Plant Intelligence – ICE Public Dialogue with Richard Powers, Monica Gagliano and Marcelo Gleiser

Plant Intelligence –  ICE Public Dialogue with Richard Powers, Monica Gagliano and Marcelo Gleiser


– Good evening. My name’s Amy Flockton, and
I’m the associate director for the Institute for
Cross-disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth, and welcome. We are overwhelmed by the response and thrilled you are all here, including to the two
overflow rooms upstairs. So it’s very exciting. I just want to, before we begin, I want to show you a
very brief little video about the institute and what we do. And then afterwards,
Marcelo, our director, will come out and begin the program. So enjoy, and thank you
again so much for coming. (ominous music) – The world is a complex place, a network of flowing information
and changing patterns. Where forces known and unknown generate the most sublime beauty, and the most terrifying destruction. The world inspires wonder and doubt, and we humans try to make sense of it all, creating stories, theories,
symphonies, and poems. I’m Marcelo Gleiser,
director of the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary
Engagement at Dartmouth, or ICE. On behalf of all of us
at ICE and our partners, I invite you to be a
part of our institute. To be a part of this very
essential conversation. What is the nature of reality? What is the future of humanity? Will machines think? Real and should we become immortal? Is there free will? Are we alone in the universe? Can science be a path toward spirituality? ICE was created to address these issues and establish new bridges between
different ways of knowing. Our mission is to overcome old bigotries and facilitate a constructive
dialogue between intellectuals and the general public. Creating a community of citizens concerned with the common good. Engaging experts,
promoting public dialogue, and offering open access courses. One thing is certain. The hardest questions ask
for different viewpoints for a cross disciplinary approach for intellectual openness. The sciences and the
humanities need one another now more than ever. And we need them both. Okay, hi everyone, good evening. (audience clapping) Thank you all for coming. A lot of you know this because
I’ve seen your faces before, but for those who do not, the idea is to try and create mechanisms, ways of approximating, bringing together the sciences, and including social sciences, and the humanities in what we
call constructive engagement. Like, you know, for many years, academia has been very barricaded
in different disciplines and the scientists don’t
talk to the humanists, and I feel that nowadays,
we live in a time where there are lots of very big questions that cannot be looked at from
a one dimensional perspective. You really need this pluralistic
way of thinking about some of the main questions of our time, and that is part of our mission. And that’s what we’ve done, and of course, you can always watch the
video at ice.dartmouth.edu, which is our website. And I apologize for the name as well, that was before 2016. It was not supposed to be that way. And I would also like to
apologize for you folks that are not in this room. We were completely overwhelmed
by the response to the topic. Clearly, there’s a lot of interest in understanding and
reflecting on this other way of thinking about what plants are and what can they teach us
about life and intelligence. So in the last three days, there was a huge surge in
the number of registrations, so we couldn’t accommodate everybody here and we are competing with Susan Rice, who’s also talking tonight, so the big auditorium was taken. So apologies for that,
it was not part the plan, but we’re also very glad that you’re here. And I have one more
piece of practical thing, can you, that slide about Slido? Funny enough. So given the number of people and the fact that we have different rooms, we’re going to be doing something somewhat innovative tonight, which is instead of having the mic on the aisle for questions, what you do is you follow
the instructions there. Go to slido.com, and you use #plants, which is this event, and
you can type questions. And as the moderator,
I have my iPhone here, I will be able to read your questions. And if you’re really
nasty, I won’t ask them. But if they’re nice, I will. So be nice, be kind, and we’ll try to do the best that we can with the time that we have. So the breakdown of the
night, I’m going to introduce our wonderful speakers in a second, so that we know, we will
talk for about 15, 20 minutes among ourselves, ask
questions to each other. This is a conversation, it’s not a lecture, it’s not a seminar, there are no PowerPoints. This is us talking about
what does this mean, okay. And then you can come in
and you can participate through your questions and answers. Okay, that’s the idea. Okay, so more specifically
now to what we’re doing here. And I have to say that whenever you organize events like this, you always say, I’m so happy and proud to be introducing my speakers tonight, and you always say that, but really, tonight is
not just lip service. I am very, very excited that
we could put this together. And what I’m going to is
I’m going to go backwards. I’m going to just read their stuff and then talk about who they are, okay. So let me read your stuff first,
’cause I think it’s better. So let’s start with Richard. In case you don’t know, Richard Powers has authored 12 novels and explained of science and technology on our shared humanity. His most recent, in case you didn’t know, “The Overstory,” won the
Pulitzer Prize last year for fiction. He also received a MacArthur fellowship, and the 2006 National
Book Award for his novel “The Echo Maker.” And he has been a four time National Book Critics
Circle Awards finalist. He lives in the foothills
of the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, I presume closer
to trees than to people, which is a choice that I actually share. Monica Gagliano is a
research associate professor in evolutionary ecology and
joint senior research fellow at University of Western Australia. A research affiliate at the
Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney,
and senior research fellow at the biological intelligence lab at the University of Sydney. So she’s pretty jet
lagged, so be kind to her. Her main research is broadly focusing on key aspects of the ecological processes by which organisms are able
to gather the information on the variable conditions of
their surrounding environment in order to thrive. So strategies for survival from different kinds of of organism. In collaboration with various disciplines across the sciences and the humanities, her research aims at
expanding our perception of animals, plants, and
more generally, nature. In the process of learning how to do this, she has pioneered the
brand new research field of plant bio-acoustics, which
she can tell you what it is, and extended and extend the
concept of evolution to plants, reigniting the discourse
on plant subjectivity, sanctions, and ethical standing. So, I don’t know how many of you have read Richard’s novel, but if
you haven’t, please do. And he very graciously
said that if by any chance, we did not plan this at all, but if by any chance, if you
have one of his books here, he’ll be happy to sign them afterwards. So just in case you have it, which you should always be prepared when you come to a
writer’s lecture like this. If not, no worries. We’ll bring him back, I hope. Depending on funding. – [Richard] I actually can give you a signed book plating. – I hope it has 350 of those, but yeah, absolutely,
that would be wonderful, that’s beautiful. Which reminds me of something. In front of you, you have a survey, and that survey is very
important for the grant from the John Templeton foundation that funds these things. And so if you’d be kind
enough to fill that up, I’d be very appreciative. ’cause then when I tell
them how important this is, they maybe be giving us more money for us to continue to do
this here at Dartmouth. – [Richard] If you want the book plate. – There you go, that’s my guy. We didn’t even rehearse any
of this, it’s beautiful. So, this is really an interesting story. If you read the book, you
know about Patty Westerford, one of the characters in the book. She is this very special
character in the book that is a scientist, but
is also an iconoclast in the sense that she’s a scientist, but she’s breaking down
the barriers of academia in the way she’s doing her science, because she’s asking questions
