The weathered trunk of a bald cypress is silhouetted by sunlight on Pembroke Creek, NC.
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Chowan County, NC
A tree’s trunk seems to me as distinct as a human face or fingerprints. An old face, old hands. The years are engraved in the grain of the wood like lines deeply drawn in an old man’s face, a face exposed to years of wind and rain, cold winters and blistering summers, a face like an eroded landscape or the natives photographed by Edward S. Curtiss.
I’m unquestionably guilty of anthropomorphism — projecting human characteristics on non-human species, a scientific sin although I’m no scientist — but I wonder about the intelligence of trees.
How do we define the intelligence of another species when we’re not even sure of our own? Some biologists religiously restrict intelligence to animals, but Stepfano Manusco of the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology has a simpler definition. “Intelligence is the ability to solve problems.” By that definition, both plants and animals are intelligent.
What Manusco is looking for in plants is “a distributed sort of intelligence, as we see in the swarming of birds.”
In The Hidden Life of Trees biologist Peter Wohllbern wrote “Tree roots have sensitive brain-like structures that can distinguish whether other roots it encounters are one of its own roots, the roots of another species, or its own species.”
What are the possibilities of seeing and thinking without eyes or brain? What sense of self might be distributed across a network of roots and fungi? And how is time perceived by an individual whose life spans centuries?
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