Seeing the Wood Through the Trees

Reconciliation ecologist Pete Yeo celebrates Blake’s testimony to nature as ‘imagination itself’ with an exploration of how our ‘plant blindness’ is perhaps giving way to a ‘probiotic turn’ and the vegetal realm’s role in our need to more fully engage our individual and collective imaginations with the challenges of our times.


The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees.

– William Blake, from his communications with the Reverend John Trusler, 1799

Having found Finding Blake during the pandemic my sensitised perception kissed this joyful quote as it flew, a passing mention by writer Robert Macfarlane during an online literary event about old-growth trees. It reminded me of my own experiences over the years with people who have only seen green things standing in their way, or wilder expressions of vegetation as a mess, as human control lost. It also brings to mind the sentiments of some researchers, like plant neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso, who have highlighted our general ‘plant blindness’, plants and vegetation too often being taken for granted as the backdrop to human affairs.

Plant blindness - seeing the tree

From plant blindness towards vegetal agency

One notable green obstruction was not ‘just a tree’ but a local hawthorn, a plant known to the imagination of any experienced rewilder as ‘mother of oak’, the protective nurse for spontaneous woodland regeneration. Just as the latter process is gaining popularity ahead of conventional tree planting, so we hear of a weed garden winning at a premier garden show, and not simply for its benefit to endangered pollinators. And then there’s the rise of creative pavement chalking for wildflowers (formerly ‘weeds’). All are examples of what Jamie Lorimer calls the ‘probiotic turn’, a nascent move away from antibiotic (against life) human agency, toward a mutualistic modus operandi.

In From What Is to What If, the Transition movement’s leading advocate Rob Hopkins asks what if we could more fully engage our individual and collective imagination with the challenges of this era? It’s an enticing question, made more interesting by recent insights into the nature of consciousness that are leading us to see this as an emergent phenomenon pervading the scalar cosmos. Nature as imagination itself; indeed, alive with it. Our human brains aren’t the prime generators of such music after all it seems; as physicist Nassim Haramein puts it, you wouldn’t go looking inside the radio for the presenter. Unlike indigenous cultures, the self-imposed boundaries of modern society have largely dulled our senses to external (and even internal) signals. For the sake of the music, now’s a good moment to give up the self-aggrandisement and return to harmony with the rest of the band.

In recent decades, playful research into plant sentience has reimagined these beings, so vital to our presence on stage, to the extent that there are now very active global conversations on plant ethics and rights. “Where will it end!” some might cry. Where everything is felt to be sacred, I would suggest, including any harvest thereof. Yet, in this example, I wonder if we have truly seen beyond our boundary thinking. Could the “optical delusion of consciousness”, as observed by Albert Einstein, wherein we see the world individualised, be limiting the imagination of this progressive research? Are we seeing the full proportions of vegetal sentience, and by extension, that of Nature as a whole?

Studies on plant cognition have already established plants as ‘supra-organismic ensembles’, to borrow from philosopher Michael Marder. Every plant is a form of swarm intelligence arising from its modular parts and devolved functioning. This agency features more senses than humans (15, compared to our five, or six), problem-solving, memory, kin recognition, and communication and sharing within and across species ‘boundaries’ (explore the work of Mancuso, Monica Gagliano and Suzanne Simard for instance). Such self-organisation, creativity and altruism are impressive enough, yet it’s their outward-facing behaviour in particular that hints at something more. Beyond being drops in the land-bound vegetal ocean, might we also see that ocean through every plant-formed drop?

Complexity and creative adventure

We can see that the evolution of life continually strives beyond the so-called individual, self-organisation (or greater coherence) emerging at ever-larger scales along with new properties that can’t always be explained via the sum of constituent parts. Think of the rise of nucleated cells or multicellular organisms, the swarming or flocking of animals, and certain aspects of human society. Such complexity appears to be born of efficiency and pragmatism, though possibly also creative adventure. In this light, can vegetation, viewed as a whole, be imagined as sub-organismic tissue within the living body of Gaia, with its own emergent properties aligned with the dynamic functioning of its host and other sub-parts?

