Book Review: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

redwood trees

Are trees sentient beings? Author Peter Wohlleben believes so. He ascribes feelings such as pain and empathy, as well as sensations to trees, including hearing, seeing, smelling, touching and tasting. He goes even further however and says that they also communicate, nurture their young, and will even feed other trees that are running short on nutrients, i.e. showing care. Does Mr. Wohlleben sound crazy? Actually, not so much, according to the latest scientific findings about trees. There’s no question of him being an authority on the subject. As a forester with responsibility for managing a forest in the Eiffel mountains in Germany, he speaks from over twenty years of knowledge and experience. Wohlleben combines his intimate experience with the forest and the trees in it which he is personally responsible for, with the latest scientific knowledge. The end result is something between a fantasy novel and a briefing on the latest scientific findings about trees.

It has been discovered that sick pine trees whose cambium had died due to an aggressive fungus were being nurtured by neighboring healthy trees via their roots. The cambium pumps sugar solutions from the tree’s needles down to its roots. Prior to this discovery, the widespread belief was that without a cambium, a tree simply could not survive. Well it turns out that it can, because of the care the sick tree receives from its neighbors.

Mr. Wohlleben cites trees have the ability to see. As it turns out, trees shed and grow leaves not only according to temperature. Beeches, for example, are known to not leaf out until it is light for at least thirteen hours a day. How do they know this? Buds containing folded baby leaves on a tree branch are covered by a scale. Well, the scale is actually transparent such that the light can penetrate. So the tree ‘sees’ the light (and counts the hours?) and knows when it is time to begin growing.

The book goes on to give further instruction on the sentience of trees. When trees are really thirsty, they scream. Humans cannot hear them because the sound is in the ultrasonic range. They are also capable of learning. Mimosa leaves closed up at first when drops of water fell on them. But after a while, they stopped doing that, because they learned there was no danger.

While the book was been on the best seller list for the longest time, as you might expect, it has become a source of ire for certain critics. Ascribing human-like behaviors to trees is classic anthropomorphism, and this is a sin according to the scientific method. After all, we all know that the non-human world runs on stimulus-response. There are no cognitive intelligences among the other than human world. Or are there? We are learning that there are multiple intelligences in people. Why can’t we grant the same possibility to the other than human world? One thing for sure, I found the book to be almost revelatory, supporting my existential framework that holds nature as miraculous.

SCOTUS Upholds Vote Rigging

In another death blow to our democracy, the United States Supreme Court ruled last Thursday that extreme gerrymandered congressional maps will no longer be reviewed nor struck down by the federal federal courts. This means that the extreme gerrymandering of states like North Carolina and Maryland – which were previously struck down by the federal courts – are now sanctioned by the highest court.

This combined with the Citizens United decision and the systematic eroding of voting rights in the U.S. has ensured that the country will continue its trajectory of replacing democracy with corporatocracy.

Global Earth Repair Conference

I presented at the global earth repair conference in Port Townsend, Washington earlier this month. The event was certainly groundbreaking with some six-hundred attendees and over sixty presentations. The conference was not a scientific conference and while there was a good deal of sound information based on well understood and proven practices, there was  also some information presented which was notably disturbing.

Some speakers were ridiculing current scientific consensus on the necessity of bringing down atmospheric CO2 levels and instead were advocating for altering the earth’s hydrologic cycle through ecosystem restoration as the most important task in face of the present climate emergency. This theory is controversial at best and I am not aware of any peer-reviewed science supporting this theory and in fact there exist cogent arguments disputing this notion.

This in no way is to diminish the importance of ecosystem restoration and the valuable contribution made to society by this conference. That said, I felt it was wholly irresponsible and dangerous to diminish the importance of the necessity for us to to limit GHG emissions. This for me was a blemish on what was otherwise a superb forum around a key topic.

Farallones Institute 40th Reunion

On May 9-10, 2019 I attended the 40th year reunion of the Farallones Institute seeing friends some of which I had not seen in well over thirty years. The Institute was an amazing place founded on a vision for how best to participate in the growing ecological movement of the 1970s. It’s an amazing story really, too long to tell here, but I’ll include some pics and links here so readers can get an idea.

Integral Urban House
Integral Urban House

What today is known as the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center (OAEC) in Occidental, California started out as the Farallones Institute some 40 years ago. I was fortunate to live and work at the Institute in the mid-eighties, both as the last caretaker/tour guide of their Integral Urban House on 5th street in Berkeley, California and also at what we then called ‘the rural center’ which is where OAEC now exists.

solar village at Farallones Institute

The Farallones Institute started with an idea of a few folks and for more than two decades went on to make its mark on society and the world, ranging from becoming the place where the organic vegetables for Alice Water’s Chez Panisse were first grown, to demonstrating urban-self reliance in the city, and from first using the internet to link environmental and appropriate technology organizations globally (ECONET), to training Peace Corps volunteers before their overseas assignments.

The work at the Integral Urban House became a best selling book and was for a time the appropriate technology sourcebook of its day. The house was world famous. I can vouch for this personally as I gave tours to people from all over the world who made their way there. Integral Urban House book

While working for the Farallones Institute I became head of the ECONET project which became a significant early pilot in the use of the internet, years before the invention of the web browser. Because of ECONET I had the good fortune of meeting many of the pioneers of the personal computer and internet revolution including Douglas Engelbart, Jacques Vallee, Lee Felsenstein, Stewart Brand and Tom Jennings. My work with ECONET led to a career in telecomputing which lasted many years.

The people who went through the Farallones Institute experience went on to do great work throughout the world. At the reunion a few of us discussed uniting our shared vision of an ecological world contemporary with our times and manifesting that in a meaningful way. We’ll see!

 

Making America Hate Again? Twitter and Hate Crime Under Trump

Abstract

Social media has come under increasing scrutiny for reinforcing people’s pre-existing viewpoints which, it is argued, can create information “echo chambers.” We investigate whether social media motivates real-life action, with a focus on hate crimes in the United States. We show that the rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes since Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has been concentrated in counties with high Twitter usage. Consistent with a role for social media, Trump’s Tweets on Islam-related topics are highly correlated with anti-Muslim hate crime after, but not before the start of his presidential campaign, and are uncorrelated with other types of hate crimes. These patterns stand out in historical comparison: counties with many Twitter users today did not consistently experience more anti-Muslim hate crimes during previous presidencies.

Source: Müller, Karsten and Schwarz, Carlo, Making America Hate Again? Twitter and Hate Crime Under Trump (March 30, 2018). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3149103 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3149103

Dark Day for Press Freedom

I woke this morning to the news that the heroic journalist Julian Assange had been arrested. I had heard that the US government was hammering the Ecuadoran government to hand him over. Well they succeeded. The freedom of the press to report on governments gone rogue is held as sacrosanct in healthy democracies. I needn’t say more. We should all be concerned…very concerned. Learn more from this interview with Ryan Grim and this article in The Nation magazine. Long live a free and unfettered press!