But why are trees such social beings? Why do they share food with their own species and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors? The reasons are the same as for human communities: there are advantages to working together. A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old. To get to his point, the community must remain intact, no matter what. If every tree were looking out only for itself, then quite a few of them would never reach old age.
Back to the odds. Every five years, a beech tree produces at least thirty thousand beechnuts (thanks to climate change, it now does it as often as every two or three years, but we’ll put that aside for a moment. It is sexually mature at about 80 to 150 years of age, depending on how much light it gets where it’s growing. Assuming it grows to be 400 years old, it can fruit at least sixty times and produce a total of about 1.8 million beechnuts.
The process of learning stability is triggered by painful micro-tears that occur when the trees bend way over in the wind, first in one direction and then in the other. Wherever it hurts, that’s where the tree must strengthen its support structure. This takes a whole lot of energy, which is then unavailable for growing upward.
Right now the majority of plan 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 it 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 lattes eats other living beings. Finally, the other big difference is in the amount of time it takes to process the information and translate it into action. Does that mean that beings that live 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 of we could establish beyond a doubt just how similar they are in many ways to animals.
My review of The Hidden Life of Trees