Trees Talk

by  Matt Toussaint

Trees talk.

I don’t mean using voices and language the way that human beings do. Naturally, they talk tree. A language of the forest that relies upon a network of interconnected roots spanning the species boundary.

In fact, they are constantly talking. Their utterances are so ever-present that they are seldom noticed. And it’s too bad, because they are adept talkers: sophisticated, nuanced, yet straight to the point and always with meaning. I’ve yet to know a tree that has wasted a word.

What they speak about has a purpose beyond their own perpetuation. They are consummate environmentalists, with the bounty and harmony of the entire ecosphere in mind. Their linguistic sophistication helps to shape and guide the evolution of all their kin.

Perhaps we humans used to know this. Or we still do, but the knowledge is buried somewhere in the back alleyways of our overstimulated city minds. If we take a moment, I’m sure just about everyone can recall a time in our youth where something memorable and magical happened between you and a tree. As children, we loved them. Our ancestors did, too. In a number of pre-modern cultures around the world, trees were and remain to be sacred.

For instance, the World Tree motif is strikingly common. It depicts the universe as made up of sky, earth and under-earth, all upheld and connected via a grand cosmic tree. Sometimes referred to as a Tree of Life, this theme can be found in mythological, religious and folkloric references in cultures as widespread and diverse as ancient Turkic, Germanic, Siberian, Persian, Chinese, Hindu, and Mesoamerican. Often the mythological symbol was born from a local species of significance, like the Ceiba for Mayan peoples or the Oak for pre-Christian inhabitants of northern Europe. In other parts of the world, certain species are praised, protected and regarded as sacred by those who live amongst them, including the Cedar in Lebanon and the Redwoods found on the northwest coast of the United States.

Trees are also widely used in medicinal and healing practices. A notable example of a still living tradition is the shamanic dieta found among Mestizo and indigenous cultures throughout the Amazon. The dieta is a period of time spent in isolation while following specific dietary and behavioural restrictions, and consuming a mild tea made from the bark of one or more medicinal trees. The purpose of the diet is to make contact with the tree’s spirit so that it will teach you its wisdom and healing properties.

This is a practice in which I have several years of experience. And what I have learned: trees talk.

I must confess that the word talk is a bit misleading. It’s too crude. What I mean to say is that they communicate, in the deepest and most essential implications of this word. They transmit meaning.

Perhaps the best way to explain this is with a metaphor that mirrors how trees communicate within their physical environments. When you ingest the tea, you are basically drinking water and whatever is infused into the water from the raw bark. This is said to put you in contact with the plant spirit who will impart their teachings to you over the course of the dieta.

When the tree spirit comes into your world, it treats you as an environment that is going to be its new home. It scans the surroundings for things that are out of balance, threats to the equilibrium and safety of the organism, elements in the system that are causing harm or damage. The intention of the diet is more or less twofold: to heal and to learn. In order to fulfill this intention, the tree needs an environment where it can put down its roots. Anything that stands in the way of this happening will be addressed. The system needs to be cleansed, the soil purified, the source of nutrients cared for. This ensures the successful rooting and fruiting of the diet, which manifests as the lessons brought to the dieter’s awareness and the healing taking effect. The environment aligns in symbiosis, a new home established.

In their natural environments, trees operate very much the same way. They scan their surroundings, signal other plants, cooperate and share with their neighbors, and implement not only strategies of survival but those that lend to flourishing. They accomplish this task in fascinating ways, displaying uncanny behavior that makes one wonder: are the trees actually talking? Let’s take a look:

  • Trees form mutually beneficial relationships with mycelium, a network of interconnected fungus, that bond to the roots of the tree. This is the link that allows them and other plants to converse.
  • What do they talk about? Who needs what and where. Trees will pass between them things like carbon, phosphorous, and nitrogen. This isn’t sporadic, either. Evidence shows that they can sense imbalances in the environment – a lack of phosphorous or carbon for example – and neighboring trees will share their abundance with those who are lacking.
  • Who do they talk to? For one, their families. This sharing of resources seems to favor not only interspecies members, but spawn of mother trees. They look out for and keep tabs on the kids.
  • They talk to their friends, too. This communicative sharing occurs across the species boundary as well. And at the right time: research shows that resource sharing favors certain species in based on seasonal needs.
  • They talk about fighting crime. If a plant is threatened by a pest or malignant fungus, for example, neighboring plants will take measures of protecting themselves by releasing defensive chemicals even if they aren’t the ones being attacked. That’s right. Neighboring plants can respond to something happening to other plants in their vicinity. How? Because they communicate to each other.

When I look at this as a whole, one thing really stands out: there is a tremendous amount we don’t know regarding plants. This behavior is clearly a sign of some type of communication. There are many scientists that would agree, going so far as attempting to canonize the field of plant neurobiology, alluding to the brain-like nature of plant communication. There are many others who vehemently denounce the possibility that plants harbor this level of intelligence. This poses a serious philosophical quandary to materialistic and human-centered thinking: the possibility that plants are indeed conscious – aware.

To people who work with plant spirits, the whole debate is laughable. Of course trees talk. How else would they share what they know?