Why Trees and People Form Mutually Beneficial Relationships

Source: Johannes Plenio/Pexels

A few weeks ago, I had a wide-ranging discussion with tree scholar, and integral ecologist Laura Pustarfi that sent my mind whirling in many different directions for a number of reasons, including my thinking that some of what we talked about reminded me of early discussions about the nature of animal minds and how much we’ve learned has changed how people now think about their complex cognitive and emotional lives.one Here’s what Laura had to say about her groundbreaking and exciting research.

Marc Bekoff: What do you do in your studies?

Laura Pustarfi: I am a plant studies scholar, and I focus on trees and forests from an interdisciplinary perspective. There is a growing scholarly interest in plants throughout the humanities, sometimes called the “Vegetal Turn” and also plant humanities or human-plant studies. Leaning on plant biology, particularly scientific research in plant signaling and behavior, I’m interested in how I thought about what trees and plants are could shift as new research uncovers previously unrecognized plant capacities like intelligence, relationships between trees, and agency.

MB: Why do you do what you do?

LP: My interests in human consciousness and the environment stem from questioning my own experience as a human and learning more about ecological degradation, deforestation, and climate change. There must be some connection between thought and current environmental conditions.

Trees, in particular, are both deeply intertwined with human flourishing and at the forefront of environmental crises. Our arboreal neighbors contribute to human sustenance, well-being, economics, and safety.

There are social issues connected to trees, including inequitable access to green spaces and urban tree cover. Being in the presence of trees is beneficial for human psychological and physical health. Tree sequester carbon, which keeps the carbon out of the atmosphere, and avoiding deforestation and careful planting worldwide could help slow the negative impacts of a changing climate. I hope that thinking differently about trees and plants might help lead to more respectful interactions with plants as well as further recognition of the primacy of Indigenous peoples, who have long histories managing their local forests on their lands.

MB: What have you learned?

LP: The science is beginning to show that some plants have certain capacities, including memory, learning, communication, relationality, and recognizing self and kin. This can be called intelligence, though scientists and philosophers are still debating the language. Plants learn and retain information about what might be safe or harmful in their environment.

Trees have been shown to communicate and share nutrients through the mycorrhizal networks of roots and fungi beneath the soil. Trees and plants show less competition with their own roots as opposed to other roots, and they also act differently towards other trees depending on whether they are kin, genetically similar, or not.

Trees and plants also exhibit behaviors that can be considered agency, or intentional action, when they share nutrients or water with their kin trees, for example. Yet trees are often thought of as merely resources or part of beautiful scenery. Taking this new research into account, trees, and plants may be more valuable than board feet for lumber. They may deserve human respect and consideration as living beings that share the planet with us.

MB: Why do you think people are skeptical of forming a relationship with a tree, plant, or flower?

LP: At least in Western educational settings, children are typically taught that trees and plants are practically things. The idea of ​​having a relationship, a mutually beneficial connection over time, with a tree or a plant is unthinkable and not even in the realm of possibility for many adults. However, I would suggest considering the possibility of an ongoing connection to a tree or plant.

Some people have strong connections to specific trees, plants, or even to a houseplant. A first step would be to simply notice the trees and plants that you pass by each day as you go about your daily life. Are you particularly attracted to anyone, either because of their beauty, a particular characteristic, or for no specific reason? Continuing to notice the tree or plant on a regular basis and throughout the seasons is the way to start developing a connection or relationship.

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MB: Why do you think so many people are interested in plant-human interactions/relationships and human wellness—also, what might be in it for the flora?

LP: I sometimes think of trees as charismatic megaflora—a play on charismatic megafauna—because so many humans have deep connections to trees from their childhood, a tree in their neighborhood, or even a tree famously standing in a national park. Many humans talk about feeling better outdoors or in nature, which is supported by research. We get better more quickly in hospitals with views of trees, and walking in green spaces reduces negative thoughts and decreases stress.

Forest bathing has become a popular activity with much research into the physical and mental health benefits. Many just feel better after spending time outside around plants. I think it’s compelling to consider if the trees and plants could also benefit or that the relationship might be mutual.

While being careful not to anthropomorphize, trees and plants can benefit from human tending to their environment that enhances or grows the ecological community. There could be much more to plant-human relationships for the plants that we don’t yet know.

MB: Do you think that as we learn more about plant intelligence, cognition, and emotions, this will change the attitude of some skeptics?

LP: My hope is that evidence for plant capacities and thinking about plants as beings deserving human respect will lead to a change in how plants are treated. We, humans, depend on plants in a multitude of ways for food, shelter, medicine, and many, many essential products. Part of human relationships to plants is use.

It’s much easier to use another being if they are not intelligent or communicative. Plant intelligence is, of course, different from human intelligence, though I believe using these terms helps to highlight the parallels between such capacities. While I do think that some who are skeptical will be swayed by the research, I also don’t think believing plants are intelligent is necessary to keep the plants themselves in mind by avoiding clear cuts, for example. Plants are, after all, living beings that share our planetary home.2

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