hung out of its mouth, but it bore no trace of wound on its body. The grass snake’s head had been either run over or smashed with a bottle (there were fragments of broken glass around it). The lizard was crushed on the side of the road.

Of course they would be dead. It’s a road. It’s noisy, and it’s dangerous. I suppose most animals steer clear of it, and that’s why the dead ones are easier to spot. Humans should probably steer clear of it too; last time we went biking, we narrowly escaped being hit by a careening Prsche, whose owner probably wanted to prove the already fairly solid point that people who drive expensive cars tend to be slightly more despicable than the rest of the population (but since this has been scientifically proven already, I’m not sure what killing us would have accomplished). Still, its a bit depressing to find yourself face to face with just how murderous the things that allow us to move faster are. Killing something every now and then is unavoidable. That’s the toll we have to pay for… um… being able to afford living forty-five minutes away from work but at least you have a house with a swimming pool?