that usually are not asked in academia, right. And she’s also sort of a mystic in the way she relates to the natural world and with the environment, right. So Richard wrote about this person, obviously a fictional character. And then when Monica read the book, she’s like, wait a second. This is me. (audience laughing) So she wrote to him and said, you know, I have a lot in
common with this person here, and he said that was the most
wonderful and scariest thing that has ever happened, because his character
actually exists in many ways. Now obviously, you have to
take that with a grain of salt, and they did not know
each other in person. I did not know any of this. I just thought Monica’s
going to be here for a month as a fellow of the institute, let’s try to get Richard to come here, and this is the first time
they actually met in person. (audience clapping) Which is, it’s just an
amazing story, you know. You could put that in
books, I mean, seriously. Anyway, so let me just say that we’re here to contemplate
what it really means, this notion of us, the environment, the way we think about intelligence, and how narrow-minded we have been, we believe, at least some of us believe, in thinking that intelligence
is something that needs us, can only be coming from us, right? And to rethink what this is
and what it could teach us about our relationship
with the environment and perhaps inspire us to
be a little more proactive about our relationship to the environment. Not waiting for the
government or for corporations to do anything, but for each one of us to actually take this as our
own personal mission, you know. And if there is one
thing that Richard’s book is doing, is, to me, that book is a real manifesto for the future of our
species and this planet. Because the truth is this, just a few numbers. Trees have been here for
about 400 million years. We’ve been here for about 200,000. So they obviously developed
strategies for survival that have worked really well. We can’t even figure out what
to do this century, right? So there’s something about that, right? And the other thing is
that we as a species may come and go. The earth will remain. The planet was here before us, it will continue to be with us. So if you want to celebrate
and remain present in this world that we live in right now, we need to do something. And this book is in my mind, and Monica’s work, there’s
resonance between the two, it’s to me a call to arms in a good way, in a pacifist kind of way, to celebrate life as we have it here, because it is really sacred. So Richard, Monica, please. (audience clapping) Oh yeah, we were so– – [Monica] Thanks (laughs). I’ve got my coffee. – Oh hey, yeah. So we haven’t even thought
about who would start, which is kind of interesting. So let’s start with you, Monica. Why don’t you tell us
just a little bit about just your work, first from
a scientific perspective, so they know what it is
that your measuring and why, and the rest will come through as well. – Okay. Well, I should start
saying that I was trained as a marine scientist, and as many people,
actually, I was plant blind, which means I didn’t
care at all about plants. They’re a green background
that is there, and that’s all. And I was very infatuated, like many of us, with animals, because they moved, they’re
pretty, they’re colorful. They attract our attention. And then that changed
while I was in the field, and it was changed by the very animals that I was working with. And the plants came in, and the one way which I think of it is they came in and rescued the scientist. Because there was just a point where I couldn’t just completely divert it out, and thought, start in
a different direction and they were like, there’s
still some work to do. So I started working with
plants not as a botanist or a plant physiologist or any of that, but totally as a very ignorant novice. And I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t want to learn the names, I didn’t want to know how they worked, I just wanted to engage
with them in a new way. Because that was the way in
which I was trying to think of these subjects or
objects that we work with, and I wanted to have a
relationship with them as subjects. And so I started with the plants that were just really close to me. The chilis, they were
growing in the garden, and the basil plants and
I asked the same question I used to ask when I was
working with the animals. I’d been trained as a behavior ecologist so I’m asking why animals,
or in this case, plants do what they do and do
they remember things? Do they learn about what
they’ve experienced, and do they care? And so I started asking
this question with plants and also quickly realized
that those question were not question that
I was supposed to ask. And so I was like, ah, and why not? And so it became kind of a game of like, well, why shouldn’t
we ask these question? Isn’t science supposed to be ask the very question that we
don’t know things about? And so I started from
can plants communicate with each other and how do they know? Who is growing next to them, what is the one next to them is doing? And of course, there was
already some beautiful scientific literature there, which get me like some hope that it was worth starting
this and trying this. And then I derailed further, and okay, yeah, communication, we don’t know, they can
communicate, it’s fine. And my contribution in that area was in the context of
acoustics or bioacoustics, which means sound. And how plants have their own sound, and they are listening to
the sounds around them. And I’m not talking about
sounds that we human make so that they maybe respond, and I’m not talking about sonification of other signals that plants produce, like electrical signals,
that we transform into music. I’m talking about actual acoustic signals that the plant produces, emanates out, and other types of acoustic
signals that are coming from around the plant. From other plants, other animals, the environment, the physical environment. That plants are tuning in
to then do what they do. But from there, I diverted further, and I thought, wow, all
of this information, so do they remember it? How do they learn about it? Because what is the point of gathering all these bits of information if you have to learn
from scratch every time. And of course, I now know
that there is no organism that would do that. It just is not very efficient, if you had to learn
everything from scratch all the time, you would
be dead pretty quick. So then I started doing experiments on plant learning and plant memory, and some of these you might have heard of. I worked with a plant that is quite famous because many other scientists before have worked with these plants, and I mean mimosa pudica. And this is the touch me not plant, so it’s the one that you touch the leaves, and they fall. And it’s the movement, it’s real time, which means in our time scale, which means that we can pay attention and we can see, oh, yeah, the plant is doing something. Most of the behaviors of plants occur at a different time scale, so we just assume that
they’re not doing anything, but that’s not true. And then I stretched a little bit further and I worked with peas, the green, garden, humble pea. And I demonstrated experimentally that the famous Pavlovian dog experiment can also be run with a plant. And the plant, very
successfully can pass the test. And so of course, the question is well, if a plant can associate
bits of information, some of which don’t really
have any meaning to start with, and then they can acquire meaning, well, first of all, who
is doing all of this? And then how and why? And of course, all of
those are question actually have a very simple answer, but from a scientific perspective, that answer can be very uncomfortable. So I guess, I leave it there. – For now, for now, okay. All right, Richard, do you want to say a little bit about your book? – I will just say a couple of things. This is going to come
across as terribly ageist, but an informal, empirical measurement suggests that there will
be at least a few people in this room who will remember
a television commercial from the 1980s in which an actor, famous for his role on one of the great soap opera hospitals, soap operas, came on come to plug Vic’s cough medicine with the famous line, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” (audience laughs) And I’m sitting here,
listening to Monica saying, I’m not a botanist, and I’m
