Guest Post, Jessica Goodfellow: Consciousness of Humans and of Trees

pines

A few years ago, my 80-year-old father had a bad accident and broke his neck. For a time, we did not know if he would survive; when he did, the extent of his paralysis was the next unknown. My father’s recovery, full or partial, from his traumatic brain injury depended on his grasping the
seriousness of his condition and cooperating with therapy regimes, an ability his compromised brain seemed to no longer have.

Within a year of my father’s accident, my best friend of over 30 years began having an unrelenting series of strokes, hundreds of them, with an unknown trigger. For a period of time, not so short, it was not clear if she would survive. Then, when it seemed she would, the extent of the damage done to her brain was not fully known. And then it was, but how much she will recover was, is, uncertain.

I live in Japan, far from my father and my best friend. While waiting many time zones away to hear about first their survival, then their prognoses, and later still the extent of their brain injuries, I wrote the poem “How I Know My Grief” which appeared in Issue 22 of Superstition Review. The poem begins:

Nothing green
grows faster
than bamboo.

This is how
I know
my grief’s

not green.
Pine trees,
season-

blind, are green.
This is how
I know

my grief
is green.

In English, the word pine means both ‘the evergreen’ and the verb ‘to yearn’. The Japanese word for the pine tree, matsu, also has multiple meanings, including 松 (matsu) ‘the evergreen tree’, and 待つ (matsu) ‘to wait’. During the period when no one knew what would happen to my father or my best friend, I grieved for their futures or their lack of futures, while later I grieved for their pasts, their memories, which included memories we shared, or perhaps no longer did—I would have to wait and see. Waiting, it seemed to me, was all about yearning. Later, after each of these two patients stabilized, yearning became all about waiting, waiting for something to be different, even if only waiting for the pain of things never being different to become less unbearable. Waiting and yearning: pine and pine.

Many years ago, I read in The New Yorker about a sacred tree in Madagascar under which people leave offerings such as slaughtered goats, rum, and money, in hopes of gaining good fortune in child-bearing, business dealings, school entrance exams, love, etc. The tree is called kakazotsi fantata, which translates as ‘the tree whose name nobody knows’. That is, the name the tree is known by is, apparently unironically, ‘the tree whose name nobody knows’. Knowing is a function, chiefly, of the brain—though of course also a function of the body, the bones and muscles too—but foremost of the brain, which is itself part of the body. With brain injury or strokes, what is known becomes the unknown, becomes the thing that nobody knows—not the patient, not the people who observe the patient, and certainly not the people who love the patient. What is it for patients to not know what they don’t know? What is it to not know the person you
have always known, to not recognize them, or be recognized by them? Is this not grief?

Recent research into the social systems of trees has revealed the surprising extent of their interconnection and interdependence, in contrast to the previous notion our species had of trees as competing with one another for sunlight and other resources. For example, we now know that the roots of trees, together with underground fungi, form mycorrhizal networks through which information is passed, mainly about distress and danger. There are mother trees, with extensive fungal connections, who sense struggling younger trees and divert flows of nutrients to them. Under attack by foraging deer or insects, certain trees emit pheromones, alerting their neighbors to increase their own production of foul-tasting substances in their leaves which might help them escape a similar fate. Whether or not there is intent to warn, however, is controversial, with some scientists disputing such an interpretation.

Regardless, there is an entire complex system among trees that, until recently, we did not know about. I tend to lean against anthropomorphizing, against generalizing the sort of consciousness we have to trees, despite their signal-sending. But how I want to be wrong about that, and how wrong I could be—we honestly don’t know. Here we can find hope in what we do not know—what might be true. I want it to be true that trees communicate with intention and compassion. I want trees to know things, to remember, even while I know that this would only bring them grief. I want, in a very human way, for trees to be more like us in the few ways that we as a species are good—I want kinship with a thing that will surely outlast me. Mostly though, I want to believe communication occurs that is unobservable to me—be it communication between trees or communication with patients who have had significant brain issues.

Robert MacFarlane, in his book The Lost Words, reports that the Welsh phrase dod yn ôl at fy nghoed means “to return to a balanced state of mind”, or literally “to return to my trees”. I’m happy to report that both my father and my best friend are slowly, slowly returning to their trees, with effort and determination and often with great frustration. In the meantime, I follow The Ice Age (@Jamie_Woodward_), twitter feed of Jamie Woodward, professor of physical geography at the University of Manchester. One day in August of this year he tweeted, “There are trees in the north that remember the wolves.” Contrast that with what poet Dorianne Laux has written: “If trees could speak, they wouldn’t.” Both of these statements, it seems to me, sound about right; both have hope in the consciousness of trees, yet both are laced with notions of grief. Hope, but also grief. Ever green and yearning.

Resources:

Grant, Richard. “Do Trees Talk to Each Other?” The Smithsonian Magazine, March 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-whispering-trees-180968084/

Laux, Dorianne (2005). “The Life of Trees” in Facts About the Moon. New York, New York: W. W. Norton.

MacFarlane, Robert (2017). The Lost Words. London: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Random House).

Shoumatoff, Alex. “Our Far Flung Correspondents (Madagascar),” The New Yorker, March 7, 1988, p. 62+. http://www.dispatchesfromthevanishingworld.com/our-far-flung-correspondents-madagascar/