Hearing the Language of Trees
BY ROBIN WALL KIMMERER
The intelligence of plants has long been a theme of literature, philosophy, and Indigenous narrative. Scientific research into the chemical interactions between plant species and other living things supports the idea. In The Mind of Plants: Narratives of Vegetal Intelligence, writers and scientists add their personal perspectives in a rich collection of essays and poems, each dedicated to a different plant. In “White Pine,” excerpted here, Robin Wall Kimmerer describes Indigenous reverence for trees, which are “respected as unique, sovereign beings equal to or exceeding the power of humans.”
When I come beneath the pines, into that particular dappled light, time slows, and I fall under their spell. My science brain and my intuitive brain are both alight with knowing. Is it the spaciousness of the leafy vaulted ceiling? Maybe the terpenoids in pine vapors exert a psychological influence, producing an altered state of tranquil alertness. Perhaps it’s the quivering energy of electrical micro-discharge from the needles. Maybe we are humbled simply by their size. Is it the sound of boughs rising and falling, like slow breathing? There’s something there we sense, but cannot name, a feeling akin to sitting quietly in the presence of an elder. So it is, with pines. You want to slip into their circle and listen.
My favorite place to read on a summer day is leaning against the bole of a big old white pine. There’s almost always a hollow there, upholstered in a coppery brocade of pine needles with comfy armrests of the buttressed roots which hold up the pillar of pine rising two hundred feet above me. These piney points above the lake’s water are beloved in the north woods, for the sand and granite below, sun and wind above, and a view across the lake, which at this moment is dancing up white caps in the breeze. In this woodland library, I have one book on my lap and the other against my back. One written on cellulose, one written in cellulose. When I sit with white pines, I wordlessly come to know things that I didn’t know before.
White pine is revered across Indigenous cultures as a symbol of wisdom, longevity, and of peace. They are thanked for their material gifts of medicine, materials, fuel, and food and for their spiritual gifts. Pines are understood as among our oldest teachers; in fact, they are of an ancient lineage in the tree world and have seen much change across the earth. Among some people, white pine is regarded as the “ogema” of the forest, the seat of leadership. The pine, like all trees, is spoken of in my Anishinaabe language, not as an object, an “it” but as a “who,” a person of some standing, whose name is Zhingwak. Charismatic white pines are honored as elders. They are the esteemed companions of the visionary eagle who uses their emergent canopy as nest and watchtower. Zhingwak plays many roles in the canon of Native stories, as a protector of human people and the embodiment of highest virtues. Known as the Tree of Peace, white pine is the iconic symbol of the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, who taught the people peace through unity, by its five soft needles, bound together as one. The tallest, strongest, most enduring being in the forest is the botanical representation of the oldest democracy on the planet.
Traditional cultures who sit beneath the white pines recognize that human people are only one manifestation of intelligence in the living world. Other beings, from Otters to Ash trees, are understood as persons, possessed of their own gifts, responsibilities, and intentions. This is not some kind of mistaken anthropomorphism. Trees are not misconstrued as leaf-wearing humans but respected as unique, sovereign beings equal to or exceeding the power of humans. Seneca scholar John Mohawk wrote that according to his culture, “an individual is not smart […] but merely lucky to be part of a system that has intelligence. Be humble about this. The real intelligence isn’t the property of an individual; the real intelligence is the property of the universe itself.”
The Indigenous story tradition speaks of a past in which all beings spoke the same language and life lessons flowed among species. But we have forgotten—or been made to forget—how to listen so that all we hear is sound, emptied of its meaning. The soft sibilance of pine needles in the wind is an acoustic signature of pines. But this well-known “whispering of pines” is just a sound, it is not their voice.
What if you were a great teacher, a holder of knowledge and vessel of stories, but had no audible voice with which to speak? What if your listeners presumed you to be mute, save for the passive whispering of your needles? How would you bring your truth into the world? Wouldn’t you dance your story in branch and root? Wouldn’t you write it in the eloquence of cellulose? In the lasting archive of wood? Plants tell their stories not by what they say but by what they do. They tell their story in their bodies, in an alphabet once as familiar as the song of every bird, which we have also forgotten, as we became afflicted not only with plant blindness but plant deafness as well.
If you know how to see, their storytelling goes deeper than the curve of a windward branch. Everything that affects the pine is expressed in its body. The tree is an integrator of all its experience and that of the surrounding community. When you have learned its lexicon, the story of the weevils, the drought, the fire, the blister rust, the wind, the canoe makers, and the maples are all plainly written. And more.
