Research published in recent years appears to indicate that while ents may be fictional, trees do have feelings and do communicate among themselves, usually along pathways made possible by a multitude of fungi growing at the feet, er, roots of those slow-growing, long-living organisms that clean our air, filter our water and provide the raw materials that form our wooden caves.
When I was a youngster, I watched “The Wonderful World of Disney” Sunday nights on TV. It was great entertainment well into my teen years.
I remember Bambi. I think I was aware of the controversy well before I was able to see the movie, which was released in 1942, five years before I was born. I well remember adults being upset that Bambi, along with his animal friends Thumper the rabbit and Flower the skunk was so humanized. Everyone knew animals could not have feelings, and where I was raised, most men and a large number of women were hunters.
Somehow we disconnected the message of the movie and the realities of our dinner table, in much the same way we played cops-and-robbers and cowboys-and-Indians without actually meeting real members of either group. Even now, students are cautioned to avoid anthropomorphizing wild critters.
Fast forward to a week or so ago when a friend and fellow photographer mentioned a thought that had come up while she was photographing a story about real cowboys – the kind who drive ATVs and pickup trucks and burn brands into the rumps of their cattle.
“They don’t feel any pain,” one of the cowboys commented.
The quip wakened a continuation of what a younger me had learned about reactions animals might display. From feeding their young to shaking off a fly, it was merely instinct or reflex. Animals could not feel. On the other hand, I learned to milk cows from a childhood friend, Chester, who taught me to drop a bicycle tire over Bossie’s rump to prevent being swatted in the face when she swished her tail to chase the flies away.
It may be convenient to say she cannot feel the burn but she is sensitive to a fly lighting on her butt.
Trees, it turns out, also are sensitive to injury, and they communicate and cooperate among their diverse species. They pass medications, sustenance and messages to help their neighbors and offspring enhance or inhibit growth and fight off disease and parasites.
“Trees are social creatures.,” ecologist and author Suzanne Simard said on a “Fresh Air” radio interview aired this week. “They depend on each other for protection.”
Simard is author of the recently released “Finding the Mother Tree,” the title referring to the status of old trees’ role in the growth of new forests. She hails from a family logging tradition and discovered during her work in the woods that when companies removed “waste” birch trees to allow remaining “cash crop” fir to thrive without competition, the fir trees became diseased and, at best, less valuable.
Another logging practice – clear-cutting that leaves solitary trees as supposed “seed trees” also “is a mistake,” Simard said. In effect, the lone trees die of loneliness.
Tolkein – and Walt Disney – apparently were more correct than they probably understood. Seemingly daily, science gains knowledge that we are more like our fellow beings than we are comfortable admitting.
It gives a whole other level of meaning to the phrase, “We’re all in this together.”