A new crop of tree scientists is using language that implies purpose, design, and even wonder to describe their subjects. But what about the Who?
If you’ve read J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” you already know about his deeply-rooted love for trees—especially talking trees.
In Middle-Earth, trees are living, thinking beings shepherded by benevolent and slow-spoken “Ents,” who themselves are very tree-like. The chief of these, a gnarled fellow by the name of Treebeard, is constantly reminding his Hobbit friends not to be “hasty.” After all, it takes a long time to say anything in Old Entish.
I thought of Treebeard and Tolkien when reading an essay last week in Smithsonian Magazine about—no kidding—talking trees.
Richard Grant writes about a small but vocal group of scientists who are challenging the naturalistic wisdom on our earth’s largest living things.
For example, Peter Wohlleben a German forester and author, thinks the old, Darwinian picture of forests as clusters of disconnected individuals battling for sunlight and soil to survive is all wrong. His research suggests instead that trees are connected, in ways we never imagined, sharing water, nutrients, even messages. That’s right. Wohlleben thinks trees can—in a sense—talk to each other.
He calls it the “wood-wide web,” a nickname for the tangle of roots and fungal filaments that lets trees reach out and touch their neighbors. Through this network, says Wohlleben, trees pass on distress signal. They also “communicate” via airborne pheromones.
Wohlleben cites incredible examples such as when giraffes of the African savanna start munching on acacia leaves. The trees respond by releasing chemicals into the air that “warn” nearby trees of the danger. In answer, neighboring acacias pump their leaves full of noxious tannins to deter the hungry giraffes.
Another tree scientist, Suzanne Simard at the University of British Columbia, describes how the biggest, oldest trees in a forest use their root networks to distribute sugar and water to smaller trees in the area, many of which are their offspring. The striking metaphor she uses for this is “mother trees” “suckling their young.”
Now if all of this sounds a little too much like tree-hugger talk, Wohlleben reassures us that he has never yet discovered a tree that responds to hugs. But he is convinced there is a whole world of connections and purpose that science never expected.
Wohlleben then goes pretty far astray. He even toys with the idea that trees deserve human-like rights. Still, what fascinated me in this article was the profound sense of wonder permeating the entire piece—something that should be foreign in the naturalistic worldview that dominates magazines like Smithsonian.
Why haven’t tree scientists discovered any of this before? Simard thinks it’s because they’re “all trained as reductionists.” In other words, scientists with a naturalistic worldview tend to see trees like they see the rest of the world: as mere atoms and accidents.
Over and over again, critics in the Smithsonian recite the mantra that none of this is designed, but can always be explained through natural selection. One scientist scoffed “[This] appearance of purposefulness is an illusion, like the belief in ‘intelligent design.’”
Folks, that’s called a worldview barrier. For materialists, the idea of plants displaying purpose is heresy. But these scientists are missing the forest for the trees. You and I don’t have to.
You see, God has given His people the vocabulary we need to express wonder, the wonder we rightly feel under the branches of an ancient oak. The prophet Isaiah wrote that the trees of the field “clap their hands” at the going forth of God’s word. What some see as the trees “speaking” to one another is really God, through creation, speaking to all of us.
John Stonestreet is President of The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and BreakPoint co-host.
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by BreakPoint.