Burning bright

Fire season is raging.

One of the things that surprised me most in Qu├ębec was how careless people were about fire. They build fires in their gardens and let the embers sprinkle all around the fireplace without even checking where they fell. I never got completely used to it.

It’s the heartbreaking side of summers in Provence: everything burns. Forty hectares here. A couple of square kilometres there. Sometimes fires rage for weeks before they can put them out, and when they find the culprit, a pyromaniac fireman or just a careless driver tossing their cigarette butt through the window, it’s too late. One moment of littering like a jerk, and the next thing you know, half of the country has been destroyed.

Burnt forests still stand, sometimes. They may douse the fire before it is too late, and then the trunks stay here, blackened and dead, but sometimes tiny leaves start sprouting again, only a few days later. Not far away from here, the oaks have grown resistant to the fire over millenia. The piece of cork they use as a bottle stopper once evolved as a fireproof mantle for trees. In the Maures mountains, burned forests are still alive. You can touch the trunks years later and gather soot on your fingers, but the tree underneath is unscathed. Unfortunately, not all trees managed to find this trick.

We took our bikes for a ride around Aix today. In most places, the plateaus are covered by pines. Pines are fast-growing, and they are the first trees to colonise the empty space left by fires. But in some spots, you suddenly end up in unburnt forests. There, old white oaks still stand. Few things are as beautiful as an oak forest. White oakw grow hard, not tall. They are shaped like labyrinths. Even their bark is wrinkled, lacy, criss-crossed with ivy. They take centuries in the making.

I hope they are still there in a century or two.

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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?