not a cognitive scientist, but I play them in a novel, and I’ve been doing that for a while with various professions over the years. Overstory’s my 12th book, and I’ve been publishing
for about 35 years. Monica mentioned that she was plant blind when she trained initially
for her scientific career. I am sure I can beat you
at your plant blindness many times over. I couldn’t tell an elm from an ash tree. I mean, they were beautiful, and they were large, and
sometimes impressive. But they dropped stuff on my car. And they were a nuisance twice a year, and I exaggerate a little bit. I mean, my path has been long and winding, but the realization that this
attempt that I’ve been making over the course of my entire adult life to tell the story of who were are, and where we are, and how we manage to do what we have done was
ignoring the obvious. And it was a belated discovery that hit me at the age of 55 when I saw my first 1500 year old redwood. I’m not proud of the fact, I mean, it doesn’t take great sensitivity to have your worldview
shaken by something that’s 30 feet across, and 300 feet
tall, and 1500 years old. It’s being hit on the side of the head with a very large, blunt instrument. But since that moment, my whole sense of what it means to tell a human story has changed. And I’ll leave it there, except to say you also leaved
a delightful expression when you said, you began
your second scientific career in a state, in the state of
being an ignorant novice. I certainly have been that my entire life. I was that when I started
writing this book, and I suspect I’ll get over
the finish line in that state, but there is great zeal
now in that ignorance, and a great attentiveness
that’s come about by realizing this humbling realization that I missed so much of the story, and I’m just glad that
I’ve caught up with it at this point in my life. – Yeah, but this, I mean, you write spectacularly, beautifully. But there is a sense of mission there, I feel, at least as a reader. – And that has not gone unchallenged by a certain kind of critic,
or a certain kind of reader. The manifesto quality of the book. Because I’ll have more things to say about certain things that have happened to literary fiction in the
post-industrial western culture as we talk, but one thing
that has certainly happened is a kind of apotheosis
of this notion that all truth is determined in the ambiguous and ultimately undecidable cauldron of the self colliding with other selves. And that all positions will forever remain morally ambiguous. And my awakening to the
world of the non-human was also concurrent with my understanding that may not be entirely true. And that they may be certain things that literary fiction can be sure of that would be instrumental
in the next step of our education, which is we
are not the only ones here. And if that comes across
as a manifesto, so be it. I still think there are plenty, there’s plenty of room for
all of drama, the conflict, the uncertainty, the ambiguity,
the maze of being trapped in a human body, even given that, right? But to deny the ability of fiction to say there are certain things
that we’re going to have to come to terms with if we
want to stay here any longer. I don’t see that that’s out of line. – And it brings to mind
something that is also a big worry of mine, which is, and I was going to leave this for later, but since we’re here now, we
might as well just go there, which is, we’re all bombarded every day with news about global warming, ’cause climate change is a euphemism. It’s called global warming, folks, and we all know about this, and yet the narrative that is being told to us is not doing anything. You can scare people or
pretend to scare people as much as you want. But it doesn’t seem to be working. And I think you are aware of that, in your novel, you bring this up, right. And there’s something you say, actually, it’s a quote. – [Richard] If it’s a
quote, it must be real. – Yeah, it’s even in quotation marks. It’s “The best arguments in the world “won’t change a person’s mind. “The only thing that can
do that is a good story.” – And you know, a great deal
of psychological exploration has produced a fair amount
of data about precisely that. There are various ways of
expressing that same idea. You can’t reason a
person out of a position that they didn’t use reason to
get into in the first place. (audience laughs) Or in a formulation of, with
a journalist this afternoon, I came up with you can’t reason a person out of a position that
they use testosterone to get into in the first place. – [Marcelo] Exactly. – But this idea that we maybe more evidently more persuadable through affect, and that reason is a
kind of after the fact ratification of the thing that
we’ve already committed to using various kinds of of
emotional intelligence, I think is very well documented
in a variety of ways. And you don’t even have to
look at American politics to know that the way to
another person’s convictions is not through graphs, all right. Although I have to
mention this great quote by George Bernard Shaw. He said, “The true measure
of a person’s level of civilization is their ability
to be moved by statistics.” that would eliminate a lot of us, but the beauty of fiction
is you can create kinship, and you can create
identity, identification. You can generate hopes and fears, terrors, and desperate desires,
through these processes of fictional identification. And then you have them, right? Then you can say, if
you’re afraid of that, think of this. Or if you’d like to get to
that place, how about this? And that’s the beauty of
fiction as a paradigm changer. In individual consciousness, right? – That’s so, talking about stories, if you go back in time before us, meaning us, meaning the
western civilization, and we talk about how
different native people related to nature and to forest and how they learned from it
and how they listened to it, and why aren’t we doing this anymore? – We are doing this. – Well, you are. But we lost, most of us
have lost this conversation. – Well I guess, it connects with exactly what Richard just mentioned, and I would, if you don’t mind me, I would put a label to it. And I think what we are
talking about is empathy. Like for a reader to enter into a book, you need to emphasize with the characters. They need to become you in some form, whether you like them or not, but you become part of the
book while you’re reading it, and if the writer is good, it will, yeah, pull you in, and you have no choice. And I guess that points to the fact that we are probably, inevitably,
totally, empathic beings. And so we can’t even help it, you know. You can try not to,
but I think our default would be to empathize. And of course, we seem
to be very good to do it with the people we love,
who are close to us, but just a matter of extending that to the wilder, wider world, both of the animals around
us and the non-animals. Non-humans, non-animals, these others who have very different forms from us, but they have so much to share. And so empathy then becomes
the really potent weapon where if you can humble
yourself to the fact that are others who might
know better than you. Because really, as you
mentioned at the beginning, we are the new kids on the block. So traditionally, you should pay respect to the elders, and the
elders in this case are pretty much plants and bacterias, and we were talking
about it today, you know. Some of these creatures have been around for times that we cannot even comprehend. And they’ve been doing very well. And here we comes and we think that we are this special thing and we are at the top of the food chain and again, these ideas
that there is a chain, that there is a pyramid, and we are at the top of it, is also a very arrogant, juvenile way of seeing ourself in the world. And so I suppose there are two things here that I like to point out. One, that possibly,
hopefully, that all of us have been through teenage years. And I don’t know how
yours were, but oh my god. (laughs) exactly. So anybody who’s been through that would know how crazy, incredible, depressing, exhilarating, that time is. So it’s full of extremes, which is basically what
we are seeing as humanity at the moment. And it’s just a matter of really, okay, it’s time to bring the adult in. And the adult is, we need to
become the adult of humanity, and empathy’s really good for that, because it puts you in the other people, and I use people, not
just to refer to human, but all others. In other people’s shoes
or roots or whatever it is that you are having. And by doing that, I
