Let’s Keep our Bees

I love my bees. Their hives are pictured here in the late afternoon fall sunshine. I am told by my beekeeper that they are doing well and I expect honey next spring. The different colors of the hives are to help the foraging bees easily find their home base.  I enjoy linking my life to bee and honey lovers of ancient China, Babylonia, Crete and Israel. Sealed honey jars were found in the tomb of Tutankhamunin. Aristotle wrote lovingly of beekeeping as did a variety of Romans including Virgil and Gaius. Pictured left is an 8000-year old cave painting of a woman harvesting honey in Spain. She’s doing her work without bee ‘gear’ unlike the 16th century Europeans on the right, who are wearing some crazy face protection.

Although it’s the bees, not the beekeepers, that need protection now. After Maryland lost about 60% of their hives last year (the national average is 42%) the State is banning sales of products that contain neonicotinoid pesticides. link It shouldn’t be a big surprise that a pesticide kills bees. In a recent, widely published article we learned that when researchers collected honey samples worldwide, 75% of the honey, including the honey we eat, contained neonicotinoids. link

We are assured that the half a dozen or so poisons classified as neonicotinoids are safe for mammals. Less toxic than caffeine, we are told by the manufacturers and growers. Only twice as toxic as ibuprofen. The same toxicity of wine! But Neonicotinoid pesticides are a first cousin to nicotine – you can see the word nicotine right in the long name. That sets off little warning bells, right?

We know all too well that humans have nicotine receptors. Neonicotinoids share “agonist activity” at nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs). The effect they may have on our mammalian nAChRs is reported to be “unclear.” And our nAChRs are important for our brain development and function. Some odd “ratios” have been observed by scientists between control groups for autism spectrum disorder, memory loss and finger tremors. But there are very few studies to date. More study of these possible adverse effects has been recommended but not funded. link

Neonicotinoids poison insects by disrupting their central nervous systems, causing the inability to fly and/or disorientation, paralysis and eventually and always, death. They are applied to plant seeds or added directly to the soil, where the plant takes up the poison as it grows. The poison is then distributed throughout the vascular system of the plant and remains there 24/7. Any insect that drinks the morning dew on such a plant or eats its leaves or pollen is doomed. link

Of course, disease and overwork, also contribute to the decline of bees and I wrote about that in December of last year. link But the use of neonicotinoids is increasing since it is so effective in the battle with the insects. Bees often drink the pollen of a treated plant, begin to lose neuron function, struggle home and feed the baby bees the poisoned pollen. Did I say neonicotinoids were effective? Growers are relying almost exclusively on these insecticides now and spray a field as much as 20 times a year, on a calendared schedule, not as needed. Also, these modern pesticides are about 6,000 times as toxic as older sprays. link

Food labeled organic does not contain these poisons. Home Depot plans to stop selling plants that contain the poison in 2018; Lowe’s is working on the issue. Since the big box stores sell million of bedding plants to home owners each year this is helpful. The EU has restricted use of the poison, but because of new studies and political pressure the restrictions are being reconsidered.

About 85 percent of Earth’s flowering plants rely on pollination by bees and other pollinators and bees alone pollinate 30% or more of our food and beverages. What would Tutankhamunin think? Or Aristotle? Or as Dierks Bentley says in one of my favorite country music songs, What Was I Thinkin’.

Let’s keep our bees.

 

Farming Before you Farm

I have written before about the great Colin Tudge, who rejects the idea that agriculture began in the Middle East 10,000 years ago. In Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers: How Agriculture Really Began, he reasons that hunter-gatherers had been enjoying farming for 30,000 years before the large fields were laid out and planted with mono-crops for Mesopotamian cities. Not that these Paleolithic humans farmed full time, hunting and gathering has always been a practice of humans, if wildlands are available. Of course, the critics attacked him, and said he was indulging theory without evidence.

I accepted Tudge’s idea immediately. Gatherers are out working with plants all the time. The drawing above is a facial reconstruction of a hunter-gatherer woman. link  She looks just like the kind of intelligent and thoughtful “gatherer” who is going to clear brush away from a berry bush to help it along until her return. Seed heads are easy to see and sowing a handful of ripe seeds from some valuable herb or vegetable seems a reasonable proposition for her survival and the survival of her Paleolithic ancestors.

