“I want to be a tree when I die,” I told my sister as we walked past the manicured lawns of suburban houses and parks in New Jersey.
“Oh my God, me too! I want to be a tree!”
The conversation stopped there, just a brief connection, a moment of mirth when thinking upon something otherwise very un-mirthful: death. I’m not sure how it even came up — death is, after all, all-present in these pandemic times.
Perhaps it was organic, perhaps it was spurred by simply passing all of the trees that line the streets of Jersey. I don’t know.
What was left unsaid was the why — why would you want to be a tree? Why would I want to be a tree?
Plants: who dominates whom? Is dominate even appropriate?
Stefano Mancuso is a founder of plant neurobiology — a field of science which has proven that plants have sentience and intelligence. In his book Brilliant Green (co-written by Alessandra Viola), he examines our human relationship with plants, particularly our decision across many cultures to relegate plantlife to a form of sub-sentience.
Plantlife, according to many great historical thinkers like Aristotle, ranks barely above minerals. Plants live, but they are not aware.
This cultural relegation of plants is played out across many of our great texts. Mancuso calls out the Bible, particularly the story of Noah, as giving plants short shrift. Noah takes two of every living creature — and yet not once are plants mentioned.
Later, however, Noah cultivates a vineyard, presumably from a vine he brought onto his ark, suggesting that plants were brought aboard the ark, yet not thought of as living creatures.
I don’t want to get bogged down in the religious implications (or historical veracity) of this account.
Rather, I want to appreciate how Mancuso shows that humans culturally think of plants as the other — a form of unaware, unconscious life that humans pass through or dominate for their own purposes.
And yet, as Mancuso mentions early on, plants represent over 80 percent of the entire biomass on Earth. Bacteria represent 15 percent — and everything else is lumped into that last 5%.
Who is dominating whom? Are we dominating plants? Is domination even the correct way to examine the relationship between plant life and animal life?
A tree with no name
For my birthday this year, my fiancée got me a bonsai — a Tiger Bark Ficus bonsai. Bonsai, the art of growing and pruning a plant to look like a miniature tree, is all about control, mastery of the plant kingdom by man. Man prunes, man wires, the man bends the tree to his will.
At least, that is what bonsai is supposed to entail. When I first pulled my bonsai from its box (can you believe they mail trees?), I was terrified I’d kill it. Instead of trying to control it, I was flooded with a sense of desire to protect it.
What do you need, tree? What can I get you?
I furiously found myself researching soils, plant foods, light requirements, whatever I could find to give my tree a good home.
I planted it in rocky soil. I watered it with special nutrients. I set it in a well-lit area. And, with great trepidation, I began to prune. I first snipped the dead branches, reducing the deadweight that my tree would have to carry around.
Then I set about pruning the dead and dying leaves — again helping the plant focus attention on living thriving tissue.
And then I trimmed living tissue. I trimmed back green leaves and shoots to shape the tree into a more aesthetic design. The leaves on a bonsai are pruned back to maintain the overall shape and to encourage growth in the lower part of the plant — to help it look like a fully grown, albeit miniature tree, rather than a sapling.
As pruned, milky sap immediately oozed out of the branches, forming a protective coating. My tree was responding to its trauma, and raising its defenses to aid its survival.
As I moved up the tree, I noticed that all of the leaves had turned to one side; the foliage now faced the window. Slowly, imperceptibly to me, my bonsai had moved, grown toward the light. In fact, some of the leaves were literally pressing up against the glass, drinking the sunlight in.
In this moment, standing above my bonsai, shears in hand, I realized that the tree and I were both consciously making choices, directing energy, and manipulating its growth. I was pruning back leaves that had grown too large (ones that stifled growth below), and it was growing as intensely as it could toward the light.
But when I made a cut, pruning these large leaves away, the tree responded by redirecting energy to a lower portion of the tree. It’s as if the tree understood, “growing up here can be dangerous, let’s redirect growth lower.”
This wasn’t a simple response to stimuli. This was conscious.
How intelligent are plants?
Reading Mancuso’s Brilliant Green gave me a real appreciation for the intelligence of plants. In all fairness, I had always viewed plants as very much alive. My mother is an excellent gardener; we grew orchids, roses, passionflowers, gardenias, oranges, palms.