think that we actually are remembering, because I don’t think we need
to return to a golden age, but we are remembering what
we have known for a long time, which is what indigenous
people around the world, have known, and thanks, god,
they keep the memory alive, so that we just have a
chance to remember again. That these qualities as empathic beings, we can connect with the
world around and realize that there’s no one around. There is just a you, in and out, and the other in and out, too. So the entire system is porous. It’s often, there is no such a
thing as the tree over there. We we’re talking about it today. It’s like, at lunch, I was thinking, and I think of these a lot, it’s like I’m breathing,
someone is breathing me. And then is someone is
delivering these other materials, which I call food,
which are building this. And so, who is this? Who is the one that I call me? Is it me, just the human
component, whatever that means? Or is it some bit of human, and then there is the salad that I ate, and the fruit that I had this morning. And so there is this composite of others, all the time, co-creating and recreating what I call and identify
as ah, this is me, as the human. And if we stop thinking in that, if we start thinking that way, then these empathic opening, it’s again, it becomes the obvious. Because as it’s like, well, you can only feel grateful that someone is making you all the time, or you just wouldn’t be here at all. But not just because, oh,
you stopped breathing, but because your body wouldn’t be this. And of course, from an
indigenous perspective, and I don’t pretend to know
or understand in depth. My understanding is very superficial, and I’m very aware of that, but from their perspective it seems to me that it’s so obvious that
the recognition that we are not just interconnected, but
we are all that there is. As everything else is all that there is, and there is only one big blob of life growing and dying and
regrowing and reshaping itself. Then it’s madness and total ignorance to think that we can
affect or cut down a forest and pretend that it doesn’t affect you. It’s like, well, you just
cut down a piece of you. Why would you do that? Exactly. So thinking in those terms then action is not necessarily, it doesn’t
have to be this big deal. Action is just literally change your mind about how you interact with the world, and we will not be doing some of the things that we are doing. It will be so simple, and I am going to read
something from your book, because it’s appropriate. And I didn’t plan this, but it’s perfect. – [Richard] Can we make some edits first? – No, no way. Let me do it raw. If I can find it, I
put a little doggy ear. There. – And here it is. – (laughs) Here, as a scientist, I was like, yeah, that’s it. You know, in part of story is like, the chuckle is like pressing on wound. Improve forest health,
is written in italics, as if forests were waiting
all these 400 million years for us newcomers to come cure them. Science, in the service
of willful blindness, how could so many smart people
have missed the obvious. A person has only to look to see that dead logs are far more alive than living ones, but the senses never have much chance against the power of doctrine. Change your mind, and the game is over. – So this notion that
the sense don’t stand much chance in the face
of the power of doctrine. I’m going to make a bridge
from your plea for empathy, to a first foray into this
question of plant intelligence treated empirically. So, there is a character in the book, Patricia Westford, who
Marcelo was talking about, who does bear remarkable
resemblance to Monica’s career. Incidentally, after she wrote
me, and I read her book, I just thought, oh my god. If you had just done this a year before, my novel would be so much better. (audience laughs) Between the mimosa experiment, classical conditioning of a plant, and the plant sending its
roots toward the sound of running water. I mean, for nothing but those
two empirically demonstrated phenomena alone, I would
have had a stronger book. But one of the, Patricia’s father is
teaching her as a young girl, he’s saying, you know, she wants to know what it is with her classmates that they’re so biased
against these creatures that Patricia herself
feels so at home with. And he says, you know,
this is Adam’s curse. We are only interested in things
that are kind of our size, that move at more or less our
speed, that have more or less our life time, that look
more or less like us. And people who are driving
the conservation moment know that, right? I mean, that’s why the World
Wildlife Fund uses a panda, and that’s why Al Gore uses a polar bear, and Greenpeace uses baby seals. Because they look like us. It’s easier to empathize
the closer taxonomically the creature is to us. They don’t use bacteria. They don’t use the thousands of plants that are equally endangered. It’s a bizarre biased
against primary producers, the ones on which the
rest of the globe depends. But I think that same battle between the formulation where
pre-existing mental expectation blinds us to what is in front of us, has really impeded the study
of plants for a long time. And I’ll give just one example. How many gardeners? – Woo hoo!
– That’s lovely. I’ve found myself late
in life on the circuit, and where I used to go
to esoteric conventions on post-modern literature, I now to arboretums, and it’s so great. But in any case, people have known since at least the early 19th century, that fungal filaments go
into the roots of plants. Every gardener knows it. You can see it, it’s a
macroscopic phenomenon. But the notion of fungal
plant relationship was so dominated by this
concept of pathology, right, that fungus kills plants. Lurking just off the side of
this is an incredible bias in science toward wanting
to see competition as the all-prevailing
mechanism of evolution, to the exclusion of all other mechanisms. But in any case, why was it there, why did it have to sit
there for two centuries? Before people began to say, well, what is it doing inside
the roots of these trees? If it’s not killing
them, what is it doing? And similarly with the
study of whatever it is that we want to call plant intelligence. Yet the answers to the questions we ask, if the questions that we’re asking are they can’t what we do, right? We’re going to get the
answer to that question. And I would just say
the gradual diminishment of the power of those conceptual biases over the last 40 or 50 years, has resulted in plants becoming
a whole lot more intelligent in the space of half a century. Was that, the Mark Twain thing about, I just remembered this
thing about when he was 20, he thought his father was
the stupidest person alive on the face of the planet, and by the time he was
40, he was astonished at how much the old man
had learned in 20 years. (audience laughs) – I love it. Yeah, I’m just going to read this because it’s not a quote, it’s just something I brought together for people who are not that knowledgeable about what’s going on with plants, but so. Exactly on this issue of trees
being very much like we are. They breathe, they eat,
they reproduce, they grow, they communicate, they
take care of their kin, and then Monica and Richard can explain how that all happens. They strategize their survival. They are capable of
remarkable acts of sacrifice. They spread their seeds across the land in search of better places, but they do all this much
more slowly than we do. So it’s sort of an intelligence
completely alien to us, because we are self-centered creatures that can only see within our anthropomorphic way of thinking. So this sort of knowledge is not that old, this discovery that we now know this, we didn’t know this 20, 30 years ago? – By the way, I should make explicit for those people who were
waiting for my comments to cohere into a reasonable point. (audience laughing) The hidden component of this argument was that we now know that
fungal intermediaries connect trees of different species, and that they mediate the distribution of secondary metabolites
in hydrocarbon sugars across the species barrier. And that if you’re walking in the woods, and you see this spindly creature, and you think, oh, that’s a sapling. That can’t be more than
four or five years old. It could be 75 years old, and kept alive for three
quarters of the century by resources that were being
created by other trees. Right, now once you know that, you have to think about a forest as a different kind of thing. And you have to think about cooperation as a component of the