The idea also conforms to my personal experience. At a recent gardening lecture I learned that small branches of fruit trees will root if stuck into the ground and conditions favor them; I’ll try this advice very soon. Another example? I thought the 17 degree weather last winter had killed my Pomegranate bush and I put its removal on my to-do list. Its long stickers and my indolence left it sitting in the back garden and I found it thriving during my fall cleanup this past week. I put in my cauliflower too late last spring and it did not bear but the big plants looked nice and I left them in place all summer. After months of 100 degree days the bushes appear to be making cauliflowers in the fall weather–contrary to all respectable gardening practices.

Plants just want to do well and helping them is natural- polite.  It seems impossible to me that my Paleolithic counterpart or the beautiful Neolithic woman pictured above– who lived about 9000 years ago– would not pull all the grass and grapevines away from the Pomegranate as I did. Or put fruit and berry stems into the ground to extend production. It seems obvious to me that gatherers farmed.

And, it turns out Tudge is being proven right. Research by scientists has revealed “farming’ in tropical forests about 30,000 years before the Mesopotamian miracle. link

Critics and some of my learned friends complain that the word farming and/or agriculture mean something specific; and that specific thing originated 10,000 years ago in the Middle East. It’s in the textbooks; it’s just true. As is the ‘discovery’ of the American continents by Columbus. That idea was considered true in every textbook I ever read in school. Who was the first person to ask, “How can you discover a place where at least 50 million people are already living?” So we get stuck talking about words and their meaning. “Discover” is now “interpreted”; it just doesn’t mean what it meant for 500+ years. “Agriculture” may not mean the Middle East model much longer

Archaeologists Patrick Roberts, Damian Evans and other scientists have used genetic sampling of forest ecosystems, isotope analysis of human teeth and soil analysis to describe 40,000 year old cities and farms in the equatorial rain forests. These modern scientists have determined humans burned forestland to make room for plants to eat and homes to live in. Very complicated soils were mixed to grow plants, swamps were drained, chickens and other animals domesticated and yams, taro, sweet potatoes, chili peppers, black peppers, mangoes, and bananas were grown. Ancient agriculture practices were revealed to be a pattern across equatorial Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. link

Transplantation and cultivation extend back to the Holocene. New Guinea has provided some of the earliest evidence at a location called Kuk Swamp where humans emigrated and brought yams, bananas and taro with them for planting. In the Carribbean and Polynesia, evidence has emerged of the importation of plants like wild avocado and manioc by ancient travelers. link

Researchers from the Tel Aviv University, Harvard and other prominent schools have found evidence that plant cultivation was begun 23,000 years ago by the Ohalo II people who lived near the Sea of Galilee. These early humans used 140 species of plants, including cereals like wild emmer, wild barley, and wild oats. The Ohalo people had sickle blades to harvest the grain and used the grinding stone pictured here to process their grains. There seems to be much fear of the 10,000-year dogma about the beginning of agriculture. They seem to belabor their case that the Ohalo people had knowledge of agriculture and had foresight – so that they could practice ‘agricultural planning’. link I’m pretty sure foresight was in existence before the Mesopotamians turned to agriculture.

The 10,000 year dogma packs such power that earlier farming is called proto-farming even by Tudge. Proto is often used to describe a language that preceded another language, proto-Slavic, for example. It means pre. Which makes me think of George Carlin who made fun of the airlines when they announce that it is time for people with children to pre-board. “What do they mean?” he asks. “Why can’t they just board. Is the airline asking that they board before they board?”

Are researchers and scientists asking us to imagine that Paleolithic humans were pre-farming? Farming before they farmed?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tilting into the Future

Autumn arrived with the Equinox last Friday when the Northern half of the planet began its tilt away from the Sun. Our Earth does not sit straight in the sky and the longest day of the year, the beginning of summer, occurs when the North Pole is closest to the Sun. The shortest day, the first day of winter, occurs when the Pole is furthest from the Sun. Between those extremes we experience the Equinox–twice each year once in late March and once in late September. For a fraction of a second, as the Sun crossed the equator about 3pm last Friday, day and night were close to same length and we began our journey into winter. We are on a path now into the cold and dark.