The book I brought in my backpack is an honest account of the life of a woman known for her intelligence and generosity. It chronicles her growth from an uncertain child to an advocate for justice whose voice resonates around the world. Her path of becoming was marked by times of poverty and of abundance. She tells the story of a house fire that took everything, raising children, losing her parents, finding her place in the world, growing into a strong protector of her community; it is the story of a life. One thing I find curious in this book, although scarcely unusual, is that in a world filled to bursting with two hundred million species, this book only mentions one, Homo sapiens. It is a hallmark of our time in human history that we think we are alone, perched at the top of the pyramid of life, in charge of it all. She writes of her girlhood in the church. Aided by religion that made God in the image of man, humans alone were perceived to have the capacity for reason, for sentience, for choice, for language. But long before that error was promulgated, people knew the trees were storytellers. But then we forgot. Or were made to forget by the ones who chased divinity out of the forest and forced it into the sky. The stories of trees were erased from our knowing. I doubt she ever imagined that her words would end up on a page, read by me, with Pinus strobus looking over my shoulder.
How remarkable, really, is this phenomenon of reading and writing. We literate folks take for granted that abstract little marks, in repeated patterns on a sheet of cellulose paper, a tree body, can be decoded to make meaning. Even if those black marks are arrayed in a form we don’t understand like Chinese characters, Anishinaabe pictographs, or cuneiform marks on a clay tablet, nonetheless we still recognize them as writing. The very fact of the patterned marks on the page, the systematic recording and interpretation of lived experience, is evidence of intelligence, whether we can read them or not. We don’t dismiss them as meaningless just because we don’t understand; we go looking for the Rosetta stone. Unless of course, those texts are written by a tree. The story of intelligences other than our own is one of continual expansion. I am not aware of a single research study that demonstrates that other beings are dumber than we think. Octopi solve puzzles, chickadees create language, crows make tools, rats feel anxiety, elephants mourn, parrots do calculus, apes read symbols, nematodes navigate, and honeybees dance the results of cost-benefit analysis of sucrose rewards like an economic ballet. Even the slime mold can learn a maze, enduring toxic obstacles to obtain the richest reward. The blinders are coming off, and the definition of intelligence expands every time we ask the question.
The ability to efficiently sense, identify, locate, and capture resources needed in a complex and variable environment requires sophisticated information processing and decision making. Intelligence is today thought of as “adaptively variable behavior,” which changes in response to signals coming from the environment.
Where is intelligence situated? Our conceptions of intelligence are based on animal models and a kind of “brain chauvinism.” Every animal, from the flatworm to the black bear, has a brain, central meeting place of sensation, and coordinated response. Because animals are mobile autonomous beings who must pursue their food, the brain must itself be compact and portable.
But a centralized brain is not needed for plant intelligence. Rapid movement is not necessary when the food comes to you. For an autotrophic, sessile being, bathed in the needed resources, networked in intimate relationships with myriad others above and below ground, a very different system of sensation and response might well evolve, which looks nothing like the animal model.
If food becomes abundant, no animal can grow more legs to chase after it or a new mouth to eat more. In times of shortage, most cannot cast off a limb that it has no energy to sustain. The whole organism is static in form and flourishes or suffers within those constraints. Not so for plants, who can adaptively alter their circumstances by growing additional parts or losing unneeded ones. Decision-making at tree pace looks like passivity to us herky-jerky animals, accustomed to our own short lifespan. But pine behavior is a slow-motion pursuit of adaptive solutions. Plant intelligence or “adaptively flexible behavior” may be manifest in their extraordinary capacity to change form in real time by altering their allocation of carbon to different functions in response to changing needs.
This slow dance of parts emerging and disappearing is the tree-paced equivalent of movement. Branches expand into light-filled gaps and retreat from dense shade, adjusting their architecture to optimize light capture. Roots are deployed in new directions to follow changing gradients of water and minerals, not randomly but with purpose. They are hunting light and grazing for phosphorous by differential deployment of apical meristems.
Plasticity is possible because trees have myriad growing points, or meristems, a reservoir of adaptation poised to respond to changed circumstances. Tissues that animals never dreamed of, meristems—like totipotent stem cells—can be modified into the new tissues that best suit the conditions. Trees like white pine also have a lateral meristem, the vascular cambium, which gives rise to the cells that increase the diameter of the stem. It is an entire body stocking of meristematic tissue, perpetually embryonic. This nexus of nutrients and hormones and sensory chemicals, and creative cell making, is perhaps a fertile location to search for the decentralized seat of pine intelligence. It is the cambium, starting and stopping on an annual cycle that writes in the language of cellulose, of tree rings. Let us consider for the moment that the cambium is the author, that it is the pen that writes its own history.