stabilization of ecosystems in a way that was broadly neglected for a long, long time. As we sought for confirmation that somehow nature was
red and tooth and claw. The belated realization
that it’s also pretty green, it’s just been dawning on us. – And I guess, if I might add there, the knowledge, yes, is new in terms of, from a very specific perspective. Like a western, European,
derivative of science. But returning to indigenous knowledge, well, we’ve been knowing
this for millennia. – [Richard] And gardeners have known this. – Yeah, exactly. Who said that science is the
only way of knowing as well, which is, in a way, as a scientist, I think, I love science, and I think I have a lot of fun doing it, and I think it’s a beautiful
way to describe the world, but it’s not the unique, the only way. And it’s interesting
to say that these time when science is for
certain parts of society is under attack. And it’s kind of good and not so good. Of course it’s good because
it’s forcing science to recognize, you know, evaluate yourself. Make sure that what you say you’re doing, you’re actually really doing it. But also in the process of evaluating, realize that you’re not alone. Which exactly is the crux of the problem. You can’t operate in isolation. No forest, no system, no
natural system does that, so why would our cultural system, and science is one of them, should be able to operate in isolation and function perfectly find. It doesn’t, and again, returning to even these kind of events is like, I mean, the institute
is trying to do exactly that. To bring these different
perspectives together because they don’t
belong in separate boxes. And for me I learn much more when I’m exchanging with
people who see the world in totally different ways. And this is not just restricted,
again, to academia, either, but it can be anyone. And so yeah, and I guess, it brings me to a point about listening. And you know, we are all
capable of listening. Gardeners, a good example. Gardeners are keen, attentive, they have this devotion
towards their gardens, and but fundamentally, you
need to spend time and listen. Listening doesn’t just
mean with your ears, but listening with the body and see what is the space saying, where is that? And I know that this is
actually where we lose ourself, and that’s why gardening
is such a nurturing moment in time, you know. You’re going there and just do your thing, it doesn’t matter what is
happening in your life, for that moment, you’re right there. And I think that this kind
of listening is fundamental, but it’s not new. We’ve been doing this for ever and ever, and so even the question
of plant intelligence is like, well, you know,
we’ve been listening to plants for a very long time, and in fact, if it wasn’t the case, again, we wouldn’t be here. So it’s a kind of revival on one side, and a recognition that we
have forgotten something really precious, and we
need to remember it quickly. Because now our remembering is urgent. – So one other example
about the difficulty in accepting the evidence
that’s in front of you over sets of categories
that you’ve inherited. And this has to do with over the air chemical signaling between trees. So a lot of you will be
conversant with this as well. There’s a couple of
ways that this happens. For instance, you may know
about acacia trees in Africa, where when the herbivore comes and starts to graze on
the leaves of the acacias. Those leaves are only
digestible or palatable for a short period of time. Because as soon as the
grazing starts to happen, the tree begins to pump
out preemptive chemicals that make the taste bitter. So that’s pretty remarkable. Now you could, old school
mechanisms are still going to say well, that’s robotic. It’s not interesting behavior, it’s just a kind of, we can find causal
mechanisms that make this pretty straight forward. At the same time, the tree
that’s being grazed on is releasing chemicals into the air that produce this same response in other acacia trees farther downwind. And we also see this insect predation in broad leaves like, a lot of trees have this, it’s
a fairly widespread thing. They’re not only producing
their own insecticides when the insects come, but the trees nearby begin to produce their own insecticides. And yeah, I heard someone whisper wow. That was my response when I read this. And you know, the first people
who were doing this research presented the research very, very soberly. Very conservatively, and nevertheless, they got pilloried. Because, oh, that’s not what’s happening, that can’t be what’s happening. There’s no intention,
there can’t be transmission or reception in any epiphenomenal way, it has to be merely accidental to say that they’re sharing an immune system is anthropomorphizing. Well, see, there’s the word, right? I think this prohibition against allowing anything to resemble us has gone so far that it’s made it impossible for us to see where there are
legitimate resemblances. The prohibition against anthropomorphism has produced an anthro-exceptionalism, or human exceptionalism,
or an anthro-centrism. That the data just don’t support. So it’s just another example of research that was initially very controversial, if not repudiated outright, that has gradually been assimilated into consensual knowledge, and the thing is, science
pays a lot of lip service to this notion of radical skepticism. Like, just say what you see. But we forget how much
interpretive mechanism is already involved in
even proposing to do certain work, let alone to
put it out there, right? And it’s the sensitivity
to those interpretations that have made it so difficult to say, well, what is it doing? Let’s not worry too much
about the word intelligence, because the reality is if
you mean by intelligence, something way down at
this end of the spectrum, flexible behavior in response
to changing environment, then we have that from the
very beginning of life. If you mean the far other
end of the spectrum, sets of rational syllogisms
with which you can create symbol space, proofs, that then compel self-conscious behavior, we don’t do that. (audience laughs) – That’s good.
– So, you know, it’s this anxiety about plants that have made plants so hard to study. – I guess, sorry. – No, go ahead. – I was thinking, because
with one of my colleagues, we also work on slime molds, and actually, people think
the slime molds are cute. They kind of say, ah, this is fun, the slime mold is doing the maze, how amazing, and that’s smart. Slime mold can be intelligent, it’s okay. – [Richard] They can solve mazes? – Yeah, for slime to be
intelligent, it’s okay. If you do the same with plants, it’s like, no, that’s not. I don’t believe you is
the common response. I don’t need your belief, I’m just showing the data. Again, but what is interesting, I find is, so, how many people have seen slime mold? How many people interact
with slime molds every day? Exactly. Hopefully, you don’t. – [Richard] You haven’t
seen my refrigerator. – I hope not. But yet, plants are always
everywhere in our face, even when we try to avoid them and to cut them down and not to have them in our environment, but they are there. So again, they are the
quintessential perfect model to remind us constantly of our humanity. And like your humanity depends
on everyone else around you, and you’re okay with the things
of those that you don’t see, and it’s kind of, it’s a cute game, because it doesn’t really
challenge you really every day like a slime mold. But plants, the plants
is a constant challenge. If you actually think of it as this thing, this being, it’s intelligent. It’s got things to say. And yeah, it changes. – [Richard] Do you run into
neuronal chauvinism a lot? – Neuron doctrine? – [Richard] Yeah, yeah. – Oh yeah. The typical, well, they
don’t have neurons, they don’t have brain, therefore, and it’s like, well,
I’m missing the logic. So no neuron, no brain, therefore, plant cannot be intelligent? What does that mean? Who said a priori that
intelligence requires neurons and brain? I mean, we might, maybe. We might do it that way, but again, who said that we are the golden standard? Who decided that? And of course, that also means that everyone else is bound to fail. – Yeah, so Richard wanted
me to bring up astrobiology. – I was just thinking of that. – And which is basically– – Are you guys reading
each others’ minds now? – I know, seriously, what is going on, this non-verbal– – It’s a form of intelligence.