But I love that path: the Fall. The darker days are welcome here in the South after our August when the Sun boiled out of the horizon early and scorched us all day long. Philosophers and spiritualists, both modern and ancient, name this a time of transition; some believing movement from Summer heat to the cold of Winter be sacred. Fall is generally considered a time to let go of old injuries and seek peace and harmony; to take a breath and move ahead. Like the trees that let go of their leaves and plants that drop seed to the ground or get brown and dry and quiet, waiting for next year.

And this year, the Equinox and the New Moon occurred within a few days of each other. That confluence of heavenly changes has been traditionally believed to enhance our spiritual energy and help us make and accept changes in our lives.

Its fun to imagine the moon completely lit by the Sun during the New Moon phase. But it’s hidden to us. Then each night it becomes more visible, it grows before our eyes; a symbol of starting and succeeding at new things. And little things matter to me. My broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage seedlings were just put in the ground and the first of the Fall rains came today to speed their growth. The waxing moon lights them more each night and hopefully will encourage their success.

Big things like new beginnings and peace are very well but prediction is a perilous past time. What my practical side wants is a reliable prediction of winter temperatures and rainfall. Not too cold for the citrus trees, but cold enough for the peaches and apples to set fruit. Not too dry for the garden; but not so wet that the fungus goes crazy. These predictions are impossible, much less any prediction of our human path forward. Changes are part of our lives on earth and in the heavens.

The Moon is beautiful at night lately; a huge smile in the sky. Which always makes me think of the Cheshire Cat.

“Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don’t much care where.
The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.
Alice: …So long as I get somewhere.
The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.”

 

The Ants, The Ants…Full of Fire

I don’t like fire ants. Really, I hate them and I try not to hate things. They are impossible to eradicate. They tolerate extreme cold and when flooding occurs, they create a raft with the queen in the center as pictured above. Houston residents are plagued now by scores of these floating rafts in the floodwaters there following the hurricane.

When I walk or stand near their nest, many of them will crawl onto my foot and, then get on their little IPhones and all bite me at the same time. Actually, I have recently learned  that they do not communicate through electronics; they communicate through chemistry.

Illustrating the wide divergence of human tastes, scientist E.O. Wilson loves ants, all 10 billion of them. He particularly loves fire ants. As a young man in the 1950’s, he decided to discover the mechanism used by ants to communicate with each other. Observing that one ant can mark a trail for other ants to a food source, he dissected hundreds of fire ants. The little ant abdomen was about the size of a grain of salt so, using a microscope, he took out each of their teeny organs, and made an extract which he served out to his fire ant friends. He got no particular response until he made a chemical compound from the organ named Dufour’s gland. The ants went crazy, imagining, I suppose they were being alerted to a feast. link

Wilson was not satisfied with finding this chemical compound; he wanted to obtain enough of it to make a molecular analysis. Pictured here, he looks like such a nice man–not crazy at all. But he enlisted two scientist friends and they traveled to Jacksonville where fire ants live in huge mounds. They shoveled the ants into large containers to take back to the lab. Wilson quips that his helpers were glad to get out of the field and back to the lab since the ants did not suffer being shoveled lightly and covered the scientists with painful bites that form itchy white pustules within a few days.

Wilson is now the world’s leading expert on ants and has won dozens of accolades including two Pulitzer prizes, one of which was for the book, The Ants published in 1991. He and other scientists worldwide have studied the communication skills of ants for decades now–this enterprise seems surprisingly well funded and has made it clear that all ants talk to each other. link

They “talk” using scented chemicals produced from glands found all over their bodies. These chemicals are called pheromones and are a kind of perfume that translates into words. Each species uses at least ten to twenty different pheromones. These ‘chemical words’ can be used to summon a couple of ants or thousands of ants, depending on what is required. Sometimes, for example, ants will be summoned to attack an invader; sometimes to make a trek to a food source for the colony; sometimes to die to save the colony. link

“When an ant is squashed it releases a different pheromone that warns the others of potential danger. Pheromones also help ants to distinguish between different family members, nest mates and strangers.” There are dozens of known meanings to these pheromome communications and likely more to come. link

Highly aggressive fire ants came to us from South America and are considered an invasive species. When they arrive they push out most native species and create huge underground homes. Getting rid of fire ants? Impossible. I have had friends recommend diatomaceous earth, coffee grounds, vinegar, hot water and chemicals like Amdro. I am currently using, with some success, Spinosad, an organic soil additive. For all our talk, talk, talk the ants seem to stay ahead of us–they always come back.

