Size Matters

Two news articles this week appeared like bookends of the same problem. One concerned the superiority of a world where nutrients cycle through gigantic animals, like the extinct Titanosaurs, pictured above– or Elephants who are now dying at an alarming rate. The other story was a report of the 75% decline of flying insects since 1989. Small and large going fast — leaving what? The middle?

It surprised me that big animals improve the ecological health of the Earth’s air and soil significantly better than medium-sized or small animals. They eat more plants and make more manure. A Northern Arizona University study found that nutrients that make rich soil are locked up, “until they are liberated for use through animal consumption, digestion and defecation,” Big is better apparently. link

We have all seen the depictions of the dinosaur-dominated world full of huge lush plants. The largest land animals ever were the Titanosaurs above, 122-feet long and with a weight up 138,000 pounds. Along with their fellow dinosaurs, they created a cycle of abundance. In their world elements like phosophorus quickly reentered the soil and plants grew faster. In our world, elephants, for example, “only” weigh about 13,000 pounds but still contribute significantly to folding the plant world into the soil–fast. Bison are another example, they created at least two feet of rich topsoil across our American prairies.

But the dinosaurs are all gone (and thank heaven it’s not our fault); elephants, rhinos, moose, polar bears, bison are all in a steep decline. The cycling of plant to soil and back to plant is down 92% due to the reduction in the numbers of very large animals.

In my little world, deer and other small creatures populate undeveloped areas here in Texas hill country but the rocky hillsides are not lush; there is no abundance there. Nevertheless, the deer cause havoc for gardeners. Imagine fencing that would keep out bison or elephants or — dinosaurs. Without the giants, my life is safer and more comfortable.

The disappearance of high numbers of flying insects confronts us with the same choice of human well being versus ecological well being. A European study of 63 nature reserves found the biomass of flying insects declined by 75% in the past 27 years. And the decline was measured on areas set aside to preserve wildlife, including insects. It’s got to be worse in agricultural areas or in cities. Insect scientists worry that these finding indicate continental and/or global slide; and they think continued decline of flying insects will a bad, bad thing. link

Apparently I am seeing only a quarter was what was flying around in the late 1980’s. That is a lot of bees, lightening bugs, dragonflies and butterflies–gone. Of course this means that flies and mosquitoes and other ‘pests’ have declined as well, making my world safer and more comfortable.

The very large and the very small– going or gone; we sit comfortable and safe in the center.

 

 

 

 

 

Porcupine Wars

Last week, I danced out of the house to do my morning chores, energized by the cool weather. Then I saw white stuff on my Karakachan’s face. Foam? Chicken feathers? I bent down and the dog’s eyes said, “I made a mistake.” When I opened his mouth I saw dozens of porcupine quills in his tongue, his throat, his gums and lips. The dark, sharp quills were hard to pull out and seemed to break off, leaving the white feathery part in my hand. My Great Pyrenees, who acts like a big baby half the time, would not let me touch him; his feet and the outside of his mouth were covered with quills. He growled at me when I approached him with the leash. Unheard of! On the left is one of the dozens of photos of quills in dogs’ mouths on the internet, and this one is by no means the worst. I didn’t think to take a photo of my dogs since I was hurriedly loading them up for a trip to the vet. I had to lure the Pyr into the truck with hamburger. They were anesthetized and given pain medication and antibiotics and are now fine. Two dog owners appeared just after me with dogs bristling with quills; the vet said a couple of days later that they had been swamped with dogs who had been in battle with porcupines.

I, by no means object to all wars; sensible, necessary war is – well, necessary. But the conflicts between dogs and porcupines is a perfect example of the pointless, wasteful wars that I have opposed all of my adult life. Porcupines are small creatures and herbivores; none would dream of eating a chicken or lamb or small calf. There is no competition between them and predators. The savvy coyote is said to ignore them; big cats like leopards attack them. So do dogs. The porcupine signs its death sentence when it provokes a predator; it raises its quills and furiously waves its spiky tail from side to side and up and down, beating the ground. Its aggression sadly inflames the aggression of a large, strong animal with big teeth.

Underneath their friendly ways, dogs are proud creatures, territorial at heart and many, like my guardian dogs, are bred to protect–to do their duty. Some are protective of their humans; mine protect chickens and livestock. My dogs embrace their guard duties. But in a tangle with a 20-pound porcupine, a predator’s injuries are often fatal. The quills are constructed to burrow deeper into flesh as time goes by. Untreated, infection sets in, then certain death. Neither the fearsome pit bull or the beautiful sports dog pictured here can survive the quills without help.

“Mistakes will happen.”

After much thought I decided to leave the little deceased porcupine on my property as a warning to other porcupines. I put it about 75 feet outside the invisible fence but should have gone further– I was not wearing boots and had seen a coral snake earlier in the week.

The black vultures arrived two days later. Not turkey vultures, but the huge two-foot birds with six-foot wingspans. The Pyr was not pleased and ran up and down his side of the invisible fence barking furiously. The birds were not certain the dog wouldn’t break through whatever restrained him, so instead of their usual leisurely meal they would dive down, sometimes sit on the fence briefly and then fly away. Fast food.

I have a breeding pair of Dexters; the cow and bull walked over companionably and looked through their side of the fence, staring for a long while at the porcupine; then watching the dog and the birds. They made me think of a couple on a date to the movies. The vultures finished their work and left. The late philosopher and farmer Gene Logsdon believes we should give thanks for the vultures since the world would be a smelly mess without them.

The Pyr probably just gave thanks when they were gone and he flung himself down on the grass to sleep–his work done. The cow and bull sought out their favorite shade tree.

At peace. Peace. So very hard to know when it is worth it. So precious.

 

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?