The Language of African Trees, Part 2

By Tom Cole January 12, 2016

And why the sin of anthropomorphism isn’t so mortal any more

Downstream from here—or is it upstream? I’m still a codex guy in a scrolling world—anyway, in this article I talked about how the sin of anthropomorphism isn’t nearly so mortal anymore, and about the erosion of the anthropocentric idea that of all the estimated 8.7 million species on our little planet, only us humans are capable of thought, emotion, and agency, not to mention empathy, sympathy, and intentional sweetness.

Now: how about plants?

Some of us may remember The Secret Life of Plants, a book from the deep ‘70s that raised a lot of eyebrows, spawned a whole genre of jokes, and inspired Doonesbury’s Zonker Harris’ pep talks to his marijuana plants.

Doonesbury cartoon
DOONESBURY © 1974 G. B. Trudeau. Reprinted with permission of UNIVERSAL UCLICK. All rights reserved.

The Secret Life’s methodology might not have been up to scientific snuff, and its conclusions were a little—or way—over the top, but it planted a seed that has grown fitfully, but handsomely, and now seems certain that plants do indeed communicate. As Kat McGowan wrote in Wired (December 20, 2013), “The evidence for plant communication is only a few decades old, but in that short time it has leapfrogged from electrifying discovery to decisive debunking to resurrection.”

If you’re at all interested in the idea that plants are more—probably amazingly more—how shall I say…thoughtful than we ever thought, head straight to “The Intelligent Plant,” in the December 23, 2013 New Yorker. In it, Michael Pollan (author of The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, among seven other highly respected books) recounts the absolutely flabbergasting recent research.

To my mind, discovering running water on Mars is a big deal, but the ongoing revelation of the botanical world’s IQ is akin to the discovery of a species of little green surfers on the Red Planet.

Since I’m a Micato and an Africa lover, let’s do a little mind-popping plant observing at the place where man was born.

First, if you’ll pardon a digression that really isn’t: We mourn the passing last year of Peter Matthiessen, a guy I think should have won the Nobel Prize. He suffered a little because of the broadness of his interests. He wrote fictionally and factually on everything from Lake Baikal, to Zen, to the tragedy of Leonard Peltier, to you-name-it. I once spent a weekend at his home near the beach at Sagaponack, out on Long Island. I’m name-dropping, I know, but I want to tell you that rarely, if ever, have I met a guy so bright, humble, and vitally interested. Africa was especially close to Peter’s heart and it lost a valuable friend when he died. He wrote three books about the continent, African Silences, the sometimes overlooked Sand Rivers, and the magnificent The Tree Where Man Was Born.

We’ve often used a quote from that book in Micato publications, a quote I think brilliantly sums up why Africa so often makes visitors almost dizzy with unexpected cheer and a powerful sense of coming home.

The wild creatures I had come to Africa to see are exhilarating in their multitudes and colors, and I imagined for a time that this glimpse of the earth’s morning might account for the anticipation that I felt, the sense of origins, of innocence and mystery, like a marvelous childhood faculty restored. Perhaps it is the consciousness that here in Africa, south of the Sahara, our kind was born. But there was also something else…. the stillness of this ancient continent, the echo of so much that has died away, the imminence of so much as yet unknown. Something has happened here, is happening, will happen—whole landscapes seem alert.

There are bookfulls of ideas and insights in that quote, but let’s concentrate on the last, purposefully anthropomorphic words about entire landscapes being alert. It’s gloriously true of African landscapes and I don’t know if Peter was thinking of how acacia trees communicate with each other, but he certainly captured the constantly happening vibrancy of Africa’s living landscape.

Remembering some wonderful news about acacias, signature trees of African landscapes, I turn to a superbly informative book called Pyramids of Life: Patterns of Life and Death in the Ecosystem by Harvey Croze and John Reader, with a foreword by the great Darwinist Richard Dawkins (who reminds us that “We have Africa in our blood and Africa has our bones. We are all African.”)

I haven’t visited Pyramids of Life in a few years, and I’m thrilled to find that it was a 2004 Christmas present from two of Africa’s most fervent champions Luca Belpietro and Antonella Bonomi, of the influential Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust and the creator/operators of the hands-down most wonderful camp I’ve ever experienced, southern Kenya’s Campi ya Kanzi.

In a section called “A tree for all seasons,” Croze and Reader extoll the acacia, “Africa’s universal icon.” And here—you may be thinking: at last!—we get to a now well-documented but amazing acacian trait:

Acacias have been observed to provide an “alarm signal” to neighbouring trees. When antelopes browse on their leaves, they emit ethylene into the air and produce leaf tannin in lethal [my emphasis] quantities. The ethylenes can waft up to 50 metres from the “attacked” individuals. The exposed neighbours appear to be effectively warned of the impending dangers, for in less than ten minutes they step up their own production of leaf tannin…after a few minutes of browsing the herbivore finds his lunch going sour and wanders off to find something better tasting.

A giraffe eats leaves off a tree
We don’t think of it this way, but the peaceful giraffe is a predator, and the unassuming tree is the prey. But it’s becoming clearer that the tree is very aware of these power relationships, and is surprisingly capable of doing some subtle things about them.

We live with only fleeting awareness of a buzzingly communicative, cogitating world, rich with alert landscapes and complex animal and floral societies. Our increasingly deeper appreciation of our fellow creatures is a joyous awakening, a human faculty in restoration. And nowhere is that dawning consciousness more dramatic than in the wilderness of Africa, one of the few places on the planet where non-human nature is still benignly in charge.

Interested in experiencing the nature of Africa?

Up Next: Google Goes on Safari