Wilson and other scientists believe that on balance, ants are a positive force in nature as compared to humans. Wilson imagines a world without ants as a world in trouble; and a world without humans as a world back in balance. Ant lovers all seem to be hard on humans.

As a child I was taught humans were superior because we are the only being with an opposable thumb. This has been now found to be untrue. Then I ‘learned’ we were the only being to use tools. Also untrue. And one of the most treasured human attributes, our ability to communicate now seems to be shared. Ants are reported to be able to order the removal of a dead ant body from the hive; to worry that the queen is not doing well and start hatching a new queen; and apparently, to advise the nest that a couple of hundred ants should be sent to the dog dishes of the Plantswoman if her dogs do not promptly finish their dinner. Of course, I am providing English translations to the perfume language.

I also have been taught that humans are the only creature that displays emotion. But I invite any of you– any day, any time– to join me and we will hit an ant hill with a long stick. The fire ants will boil out of the ground in a rage–their anger almost makes the ground shake.

 

 

 

End of Summer 2017

We have a week or so before the end of summer. The Equinox, the official end of summer, begins September 22nd and I’ll write about that next week. Many people will be glad to see the end of the summer of 2017. Hurricanes, floods, wildfires and tornadoes have battered and continue to batter friends and family. I am counting my blessings. Here on my little farm, I’ve had just the right amount of rain; my plants are thriving, for example, my banana tree is 11 feet tall; I have dozens of butterflies on my mistflowers; the hummingbirds are noisy and busy; my pastures are in good shape and I have plenty of hay for the stock. I actually have a few apples on my apple tree.

These are the gifts of nature. And I am safe for now from the devastation occurring all around us. The gifted Japanese farmer and philosopher, Masanobu Fukuoka warns us about a human-centered view: “… that we are receiving that which nature decides to give us. A farmer does not grow something in the sense that he or she creates it. That human is only a small part of the whole process by which nature expresses its being. The farmer has very little influence over that process… other than being there and doing his or her small part.”

I have chosen to move from the city to my semi-rural home to try to understand the whole process of nature. And that is not easy with death and failure a daily occurrence even if the wind is not blowing 125 mph.  Author and farmer, Gene Logsdon, believed deeply that country living, with all its faults, allowed one to see under “the skin of our existence”. He wrote that people travel the world to find wonders and that wonders are available in the place where we live, “if only we would really live there.”

If only. If only one could embrace “really living” and avoid worrying over the ennui and grief endemic in our modern world. I am going to try to look deeper into the peaceful visage of nature I am living at present. Mindful that raging winds and fire are stalking others in the summer of 2017.

 

 

 

 

Time for the Fall Garden

I planted seeds for cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower two weeks ago. I ran across the seed in a drawer and was disinclined to ‘do’ something with them. I considered throwing them out and skipping the fall garden; or, I thought I could just buy plants this year. I had some potting soil and tossed it into two old pans, sprinkled the seed on top. I didn’t put a clear lid on for humidity or fuss over them at all. I just kept them watered. Weirdly, I got better germination than usual and the little plants have thrived. On a morning when I had chore I wanted to avoid, I put the teeny seedlings in 4-inch pots; they are all two or more inches tall now. They will be ready to plant in another week or two, but will I be? My 2017 hot weather indolence may lift when it begins to cool off. I hope so.

Our culture is one where food is bountiful and there is no fear of the Grim Reaper if I do not manage my garden well. I am grateful indeed that the food insecurity, reported in the overseas news almost daily, is not a part of my life. Ten, maybe fifteen minutes daily in the garden would provide me with all the vegetables, flowers and herbs I could find a use for over the coming winter. Human resistance to this kind of boring, repetitive work is apparently hard-wired into us. We have only been farmers for thousands of years. Our hunter/gatherer genetics go back millions of years and current research posits that our ancient and not-so-ancient relations were healthy and happy. Historians, Frank Hole and Kevin Flannery (along with many others) believe that “No group on earth has more leisure time than hunters and gatherers, who spend it primarily on games, conversation and relaxing.” link

It is now fashionable to consider farming, well, agriculture, a ‘great mistake.’ It is certainly bad for the soil, probably bad for human health and arguably bad for leisure time. John Zerzan is particularly grumpy about the decline suffered by humans with the onset of farming. link , He quotes Lewis Mumford on the culture of farming: “Conformity, repetition, patience were the keys…the patient capacity for work.” Scholars, who may never have farmed a day in their lives, pontificate about latent resentments, heaviness and lack of humor in farmers.