When I was in high school in Florida, we had an unusual cold snap in January where temperatures plummeted below freezing. I remember being outside with my mother, affixing bungee cords around blankets in a desperate attempt to prevent the palm trees from dying.
We did not succeed. My mom went into mourning for at least a week.
This is all to say that I went into Brilliant Green excited to learn more about what plants had to offer. What great secrets had our scientists unlocked as to plant consciousness?
As it turns out, quite a lot. And quite a lot of those secrets had been unlocked for centuries.
I had never known (and I imagine many readers will feel otherwise) that Charles Darwin wrote an entire book on the movement of plants (aptly titled The Power of Movement in Plants), where he and his son examine how plants not only move toward the light, but that their root tips move in response to many more stimuli than light.
Roots move away from the light, but they also move with the direction of gravity. They move toward moisture and toward nutrients. They see, they taste, they sense.
Because of this, Darwin suggested that the roots of plants function almost as the brain of the plant.
This lays the groundwork for the root-brain hypothesis, which suggests that the anterior (head) of plants is in the ground — and its posterior (legs and…well, genitals) is way up in the sky. They’re upside-down relative to us!
But, given that plants represent 80% of Earth’s biomass, perhaps we’re upside down relative to them.
Plants are modular, plants are regenerative
My bonsai tree is likely a cutting.
A cutting is where you take a large slice from a plant (be it a limb, a stalk, a branch) and then replant that cutting. If the cutting has enough nutrients, light, and water, roots begin to grow. Leaves spring from the wood. New growth stretches out, forming small limbs that grow into large branches.
And that funky little slice that you put in a pot of dirt eventually forms a new trunk.
From a hacked-off limb, you finally grow a new tree.
Plants are regenerative. Most plants can survive losing up to 90-95% of their body mass — meaning an entire plant can regenerate from only 5% of the original.
Why is this? Mancuso states that it is an evolutionary development in response to the relatively stationary lifestyles of plants. Plants can move toward the light, but they can’t run away when an animal comes over to munch on its leaves.
Plants, therefore need to be regenerative. This means that plants must diffuse, rather than centralize, their intelligence and life-sustaining processes.
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In plain terms, what does that mean? It means that while the collective roots of the plant may function like a brain, each individual root is not irreplaceable. If a root dies, part of the collective is removed, but the collective is not destroyed.
If a flower falls off of a tree, its ability to reproduce is not destroyed the way that, say a human would be, if their (God forbid) genitals simply fell off.
This makes plants quite different than animals. Animals centralize their thinking processes (in the brain), and have specialized organs that complete singular tasks (the heart pumps our blood). Plants, on the otherhand, have tissues that do serve specialized tasks, but not exclusively.
Their vascular tissue can send electrical signals (meaning their circulatory system also serves as a neurological system). While leaves are filled with light-sensing organelles, so are the roots and many other areas of the plants.
Where a human has two eyes that lead directly to the brain, the plant has thousands of quasi-eyes that feed information to everywhere all at once.
Plants, according to Mancuso, are modular. “Each part is important, but none is truly indispensable.” These parts can die off, regenerate, communicate with each other, grow, learn, and thrive.
Animals, with very few exceptions, cannot replicate this modular adaptation. When a brain is removed, the body collapses. When a leg is sawn off, the animal does not regrow a limb.
Our parts are indispensable. What perhaps separates the animal from the plant is that the animal is an “individual,” which as Mancuso points out, comes from the Latin phrase meaning “not able to be divided.”
We, animals, are at our lowest level of existence. If you divide us, our existence ends.
Plants, are not.
A plant is a colony
Plants aren’t individuals. Plants are colonies. Like colonies of ants or bees, they have specialized components that communicate with one another, complete their respective tasks, move, react, solve problems, live, and die. Independently, they are impressive. But as a colony, they complete feats that are remarkable.
Ant colonies can form complicated structures many meters under the ground. Plants can form clever, symbiotic relationships with ant colonies, enticing the ants with delicious fruits that the ants then carry deep into the nests — planting the seeds directly where the roots can take hold.
In Brilliant Green, Mancuso suggests that plant root networks are similar to how our internet works: a connected, but diffused network of information where every node is important but not irreplaceable.
I’d like to suggest something different. I think that, perhaps, a plant colony is rather akin to a human civilization. Recently, researchers have found that slime molds (not a plant, but rather a protist), organisms that form branching colonies, can be quite adept at plotting efficient transportation networks.
