Step around the nettled edges of an ancient oak, picking your way about the rabbit holes, peering Alice-like at the mushrooms growing from the fecund soils and you will see something of the complex community that lives within the realm of that tree. Over 2,300 species are associated with oaks, more than 300 are reliant entirely on the oak for their existence. There can be no more obvious reminder of how life works on this planet – connected, interrelated, sharing space and light – a web of life. We should never forget that as humans we too are part of that web, whether we are standing in the Amazonian rainforest or on the streets of an urban centre. We are of nature. We are part of the natural world, even when we step into our square-box homes to stare at screens.
In the pioneering work of ecologist Suzanne Simard back in the 1990s in British Colombia, she established the concept of a mycelial web, a ‘wood-wide web’, which exists in the wider reaches of trees’ root systems, operating as a connective network and a vital life-force of the forest. It was Simard’s research that showed us that trees are not lone individuals. In her words, they ‘communicate with each other above and below ground’.
Our knowledge of what the web of life means is constantly evolving. Now we are beginning to step towards understanding something of how plants and trees may think. Recently, I have been guided to the work of Monica Gagliano. Her research is dramatically shifting scientific views as to the nature of plant intelligence. The work of Gagliano is startling. One of her papers has the title ‘The Mind of Plants: Thinking the Unthinkable’. The essential point she makes is that plants have been shown scientifically to be capable of learning by association. They can choose.
Nor is Gagliano alone. There are a collective of scientists calling themselves plant neurobiologists who are also starting to probe into notions of plant cognition and sentience. I have just finished reading ‘The Philosophy of Plant Neurobiology: A Manifesto’ by Paco Calvo who is working with a collective of scientists at the University of Murcia, in Spain, dedicated to studying the ecological and philosophical basis of plant intelligence. The opening line states: ‘speaking about plant intelligence is not taboo any longer’.
It is all rather wonderfully mind-blowing.
So when you next step from the straight-lined world of the humanscape where many of us spend so much of our time, into a place where there are trees and plants growing, do not be surprised if you start to feel more at peace in your skin. Do not be amazed if you begin to feel a calm creeping over you as you walk into the open space of the parkland, or as you settle on a bench beside an ancient oak. Environmental psychologists tell us that they can trace this change in our brain patterns. They can see the shift in the EEG readings. They talk of us moving from the ‘stressed states’ that they witness in human minds in urban spaces, to the ‘meditative states’ seen when we are in green spaces. This is science reminding us that we are natural beings. We are part of that web of life. We thrive best when enmeshed within it.
Listen to James discuss the web of life on The Louder Than Words podcast.
Department of Literature Film and Theatre Studies (LiFTS), University of Essex
James Canton is a writer and lecturer who has written widely in creative non-fiction forms and taught on the MA in Wild Writing at the University of Essex since its inception in 2009, exploring the fascinating ties between the literature and landscape of East Anglia.