I love my garden and my farm and I will write at some point about writer Gene Logsdon’s critique of all these farm critics. Meanwhile I will enjoy procrastinating; wait another week or so to get my fall garden in shape and imagine living off the land –hunting and gathering. Lucy, pictured above, undoubtedly lived this “free” life of a hunter/gatherer.

Lucy was a hominid from the Australopithecus afarensis species who resided in Ethiopia 3.2 million years ago.The beautiful sculpture of her, in the picture above, can be viewed at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Was her life easier than mine? Probably not. What would she think about all the new concrete construction popping up all around me. Would she hate it like I do? What would she think of the hundreds of deer in my neighborhood, who live a life free of predators, but who keep the ground stripped of all edible plants. Would she be able to solve this problem?

Lucy does not look like she is prone to whining or procrastinating. I see the patient capacity for work in her marvelous face. I imagine she got her work behind her before she indulged herself with play or rest. Millions of years divide us but I like to imagine we both have the patient capacity for work. I’ll be glad about that when the carrots and leeks are fat and the beautiful gray-green leaves of the cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage rise three feet or more–lots for me and lots to share with my friends. Lucy probably gathered some ancient version of cabbage to share with her friends.

 

Can you eat light? Plants can.

We might dine on light if we had a great deal more surface area and were more transparent. And knew a bit more about chemistry.

Photosynthesis–sunlight = food

We can walk and talk and make tall buildings. Plants have other abilities and it is unproductive to indulge in plant vs. animal comparisons. Oranges and apples? Easy. It is more like comparing the most exotic rock that has landed here from outer space to an orange or apple.

In addition to eating light, plants can have sex miles apart, regenerate perfectly after losing as much of 90 percent of their bodies and have perhaps 20 different senses. link  Plants can sense gravity, moisture, light, pressure, and hardness, but can also sense volume, nitrogen, phosphorus, salt, various toxins, microbes, and chemical signals from neighboring plants. link Plants can smell and taste; they have been proven to respond to exposure to chemicals; they have a kind of ‘sight’ reacting to wavelengths of light and shadows; plants know “touch” and change behavior when encountering a solid object; and plants are affected by sound. Sound recognition in plants was touted by the much-maligned and somewhat debunked book, The Secret Life of Plants, published more than fifty years ago. link

But some of the claims made about plants in the 1970’s have been dusted off. Playing classical music for houseplants in now decidedly our of fashion but, the “hearing” of plants has been affirmed recently. Heidi Appel, a chemical ecologist at the University of Missouri, has discovered that plants marshal chemical defenses, not only when a caterpillar begins feeding on leaf, but when a recording of a caterpillar feeding on a leaf is played nearby. link

Stirring up chemical compounds is child’s play for plants. In researching whether plants communicate with each other, scientist Ted Farmer placed microelectrodes on plant leaves. He learned that plants use electrical signals to share information; under attack they alert their neighbors to the need for some chemical compound. link Unable to run, plants use a complex molecular vocabulary to “signal distress, deter or poison enemies, and recruit animals to perform various services for them.” link

All this chemistry. It reminds me of high school when my chemistry class wrecked my grade point average. It occurs to me plants are like the nerdiest nerds in high school; the one’s who think chemistry is cool. They don’t care about other ‘abilities”. No wonder any discussion of their communications gets on our nerves. No wonder scientists line up to disprove that plants can talk to each other–and if they do talk to each other, their words have little meaning.

But what if they are really the spoiled, rich kids. They have everything. They just don’t care what we think and they don’t care to talk to us. Perhaps they think we are beneath them.