Researchers created a model map of Tokyo and its surrounding suburbs, using small pieces of food to represent cities in the region. Then, a slime mold culture was placed on the map and watched for over 24 hours. Throughout the observation period, the slime mold fanned out, eventually creating a network of connected nodules that reached every food dot on the map.
The resulting network? Nearly identical to the Tokyo Rail System.
It’s astounding — at least it is to me! Both plants and humans arrived at the same, optimal network of transport.
This experiment has been replicated for many different areas, and oftentimes the slime mold creates novel connections that are more efficient than human planning.
Isn’t that something — the diffused intelligence of the slime mold bests the centralized intelligence of the human.
Of course, the human placed the slime mold on the map and dotted the map with food. Humans cultivate plants for the bulk of our caloric needs. We use plants.
But plants also use us. For plants we have domesticated, we help them grow, reproduce, and prosper. They feed us, we propagate them.
Just like ants.
We are dominating the world to death
But, unfortunately, we are not acting like symbiotes in our relationship with plants. We are acting like masters — exploitative masters. We destroy the vegetation that impedes us, pollute the ecosystems that ultimately feed us, and pollute the atmospheres that nurture us. 50-80% of the world’s oxygen comes from plants in our ocean.
Our manmade emissions are heating and acidifying the ocean, threatening these ocean plants, and putting the very oxygen we depend upon to live in danger.
We are threatening to be the master that killed the golden goose — the master who burned the world to consume the world — consumed by our own reckless consumption.
Is part of this destruction possibly tied to our own inability to see the intelligence, the consciousness, of plants? Do we simply view, as Mancuso states, plants as one step above rocks and minerals, and therefore not worthy of protection?
It’s possible. We extend a great deal of empathy to animals — animals that have heads, eyes, brains, hearts. We see the consciousness in these animals, because they act like us.
Plants, on the other hand, are mystifying. We know they live. But we don’t see them live. We don’t see them problem-solve in real-time. Even in many ancient religions, spirits and gods were said to inhabit plants — again suggesting a mysterious force of consciousness that wasn’t quite akin to our own.
Both of these extremes are intriguing: on the one hand, they are unconscious beings for us to dominate. On the other hand, plants are filled with supernatural forces we cannot understand. Both options, however, point to an undeniable thought: we do not comprehend the consciousness of plants.
And yet, my heart still sinks when I prune my bonsai and see milky sap flow like blood, like tears — racing to plug a wound. And yet, my mother still bungees down blankets on the palm trees during a Florida frost.
When we stop, and take time to smell the flowers, to scratch the bark, to water the roots; we forget the cultural indoctrination of the domination of man, and we recognize a profound kinship. We recognize life.
I want to be a tree when I die
I saw that there are companies that will, upon death, bury your body in a unique pod that ultimately decomposes and provides nutrients a growing sapling above. It’s a return to Earth, a unique form of giving back. The body, which has subsisted on energy from plants its entire life, now provides its organic matter for plants in turn.
I’ve always been obsessed with spirituality and the afterlife. I try and make sense of it, try and understand what possibly the point of life could be, what an actual afterlife could be — what eternity even means. But always, I am left believing that I am far too small to truly understand.
My ability to perceive is far too limited.
In many ways, I am like a small branch, or a root, or (when I am feeling my handsomest) a flower. I sense the light around me. I strive for the sun. I live as best I can, based on the limited information I have.
And, one day, I too will wither.
But, like the flower, I am not disconnected in this life or this death. My experience — my living is but one of so many who form a colony of connected, universal consciousness. And my death, then, perhaps is simply that consciousness returning home.
Returning home to the mother tree with grand experiences to inform the growth and development of whatever our collective, universal consciousness truly is.
Perhaps that is what happens. Perhaps this small flower is too small to understand, but still great enough to grow and feel the warmth of the sun.
I am small. In death, I will become smaller. But as I decompose, smaller and even smaller, I dream that I may be taken back up — taken physically up into the trunk of something greater. Something with a collective consciousness that I can sense, but not quite understand.
I want to be a tree when I die. Yes. Part of a tree. A small part of a greater tree.
An oak, I think. Or maybe an olive. I haven’t decided yet.