Rough Text 7: The Hidden Life Of Trees

[Originally published as the seventh installment in my monthly book review column, “Rough Text,” in Penthouse magazine.]

The Hidden Life Of Trees, By Peter Wohlleben, (Greystone Books)

“It seems the trees can count!” writes Peter Wohlleben in this astounding, yet utterly boring book about trees. (I’m not sure how something can be astounding and boring at the same time, but Wohlleben has a peculiar talent for it. Which is fascinating in itself.)

But, wait. Trees can count? Well how high can they count?

They can count to tree. One, two, tree.

Sorry. I was very proud of that joke when I committed it to paper late one night, but seeing it now in the light of day…

Counting is a very interesting process. The first time I really thought about it was while reading Molloy, Malone Dies, And The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett. Early in the book, Molloy discusses the process he developed for communicating with a woman, who may or may not be his mother, by knocking on her skull. One knock meant yes, two no, three I don’t know, four money, five goodbye.

“That she should confuse yes, no, I don’t know, and goodbye, was all the same to me,” he wrote, “I confused them myself. But that she should associate the four knocks with anything but money was something to be avoided at all costs.”

So he would stick a bank note under her nose or in her mouth when he would administer the four knocks. Unfortunately he didn’t consider how deteriorated her memory was when he chose four knocks as the symbol for money.

“In the innocence of my heart!” Molloy exclaimed. “For she seemed to have lost, if not absolutely all notion of mensuration, at least the faculty of counting beyond two. It was too far for her, yes, the distance was too great from one to four. By the time she came to the fourth knock she imagined she was only at the second, the first two having been erased from her memory as completely as if they had never been felt, though I don’t quite see how something never felt can be erased from the memory, and yet it is a common occurrence. She must have thought I was saying no to her all the time, whereas nothing was further from my purpose.”

In short, counting requires memory. And if trees can count (fruit trees are able to distinguish the difference between the arrival of spring and a warm spell in January by counting the number of warm days), then that means they have memory. Memory requires storage, so where are trees storing their memories? Do trees have brains? Do they think?

There is much debate on the subject, but there is ample evidence to suggest they do. Trees are able to “talk” and communicate with each other through chemical messengers that travel through underground networks of fungi (many of the processes in our own bodies are regulated by chemical messengers), but for there to be a brain with thinking going on, electrical impulses need to be present. And they are. Scientists have been measuring electrical signals in trees since the 19th century, but researchers are skeptical about whether this means trees and plants have repositories for intelligence, memory, and emotion.

I have, through my own personal research, arrived at the conclusion that trees are in fact intelligent and can talk and even listen. (The Ents are real.) I know because I was on acid this one time and I had a very long conversation with a small tree next to a payphone in front of a liquor store in San Luis Obispo. I remember the payphone rang at one point in the middle of our conversation. I answered it and was surprised to find the young tree’s mother on the other end.

“Oh, hello Mrs. Tree. Yes, hold on a second, let me see if he’s around,” I said. I covered the receiver and whispered to my little friend, “It’s your mom.” The little tree seemed a little bummed, but indicated, yes, fine, let me talk to her. So I held the receiver up to its ear.

Yes, trees can hear, too. Researchers in Australia discovered that grain seedlings’ roots quietly crackled at a frequency of 220 hertz. Plants generating sound waves is bizarre to begin with, but then the scientists noticed that nearby seedling roots not involved in the experiment were reacting to the sounds.

“Whenever the seedlings’ roots were exposed to a crackling at 220 hertz, they oriented their tips in that direction. That means the grasses were registering this frequency, so it makes sense to say they ‘heard’ it.”

Da fuck? As if we don’t have enough to worry about already. The government is spying us, phone companies are eavesdropping on our conversations, microwaves are filming us (?), Google is collecting our data, hackers are stealing our identities, the Russians have brainwashed a large swathe of the population—and all this time trees have been listening to us, too?

The information contained in this little work is remarkable, life-changing even, but it also now makes reading books a little problematic—and a book about trees, printed on paper, is especially awkward. It’s sort of like reading a book about us printed on human baloney.