 

The Skeptics – Sentience of Plants – Part 2

Of course the sentience of plants is controversial. When a new study about plant sentience is published, the response decrying the idea is vigorous. Most scientists claim the idea is an “outlier” or junk science. Yale scientist Clifford Slayman calls ‘plant intelligence’ a foolish distraction. Mainstream authors, and the most eloquent are often vegans, argue that plants don’t have organs which enable them to see, hear, taste or think. Another favorite point in support of plants being just a backdrop or food source for animals is that plants cannot move around to avoid pain and seek pleasure; therefore, cannot feel pain or pleasure. link

Of course, we expect scientists to figure out if plants feel pain or hear or see or taste or think. Actually, the most fearsome arguments about the abilities of plants occur among plant scientists. Michael Pollan, in a lively New Yorker article, set out both sides. First there was a hot quarrel, now just simmering, over the use of the term neuro by plant intelligence advocates. Apparently no neurons or synapses have been found in plants but electrical and chemical signaling has been observed. Animals have neurons; plants, electrical signaling. No mention of neuro, even as a metaphor is condoned–even though neurotransmitting chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, and glutamate are in plants and animals. Semantics? Form over function? link 

Plant advocate and scientist Stephano Mancuso thinks so and substantively, he asks what is so special about neurons anyway. link The illustration on the right certainly looks comparable to an electrical network, an information highway. Mancuso accuses the science establishment of “fetishization” of neurons.

The second controversy is whether plants can ‘learn’. A presentation entitled “Animal-Like Learning in Mimosa Pudica,” by Australian scientist Monica Gagliano sent sparks flying. Her work was dismissed as inappropriate and weird by a prominent University of Columbia plant scientist. Gagliano’s critics insisted that learning requires a brain; therefore, only animals can learn. However, it turns out this learning distinction was another foray into semantics. Most scientists in Gagliano’s audience had accepted that plants have ‘behavior’ and ‘memory’. Pollan reports a discussion with scientist, Lincoln Taiz, an emeritus professor of plant physiology at U.C. Santa Cruz. Taiz agreed the word “habituation” is acceptable but not learning. Could I not imagine that I habituate driving a car or making tacos?

The third debate: communication. Two studies published in 1983 demonstrated that willow trees, poplars and sugar maples warned nearby trees of insect attacks, then the nearby trees whipped up a cocktail of bug-repelling chemicals. This research ground to a halt under vitriolic attacks, but has resurfaced with rigorous new testing that has made it clear that plants can send and receive airborne signals. link  Other studies have shown plants can communicate with insects as well, sending airborne messages that act as distress signals to predatory insects. Plants and the insects that eat them live in “clouds” of chemicals rich in information. link

Taiz insists that plant behaviors can be explained without animism; and, I agree that considering plants as demi-animals is mistake. Worrying over neurons and animal behavior might be insulting to plants. But what do we call behaviors of plants that look like “learning, memory, decision-making, and intelligence”? link 

What indeed. Plants are simply not like us. It is tempting to encourage thinking of plants as aliens, but since they have been around for 450 million years and we have existed, in our present form for about 10,000 years, the question might be: who is the alien?

Let’s Rattle Our Chains – Sentience of Plants Part 1

The human brain is a wonderful thing. Modern humans have been schooled to the idea that we are alone are conscious–sentient. As  conscious beings we can travel mentally through time and draw on the past to experience the present and plan for the future. In what is called ‘classical’ thought, humans alone are capable of this. Humans alone are capable of a wide and deep range of emotion such as empathy. Only humans appreciate esthetics and are capable of enjoying beauty. Only we are capable of ethical thinking. These are our chains.

But setting ourselves apart from the rest of the world conflicts with recent science. Giulio Tononi, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has explored the relationship of human consciousness to, of all things, quantum mechanics. He is researching why we ” steadfastly perceive the world in terms of classical, independent systems — rather than one big interconnected quantum mess.” link

Older cultures would not use the term quantum mess, but philosophy of panpsychism was well regarded until the 20th century. The mind (psyche) is everywhere (pan): Plato and Thales were proponents; Spinoza; mathematician Leibniz; Shopenhauer; the father of American psychology, William James; Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin all wrote compellingly about and were advocates of the principles of panpsychism.  link

But it almost seems creepy to imagine bacteria and viruses making ethical decisions and debating the esthetics of some new chemistry wonder they come up with. Plants? They are thinkers. They make plans based on past experience; they sift information and solve problems. For example, they use “complex trickery or provide snacks and advertisements (colors) to lure in pollinators, communicating either through direct deception or rewards. New research finds that some plants even distinguish between different pollinators and only germinate their pollen for the best.” link 

And their creations are drop dead beautiful.