– Yeah. – And it’s just like, so astrobiology, the study of life elsewhere
not on earth, right? And if you guys may know, that there is this thing called SETI, which is this whole
effort called the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, which has developed over the last 50 years to capture radio signals
from other civilizations because you know, intelligence means us. Kind of technological intelligence, right? And it just occurred to me
that you could have a planet, a spectacular planet, absolutely covered with beautiful vegetation and life and developing all these
tremendous strategies for survival, and cooperation in the environment, which is the opposite of the
natural selection thing, right? I mean, it’s usually about
the survival of the fittest, it’s not, okay, the fitter may also be able to–
– Yeah, I have some words to say about that. – Be able to cooperate to survive, but the general idea is that
it’s the strongest, right? And whatever that means, that’s
the anthropomorphized, but. – Yeah, two things on this first. One, on the various
chauvinisms of astrobiology. And this is a field,
it’s a very young field, that is trying rapidly to
pass through its adolescence. But you don’t even need to
talk about the SETI people. I mean just think, well, I’m old enough to have
sat in a psychology class where my professor was saying, if you think your pet is feeling emotions, you’re delusional. But I’ve also watched this discipline go from a planet can only
be habitable if it can have liquid water on its surface, to much more subtle senses about the way that life can deploy. And part of that is extremophiles. We now know how much
more versatile life is on earth than we thought just a while ago, but we now think that the great candidates for life in the solar
system aren’t even planets. They’re moons with frozen surfaces that have subsurface oceans. And that’s a huge overcoming
of these cognitive blindnesses, and the surrender of
surface chauvinism, liquid. There’s a lot of speculation that Titan with big lakes of methane could be producing other kinds of of life. So it’s all part of a very long humbling that we resist tooth and claw. And in addition to plants looking so. Our most recent common ancestor was so far back that
what they’ve gone on to is so very different, but we’re hugely anxious
for a number of reasons. One is they don’t, they
clearly don’t solve the world in any kind of way that we do. They’re primary producers
and we’re the parasites. I make a little joke about
the Noah’s arc in the book. So you’re going to put all
the animals on the arc, and you’re going to leave
all the plants behind? How’s that going to work for ya? So we’re very anxious about that. And then there’s another thing that plants make us anxious about, and that’s that they
seem to have an access to potential immortality
that we don’t have. You can propagate a plant
indefinitely, vegetatively. And there’s a lot of speculation that, I mean there are trees, there are individual
bristle cone pine trees that are older than human writing. Individual trees, right. And I think that in our human separatist, commodity mediated, individualist pursuit of private meaning, the idea that there
are creatures out there where the boundary condition
between separate individuals is very nebulous. And they might, in the right conditions, go on for long enough to
be called a local forever, is very threatening. And the aspen, colonial aspen colonies, which is, so the trunks above the ground are maybe only 70 or 80 years old. But that root mass? We don’t even know to
the order of magnitude how old those are. I mean, there are people that
say 10 to a 100,000 years. There are people who say a million years. That’s– – Wow, yeah.
– And I guess, from that perspective is like, then we might not be able to imagine what the solution to
our current dilemma is. But maybe we don’t need to. There are others who have been around and done this for a long time, and if we we’re humble enough to listen, the solution might be delivered. And this is totally possible because we’ve done it before. So again, it’s the amount of knowledge that is available, and the
inspiration that is available is beyond our own belief. That’s why maybe we are so overwhelmed that we can’t even think of asking. – That’s right. The limits of plants intelligence are contingent upon the limits to human intelligence.
– Yeah, we are the limit. – So we have lots of
pretty good questions here, and it works, the software works, for those of you who have cell phones. – [Richard] Plants
don’t have this do they? They have no cell phones.
– That’s right, exactly. Well, maybe we should. So one question from Damiano
who is a fellow Italian. He says, how does Monica’s
research on plant intelligence impact environment ethics. Slow. – Well, I have been working
with environment lawyers and of course, I guess, many of you are already familiar
with the entire movement of earth jurisprudence, and the fact that rights, legal rights are being granted to some environments and some ecosystems, and
including here in the US and New Zealand on other places. How these legal movements
are really impacting in the practical sense, we’ll need to see. But at least it’s a start. And what that means is the recognition of a forest or river has its own agency. So because of that, just because it is, it has the right to be there. And if we have to use, because really, again,
the river doesn’t need us to tell it, oh yeah, you’re allowed to be. But the legal system is there and so the ethics are important because of the human
construct that needs them. So if that’s what we need to use, the very tools that we create to separate, might be able to be the very tools that allows us to reconnect. And so in that sense, it’s useful for the legal system to have some science that kind of support the claims. They’re like, well, you know, yeah, they’re intelligent, they can
do all of these amazing stuff. And if you take, again,
the terms of intelligence from its Latin root, it just means the capacity to choose
between, inter, legere. So it’s about decision making, choices. And not just plants, but
everything that is here make choices all the time. So naturally, we could say
that everything is intelligent. – Well, people who are
interested in this question in its broadest sense, I want to recommend an incredible article that was formative for this entire question
of the rights of nature. It goes way, way back. It’s Christopher Stone’s 1972 article, “Should Trees Have Standing?” He starts out exploring Darwin’s notion in “Descent of Man,” of
how you can roughly see human history as a gradual
expansion of who gets personhood. And when you think about
who didn’t have personhood at one time or another in human history, it includes almost everyone. All right, women, children, other races. The aged, the infirm, right? And what we’ve witnessed in the
course of social development is the gradual realization that this personhood needs to be an ever-increasing big tent. And then Stone says, why
stop at 23 chromosomes? And he says the problem
with the legal system as it then stood was you needed to have a human plaintiff, someone who could say I have been damaged or harmed in some way in order to take out a suit. Which meant that you could
do whatever you wanted to the non-human world, in
whatever degree you wanted. And no one would have
standing unless there was some downstream human who suffered. And it’s a marvelous piece. He goes on and on and he says if you’re worried about how
this would work out legally, don’t forget that we allow
corporations to have standing. Didn’t Dartmouth have something to do with this, historically? The personhood of universities? So we have corporations
that could be represented in court as people. Universities, ships. It would not be a
terribly complicated thing to be able to being out suits on behalf, and sure enough, here we
are, how ever many years after Stone’s piece. Switzerland, you mentioned New Zealand, Bolivia.
