What is communication? Is it something that can only happen with human language? Words and text?
Obviously, human communication is much bigger than the words we speak in our language. We tell so much through our facial expressions and body posture — so much so that at a glance, we can often accurately gauge a person’s mood or relationship status with another person.
But even though such real communication doesn’t take place through “language,” we humans often forget that we are not the only living beings that communicate — sometimes extensively, even cross-species. To push our understanding even more, animals aren’t even the only living beings that communicate.
The kids and I began school this week, and one of our fall books is The Hidden Life of Trees (The Illustrated Edition) by German forester Peter Wohlleben. The premise of the book is that trees are much more “social” than we might guess looking at them through our human lens. They share nutrients through underground root networks, and they communicate through scents and through electrical pathways via hidden mycelia networks. They can also respond to predators by changing the flavor of their leaves. For example, African acacia trees respond to the munching of giraffes by putting out a toxin — but they also let other acacia trees know to do the same by releasing alarm scents.
How do these pieces of information change the way we view plants, which are so often treated as passive objects in our world, rather than active subjects. In August 9’s Science magazine, they address this very viewpoint with a small tidbit of recent science. They point out that plants can respond to environmental cues in positive ways as well, providing the example of beach evening primose flowers that respond to the sound of bees buzzing by vibrating and then producing nectar with a higher sugar concentration. I couldn’t help but think of my own body during my breastfeeding days, responding to my babies by “letting down” milk — sometimes even just at the suggestion of a feeding (the sound of my baby crying).
In Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, author Carl Safina pushes hard on the scientific tradition of stripping other organisms of emotions or thoughts (or even relationships). It has historically been a big “no no” to attribute any of these “human qualities” to animals, let alone insects or plants! As he says, “Not assuming that other animals have thoughts and feelings was a good start for a new science. Insisting that they did not was bad science.”
Why should we assume that evolution would only work this magic in us? Why, when we share cell features or skeleton outlines with organisms only remotely “related” to us, would we assume that we do also share components of what we cannot see but know is in humans? Emotions. Thoughts. Relationships with others. Clearly humans can have these before they’ve developed language skills (hello, babies — über-feelers and relationship builders). Much of the human experience of this lies in non-conscious communication. In the letting down of the mother’s milk. In the smile that warms another person’s heart. These acts of communication often happen without us even being conscious of them.
So, why do we not acknowledge the [possibly less conscious] important communication that happens underground between two trees in a forest? For example: Wohlleben describes in his book older trees providing sugar underground for younger tree still too short to reach the canopy. What level of distinction separates that act from me nursing my babies? Where do we draw lines and how do those lines affect our every interaction with the natural world?
Today, I stood and watched bees of all kinds dancing through a blooming phacelia planting. This plant is sometimes called “Bee Friend,” and it’s no mystery why. The air was alive with the sound of the buzzing, as bees flew from flower to flower, making them join the dance as they bounced back and forth too. We plant phacelia regularly on our farm for this very purpose — to provide an abundant source of food for pollinators living on our farm. From a scientific standpoint, we “know” that pollinators are beneficial to our agricultural activities, and so we want to foster their health year-round. This late summer season can be a rough time for bees since very few plants bloom now. But, from a loving, feeling, human animal standpoint, we also just love the experience of witnessing what feels like a joyous party in our fields when the phacelia blooms. There’s no fear of being stung — the bees are so distracted and busy, and YES they seem so happy. Delighted. Ecstatic.
And why should they feel these things? Why should we be the only ones to experience ecstasy — the emotion that probably best describes the peak experiences of life and drives our survival as a species? Evolution would be wasteful to have waited to give this gift only once homo sapiens showed up on the scene. I don’t want to misinterpret other organism’s motivations by assuming too much, but I feel confident that we share love and joy with most of the world.
In Safina’s book he describes the special glands in the side of an African elephant’s head that secrete during times that, for us, would be moments of strong emotion: when reuniting with family members after time apart, for example. Or before or after mating.
Safina beautiful articulates our relationship to these animals, including those bees dancing in the phacelia, this way:
As brains elaborated from a bee’s pleasure in a field of flowers, to our inner fish, to a bird’s delight in dance, and to our own — have our brains retained aesthetic roots that arose in insects? If so, the insect’s gift to us cannot possibly be repaid, except perhaps as reverence for the little elders at our feet and flitting among the flowers of our gardens. Regardless of who gets our thanks for the honor, there is no more wondrous face than that we are kin, bee and bird of paradise — and great elephant — stardust, all.
Both Wohlleben and Safina ask the important question, if we accepted the subjectivity of other organisms — including insects and plants! — how do we then rethink the lines we’ve drawn between ourselves as humans and every other living being. Wohlleben says:
I, for one, welcome breaking down the moral barriers between animals and plants. When the capabilities of vegetative beings become known, and their emotional lives and needs are recognized, then the way we treat plants will gradually change, as well. Forests are not first and foremost lumber factories and warehouses for raw material, and only secondarily complex habitats for thousands of species, which is the way modern forestry currently treats them. Completely the opposite, in fact.
May this be the next frontier for human philosophy — I know many people are already working to integrate these ideas (which have been integral in many indigenous traditions for millennia) into their lives and work. In a world where even some humans are still denied subjecthood and equal rights, it can feel like a stretch to look at trees and bees as kin — to put energy into thinking about having a right relationship with our non-human neighbors. But, maybe it’s essential to enlarge our thinking, to expand our worldview so that we can really see and appreciate the vast miracle of life all around us. To watch the chickadee at the bird feeder and wonder “who are you? who do you love?” To join in the ecstasy of the bees in the phacelia on a September afternoon.
Enjoy this week’s vegetables!
Your farmers, Katie & Casey Kulla
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Meet this week’s vegetables:
- Brooks plums
- Chehalis apples
- Honeycrisp apples
- Frisée salad
- Golden chard
- Spaghetti squash