In the book, Brilliant Green: the Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence, plant neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso and journalist, Alessandra Viola write with certainty that plants are conscious or sentient. They do not have a single powerful brain, but a million tiny computing “structures that work together in a complex network.”

Most plants can survive removal of up to 90% of their mass.This “survival” plan has resulted in plants comprising more than 99 percent of the biomass of Earth. Animals, including whales, insects and humans make up less than one percent. link That is a lot of thinking. But all this thoughtfulness is not a new idea. The intelligence of plants has been accepted by Goethe, Luther Burbank, George Washington Carver, Masanobu Fukuoka, Jagadis Bose, Nobel Prize-winner Barbara McClintock and Darwin.

Of course, the Plantswoman is on that list. Next week I will go into more detail, but this week I am confessing that it is challenging to imagine living in a world roiling with intelligent beings. It seems like a noisy place. I suppose I am pulling on my chains. I have been taught that the mental anguish of what is ethical, what is beautiful, what is real was limited to a small percentage of life, limited to humans.

Embracing Bacteria

Embracing bacteria is hard. They are so little. We can’t even see them. And as Stephen Harrod Buhner says in his wonderful book Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm, “We Want Braaaaains.”  University of Chicago scientist James Shapiro writes that humans do not recognize bacteria as sentient. Shapiro thinks this is a mistake because bacteria are not only sentient, they have great intelligence, a shared language and a vibrant social capacity. cite

But…..but they are so little. And they give us things: pneumonia, meningitis, food poisoning. The end of infectious disease was promised with the introduction of antibiotics in 1946. It was commonly believed that “bacteria would just blindly die off leaving us a disease-free life.” Buhner Id. Millions of pounds of antibiotics are created each year and then are excreted or thrown away. These antibiotics are not biodegradable. The Earth’s soil and water is now “saturated with several billion pounds of nonbiodegradable, often biologically unique pharmaceuticals, designed to kill bacteria.” Buhner Id.

The bacterial response has been powerful.

Bacteria have rearranged their core geomes. They have learned to deactivate the portion of their cell the antibiotic is supposed to destroy, They have managed to devise a way to pump the antibiotic out of their cell as fast as it comes in. They have changed their cell walls to reject antibiotics. They have even started using antibiotics as food. They communicate all changes and new techniques, not only to all other bacteria in existence, but also code the changes and pass them along to their descendants.

Apparently neural networks don’t need a spongy gray thing to work well. The deeply held human-centric belief that consciousness and intelligence exist only in a braaaaain is not only wrong but has led us into a war we might not be able to win. Infection from antibiotic-resistant bacteria is the third leading cause of death in hospitals.

In spite of this spirited defense, bacteria is not primarily a disease organism dedicated to our destruction. Scientist Lynn Margulis says bacteria has better things to do than attack us; they are, in fact, a highly intelligent community of interactive subparts: “a global superorganism.” cite

A thinking community, like us. And to address our human-centricity, only 10% of bacteria are “bad” for humans, the other 90% are “good” or non-pathogenic. We host millions of them: the total weight of the bacteria in our body is about three pounds, the same as our brain. In fact, we could not live without them They help us digest food, protect us from foreign invaders on our skin, in our lungs and in our digestive organs. They fine tune our immune system. link

And perhaps, more importantly, they make chocolate. The pulp around cocoa beans is fermented by bacteria. Otherwise, cocoa bean would be inedible. And wheat is just another form of cellulose unless bacteria transforms it into protein. Unleavened wheat won’t support human life. Then there is cheese. Hundreds of forms of bacteria create hundreds of kinds of cheese. Yogurt, pickles, coffee, salami. This link is fun to read; it lists all of the bacteria we use in our food.

So there are bad dogs, mean or diseased, yet we love dogs, We embrace them. Perhaps we might look deeper, perhaps embrace the invisible (to us) world of microbes. Instead of imagining ourselves on a stage, and we are the actors; and all the rest is our backdrop.