– Yeah, and the US. – Yeah that’s right. Just certain locales that realized that if the law is about preserving a viable relationship among stakeholders, it’s got to look at things
a little more broadly. – And here again, where
indigenous and first nation, people become critical. In New Zealand, for example,
for the Whanganui River it was because of the
traditional owner of that country that they on behalf of the river, so speaking on behalf of the river, they went to court. And so like we are speaking
on behalf of the water, because the river, the
water that is there, is the bed of the river is the rocks, the grass that grows on the bank is the trees and forest
that needs that water, all the animals that live
around there, and us. And so suddenly, it’s like,
oh, there is a lot of interest in here, like legal interest, who have been infringed
on by a chemical company who wants to dump some
toxic chemicals in there, and infringe on all of this rights. And it took a while, but they won. – There you go.
– Yay! – Exactly, it’s possible. – So here we go. Jamie Park asked a
question to Richard saying, throughout your book, your characters seem spiritually engaged with nature. Did writing “The Overstory” change or create your spiritual
relationship with nature? I can say without exaggeration, that writing the book moved
me across the country. It changed where I lived. It changed how I spend my days. I did a research trip for the book. I was stunned to learn as
I began writing the book that all of the primary
forests in the United States that were intact when Europeans came, 95 to 98% of them have been cut. I mean, it was a mind blowing statistic. For one, because I realized, that meant that I’ve never been in a fully functioning, healthy forest. Every forest that I’ve ever
been in was a recovering forest. And as Joan Maloof’s work taught me, there isn’t a human
being that has ever lived who was seen the richness,
the species count, the interconnectivity, the established, deep ecological stability of an old growth forest
come back from a cut forest. Ever. And if people pull out
numbers, they’ll say, well, it takes 300 years
for a forest to recover, or 500 years, or a thousand. We don’t know, ’cause we
haven’t seen it happen. Now those kinds of subterranean and reciprocal species relationships, indigene species only
exist in uncut forests. And in order to see one, I had to travel. I’m an easterner, right. I grew up in the Midwest,
and I spent most of my life either on the east
coast, or in the Midwest. In order to see an uncut
eastern broadleaf forest, I kept reading that the
best place to go was the Smoky Mountains. Because there’s still
about a 120,000 acres of uncut forest there,
which is nothing, really. But enough to get a
sense of what the country would have looked like. And I went there, just as a research trip, and I was still semi-plant blind. I mean, I knew now that I wanted to know, but I still was learning
massive amounts every day. But I didn’t have to be at all literate when I made that trip. When I passed from the recovering forest into the uncut forest, and I’ve used this line
before, but it’s really apt. It’s like that moment
in “The Wizard of Oz,” where it goes from black
and white to color. It smells different, and the
quality of light is different. And the sound is different. And the species count is hugely different. And I just had this moment, it absolutely overwhelmed me. I just thought, this is my country. This is our legacy. This is what the whole
east would’ve looked like. And I was still thinking about this place eight months later, how
I felt when I was there. And what it seemed like to be in. And that sense of this is the forest as the Cherokee would’ve tended it all the way back to the ice age, you know. And I thought, if I’m
still thinking about this a year later, that’s got to say something. So I moved. I bought a house down there
and I’ve been living there for the past four years. So every day of my life has
been changed by this book. – That’s wonderful. Okay, more scientific
question, which you know, is my calling.
– It must be for you. – You know, it’s my calling,
I have to make heed here. So, how does a plant
send acoustic signals, interpret them, and generate a response? – We don’t know. But.
– But. – There’s always a but. Well, acoustics, sound,
is a mechanical wave, so compared to chemicals, for example, for which there is a something that needs to produce the chemical, then the chemical is released, and then on the other side you need to have a receptor that can detect that particular chemical and process that and make it
into a piece of information. Mechanical waves are
totally different in a sense because they can pass through
anything that is in the space. And they will move through the space by moving, bumping
molecules against molecules, and that’s how the sound
is transduced across. And so if you have a body, you’re likely to have what
it takes to perceive sound. Now from the perception to actually making some kind of sense of it, you might have to have some
kind of mechanical receptors that can pick up that bit of information and translate it into something
that makes sense for you. Most likely like in most
signals of any kind, the translation from whatever
to a common language, it’s electrochemical. And guess what, your brain does that. Your neurons do that. And plants do that. And bacterias do that. And everything does that,
and maybe that’s why we call life is a spark, or the spark of life, because life is electrochemical. So in a way, it really depends on where we are looking for the answer, again. If we are looking like, oh, if you are listening to sound, you must have a pair of ears, and there is a brain that
needs to process that, then plants can’t do that,
because they don’t have either. But if you think of snakes, for example, they don’t have ears. They have a brain but
they don’t have ears, and they have jaws. And actually, they listen to sound by allowing for the vibrations
to move the jaw bones. So here is an example of yet an animal who is detecting the same
that you can listen to, or actually even more because
it’s probably detecting more frequencies than we can. It’s just doing it in
a very different way. Does the snake not use sound
for its everyday living? Yes it does. Is it doing in a human way, no. Is that less, no. Snakes are pretty good at being snakes. So I guess plants are
pretty good at being plants. We don’t know the details
about how they might do it, but it’s likely that the bottom line is they’re just picking up a
signal from the environment and translating it into
electrochemical signals, which is really the
Esperanto of all cells. No matter which configuration
and forms they come with, so. – And what really fascinated
me in your account of these experiments in your book was how sophisticated the
methodology had to become to control for anything else
that might be causing it, like the magnets in speakers. How to make sure that the root wasn’t being influenced
by a magnetic field. And that was, to me, that
was a great illustration of the beauty of science,
the challenge of science. – I want to move through
the other side now. We went that way, now. So that’s both of you, a few questions that overlap in this way, if you could speak a little bit about plant-human communication, and you interpret that word as you wish, ’cause there are many ways
of thinking about that. – I will often get asked
now whether I talk to trees. – You do, go on, you do. – But here’s the point, and I learned this from David Abram, who
many of you may know. Beautiful philosopher of nature. And David said when he talks to a tree, it’s not that he is expecting it to reply. He’s not even expecting
it to have any kind of interest or response to
even the pure acoustics of being spoken to. He does not in any way delude himself about the interest of this
attempted communication from the plant’s side. But what’s simply happening is that in that act, he’s promoting the tree from an object to a subject. It’s a change in him. – [Audience Member]
That’s the part in Buber. – Oh Buber was–
– Was the first to say. In what?
– In “I and Thou.” – In “I and Thou,” oh, okay. – [Audience Member] He
uses a tree specifically. – Does he, yeah. You know it’s interesting
how frequently philosophers have collided with trees
in very resonant ways. I’m thinking of Heidegger’s
famous passage, too. – Maybe it’s because philosophy
requires slow thinking. – Presence and attention.
