Trees, Biology, Etiquette


It turns out that a runaway best-seller in Germany is a local forest ranger’s book about the communal life of trees. The Hidden Life of Trees will appear in English translation next fall.

TREES-master675Trees help each other out. If their limbs block a neighbor’s light, they’ll sometimes lean away, and many trees do better in clumps, as members of tight communities, rather than as solitary stand-alones. Canopies collect moisture. When it drips down, it helps the whole community.

Now I’m not a biologist, but I’ll buy this book when it appears next Fall. I want to learn. And the writer has a taste for non-specialist language.

The genius of some who write about scientific subjects – say the health and sickness of forests or the networking of trees — is their accessibility.

Mr. Wohlleben, the author of The Hidden Life, frankly confesses

I use a very human language. Scientific language removes all the emotion, and people don’t understand it anymore.

The point is that if we invoke the technical vocabulary of sophisticated plant genetics in describing a forest, the description becomes opaque to all but specialists.

30trees-web2-articleLargeThere is, I’m certain, a sophisticated way to explain why trees seek light and their roots seek water.  But there’s nothing wrong with the (very human) vocabulary of seeking and finding applied to plants and trees.

As I report below in the Postscript, there is a dispute within biology about the nature of plant intelligence.

But in what follows, I want to ask where I should stand, as a non-specialist, outside the fraternity of biologists, as I evoke, quite informally and casually, the many almost human capacities of plants.

I needn’t censor myself in thinking that trees seek light. Would I allow a stretch, that trees follow the proverb, “Seek and you shall find”? No doubt I’m playing on the edge of language here.

I have no qualms about whispering trees any more than I have qualms about the crack of dawn. But apparently some German biologists are nervous.

In the account I’ve relied on, the reservation of the biologists was put this way: it’s OK to say trees communicate. “Communicate” is an approved technical term. But it’s not OK to say that trees “talk.” And Mr. Wohleben wants to say trees talk.

I don’t buy this particular worry at all. I don’t object to the word “communicate.” I just think that if we have a worry about “talk,” we should have one about “communicate,” too.

05e64ea2125b724adf4acdd49daea159If my birches cry out for water, they cry out. But who knows how far to open this door? Do cries at some point become talk? We’d have to test this improvisation.

Are trees more content when watered? Is a Bristlecone Pine high in the Sierra lonely? Tortured?

Look and see! Something’s being expressed!

Charting the limits of what we’ll say in these cases is showing simultaneously the edge of reality and the edge of words.


The edge of language is mobile and porous. We (or many of us) tolerate a tree’s whispering, but stop at the idea of its whispering rumors. We (or many of us) enjoy a rushing brook but stop at the idea of its speeding by.  I avoid the morning traffic rush because traffic, at that time of day, doesn’t rush. So the meaning of “rush” can somersault.

Where should I stand, as a non-specialist, outside the fraternity of biologists, as I evoke, quite informally and casually, the many almost human capacities of plants.

How to we know exactly where sense begins to pass out of sight?

It’s as if any word can expand out from its home toward other words or locutions — or be stopped abruptly from expansion. It’s not a matter of grammar or rules but of practices and whether an improvisation works.

There’s no rule to explain why a crowd in a rush is rushing but in rush-hour traffic, traffic isn’t rushing.

We trust our usually reliable instincts, or a refined sense of linguistic etiquette. A rushing crowd can be in a hostile rush but a rushing brook can’t be in a hostile rush.

Of course many so-called “rules” of etiquette can be “explained,” one way or another. But they can change radically, and so become non-necessary or contingent. It can be condescending, in some circles now, to open a door for a healthy lady, and it’s now bad etiquette to say “girl” when it should be “woman.” And we toss a coin for a female in her late teens. There is no rule that will govern future improvisations.

My happy insight here is that the German biologists who think that “trees communicate” is preferable scientifically to “trees talk” are not making a scientific point. They’re making a point about etiquette that in this case (to my ear) is stuffy and dispensable.



Etiquette can smooth human relations, and can get us closer to nature, as well. It’s gracious to say trees whisper and talk, and stilted to say they only communicate — and it’s false or outlandish to say they recite Shakespeare.

(– So, falsehood is extremely unacceptable etiquette?) (Best to stop here.)

I remember that Thoreau, in “Sounds,” refers to “the language in which all things speak without metaphor.” If this is a breach of etiquette it’s a welcome breach to my ears. It opens the door to an infinite theater of mutual address.


And here is Ortega y Gasset:

A tree is perhaps the loveliest thing that exists. It has strength in the trunk, capricious indecision in the branches, and tenderness in the tiny, stirring leaves. And beyond all this an indescribable serenity, a vague, mute palpitate life that comes and goes hesitantly among the foliage. It seems to me right that the first Egyptians believed the souls of the dead went to live in the branches of trees



Postscript One

I’ve described the matter of trees communicating from a non-specialist’s point of view that focuses on everyday language and everyday realities. Thanks to William Eaton, I found that this issue whether trees talk is a hot topic among sophisticated specialists within biology. I’ll let this quote from a 2013 New Yorker article speak for itself:

[I]n the view of many plant scientists “The Secret Life of Plants” [a 1973 book claiming, roughly, that plants talk and listen] has done lasting damage to their field. According to Daniel Chamovitz, an Israeli biologist who is the author of the recent book “What a Plant Knows,” Tompkins and Bird [authors of “The Secret life]“stymied important research on plant behavior as scientists became wary of any studies that hinted at parallels between animal senses and plant senses.” Others contend that “The Secret Life of Plants” led to “self-censorship” among researchers seeking to explore the “possible homologies between neurobiology and phytobiology”; that is, [they were hesitant to explore] the possibility that plants are much more intelligent and much more like us than most people think—capable of cognition, communication, information processing, computation, learning, and memory. [my emphasis]


Postscript Two:

What I’ve described as the mobile, porous edge of language is illustrated in these quotations from the new director of the New York Philharmonic as he coaches his orchestras:

To ratchet down the finale, “Pull back a little bit — otherwise it’s too much headbanging.” To get a fast passage right, “It’s like the 100-meter at the Olympics — the start is very important.” To get more tender playing, “Like you’re talking to a child.” To shape a phrase, “You don’t say ‘fa-THER,’ you say ‘FA-ther.’” To seek a more ethereal sound, “A little like you have medicine before you go to an operation, this high feeling. I don’t know it, because I don’t use anything.”

We grasp these improvisatory extensions of words, their porous, mobile edges, intuitively (or not); no rule can legitimate them. We sense and accept the etiquette in play (or don’t).

—Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor

See his Excursions with Thoreau: Philosophy, Poetry, Religion, Bloomsbury, 2015, and Lost Intimacy in American Thought: Recovering Personal Philosophy From Thoreau to Cavell, Continuum, 2009

Credits:  I owe the phrase “the edge of language” to Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language, Bloomsbury, 2014.  Ortega y Gasset, “The Pedagogy of Landscape” appears to be an essay from a collection appearing in Spanish in 1906, now long out of print. I found it quoted in translation years ago and can’t retrace my steps. Any help welcome. The article on plant intelligence is from The New Yorker, “The Intelligent Plant: Scientists debate a new way of understanding flora, Michael Pollan, Dec. 23 and 30, 2013. Postscript Two quotes from “Simile and Metaphor as Critique: Jaap van Zweden Speaks to an Ensemble,” The New York Times, Michael Cooper, Jan. 31, 2016

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