– And that might be exactly where plants come in. Slow thinking. I guess I can offer boldly enough, I can offer almost the
opposite perspective of, I cannot be around plants
without them bothering me. We’re like, oh, can you do this? What about this? And you know that experiment
that you wanted to do? Well. And you shouldn’t do it with sunflowers. I think peas are going
to be better for you. And we get to the extreme and again, we discussed it a little
bit today as well, to the point that in
building and nurturing this relationship as you
do with any relationship. When you meet someone
new at the beginning, you don’t know how they move or they like, and as you spend more time together, you start syncing together,
and you start moving and then then sync together. And I think that applies to anyone, so plants as well, and in my experience, especially
over the last few years, because of this interest of allowing for this relationship to be
nurtured from both sides. Yeah, people cannot even get to my house. (audience laughing) And once they enter,
there is always a plant that’s like oh, they need this. And it’s like oh, shh. No, no, seriously, and then we talked about it today. It’s like then I can
feel my body being moved to whatever the plants,
the whatever is needed, and I have no idea why or what, but it’s like I have learned to trust that these relationship, which of course also have a foundation in communicative exchange of some kind, which again, doesn’t have to be like oh, they literally talk to you (laughs). I don’t have a puppet plant talking to me. But they do, and the
information is delivered. You know it’s not you, but it’s delivered in a very clear way that the body knows exactly what is needed. And all you’re required is to listen, to be open, and to do what you’re told. And if my dad in particular
would ever know this, I would be giving away my secret, because I never did what I was told. And now with the plants, they are not demanding, they just know that as part of our
relationship is that I trust that there are things
that I don’t understand and I don’t know, and
I’m happy to be guided. And so literally I had lots of people coming to just visit me for a cup of tea, and next thing I know they’re having this existential crisis, and yeah, it’s a transformation. And I know that it’s got nothing to do with me as me, it’s just that I’m happy to be present with that
and to allow it to emerge so that the plants can use the human as the intermediary for something that another human might need. And in that sense, again, I return to, for some, maybe this sounds very weird, but I return to the idea that there is so much knowledge here. Like millennia and millennia of knowledge, way beyond the human capacity, and if we are open, all we are required to do is to listen, and the plant world is just
so willing and so patient to just deliver, as they do
with everything that they do. They give us food, they give us oxygen, they don’t ask for anything. They just keep giving, you know. And that’s exactly what
they do with the knowledge, and I think again, if we
are open and humble enough to realize that we’re not alone, and if you don’t know that answer, you don’t have to. It’s okay not to know, and in a sense what I find myself doing is
that I know less and less. And at the beginning it’s like, maybe I’m suffering from sort
of dementia or something. I’m starting to forget what I learned. And getting more and more
comfortable slowly to know less. It’s almost like there is more space now. The less I know, the more space there is, and clear the way so
that I can hear better what has been shared
and do what is required, rather than what I
think I should be doing, or what should be good to do. Cause I know what is needed right now, which, again, if I might, it connects me with the very beginning
of our conversation in terms of climate
change and global warming. I’ve just been through
a major, major fires like right next to my house
and I live in the forest. And then followed by
major, major flooding. And it’s when the fire
came and my van was packed and it stayed packed for a week, and I didn’t know whether
I was going or staying, going or staying, and the
anxiety and the smell, and one morning I just turned around and I could see the
red sky from the flames and the fire just near by and I was like, what are you trying to say? What is it, why? Why are you here? What do you want me to learn from this? And the only word that
came was priorities. If I was to come and take
you tomorrow morning, are you actually doing
what you need to be doing? Are you using the precious
time that you have, which is every single moment,
to do what you’ve come to do, what is needed? Or are you just wasting
time fuffing around? And of course, I realized,
I’m wasting a lot of time fuffing around, so it’s time to do what I’m really needing to do. And it helped me to focus, it helped me to clear things that is like, why am I putting my energy in this stuff that actually doesn’t have any meaning? And I think that we are
at a critical junction where yeah, fire and flooding
and whatever else is coming are really clear wake-up calls, but not just like, oh, come on guys. But it’s like, what are you doing? What are you doing? Are you wasting your precious
time just fuffing around? Or are you going to do,
are you going to engage in the only action that
is really required? And if that means that you as the individual take
action, just do that. Sorry. (audience clapping) – There are so many good questions. I apologize, guys, that I
can’t go through all of them. But there is one here by Tracy which says, morels grow at the base of ash trees, but as the emerald ash
borers march into Vermont, I have found that morels
are at the base of maples. Do they sense that the ash are dying? – I’m not a scientist,
but I play one in a novel. I find morels under many
different trees in the Smokies. Here’s a funny thing about morels, though. If anybody ever says I found these morels, and you say where? They get really cagey. (audience laughing) But I will say this. I’m sure that the symbiotic relationships between fungi and their host, which can be very, very specific, are always, are right now
being thrown into upheaval There’s no question about that. And what we’re seeing is
there is some precedent, with what we’re seeing
with the emerald ash borer. I mean, we saw it with
the American chestnut, which plays a big part in my book. We saw it with Dutch elm street trees. We saw it with the eastern hemlock, and Fraser fir, and other trees that are susceptible to adelgids. And we know how profoundly disrupted all of the species, not just fungus, but all of the invertebrates. All of the species that
are so tightly imbricated with the species that’s undergoing the epidemic and the catastrophe. But I also want to go back to this passage about the dead tree on the forest floor being filled with life. And I hope this doesn’t
sound like cheap optimism, but when does fungus effloresce? A mushroom is the fruiting
body of fungus, right? And you see them, you see
when a big host comes down, everybody’s got to abandon ship
and go somewhere else, right? And the notion that
death is the entry point for life into a forest is
more than metaphorical. We know that speciation
is a very ephemeral thing. We know that species come and go, and Marcelo began this
whole talk by saying that arborescence as a solution
to survival on earth is on the order of 200,000 times longer than the entire duration of our solution. The ash and the morel and
their allies will survive us. And there should be some comfort in that. I mean, there should be some ability to make kinship with the long story that will also be comfort
in the short story. To make your kinship
and to make your empathy with something that goes beyond us will hugely limit your anxiety,
your species loneliness. The craziness that
constitutes the present, and will also give you
much more self-possession and much more joy regardless of what scenarios you’re facing. And again, it goes back to this, what is the proper
response to catastrophe. Just be present and change your heart and be part of this community, and do not fear. Do not feel as if what feels like the end of the world to you is the real end of the world. As Whitman says, nature remains. – I think on that note,
I’ll say thank you both for a wonderful evening. Thank you guys for your questions. (audience clapping)

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