Consider how European beech forests equalise resources, supporting disadvantaged trees via below-ground mycorrhizae, whilst facilitating closed canopies above. Or, that they synchronise their masting (fruiting) every few years to overwhelm herbivory and safeguard young saplings, we know not how (The Hidden Life of Trees). Wonder at the infamous albino redwoods in California that some researchers now believe to be sacrificial elements of their forest communities, rather than parasitic freeloaders, acting as toxicity sinks. On the same continent, marvel at Douglas firs, in terminal decline along the warming southern fringes of their range, shunting their remaining resources, again via shared mycorrhizae, into the young ponderosa pine moving north (Mycorrhizal Planet). All for the sake of a resilient green mantle we might imagine.

Further to the mention of beech in particular, there are the observations of ecologist Jean-François Ponge. He has described a forest, seen three-dimensionally, as an emergent, collective structure akin to the bubble-like form of the human being. Above and below ground canopies form the ‘skin’, trunks and branches the ‘skeleton’. My own studies, inspired by the work of herbalists Stephen Harrod Buhner and Timothy Lee Scott, have explored the idea that certain plants, often called weeds or invasives, might actually represent this green mantle’s immune response. Intriguingly, plant colonisation of grossly disturbed land is rather similar to the process of skin healing following wounding (substitute water loss for blood), even down to the healing substances deployed by respective ‘immune cells’.

Then there’s biotic pump theory, which seeks to show that continental interior forests, where they remain, create low-pressure systems above themselves that act to draw in moisture-laden air from the oceans (as winds blow from high to low). Indigenous wisdom already knew this as ‘forests attract rain’. Similarly, some now believe that trees allow a degree of herbivory in order to benefit from insect excrement, a useful fertiliser. We know that the web of life crawled out of the ocean, but did the ocean also crawl onto the land? Given the remarkable – if controversial – insights from a number of contemporary scientists, relating to the properties and powers of water molecules, this might not be such an outlandish idea. As Gaia theorists would put it, life creates the conditions for life.

A new old story

This unified perspective I’ve attempted to sketch out for the vegetal realm is reflected across the sciences, not least in physics (the holofractographic cosmos) and biology (the holobiont). It doesn’t end there of course; our boundary delusions are being challenged across society. The ‘Story of Separation’, as writer Charles Eisenstein puts it, our modern cultural mythos, is as a veil now wearing thin. A more compassionate, relational ‘Story of Interbeing’ is re-emerging; fertile ground, perhaps, for a unified field of phytology (botany), somewhere out beyond all notions of right and wrong. A field from which we might see the wood through the trees, and onward to a more regenerative existence within the ‘Ocean of Being’.

Until such an arising, I sense Blake and our Muse – nature as imagination itself – at my shoulder.


Notes

All photographs by Pete Yeo. In his first Finding Blake post, An Evergreen and Pleasant Land?, Pete takes inspiration from William Blake’s poem that later became the hymn Jerusalem to contemplate the impacts of our changing climate on Britain’s evergreen plantlife. And in Auguries of Innocence: the Connected and Consequential Cosmos, he shares his appreciation of Blake’s words and their popularity for how they speak directly to the heart of the matter.

For more from Pete, see his website, Future Flora, and his similarly-named Facebook page for weekly musings. Lately, he’s felt a call to write more expansively on the need for a more holistic and reverential relationship with the plant realm (and hence all Life). At times the muse has felt rather Blakean.

You can read about and view William Blake’s letters to the Reverend John Trusler here at the British Museum, in which Blake explains that “I feel that a man may be happy in this world, and I know that this world is a world of imagination and vision. I see every thing I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike.”

A forthcoming issue of The Blake Society’s Vala journal will focus on Blake and Nature (Issue 2, released in November 2021, features original art from our previous Finding Blake contributor, Tamsin Rosewell), and the Society has this callout for contributions to a seminar on the topic: Nature Is Imagination Itself.

Pete mentions a number of sources on plant consciousness, including plant neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso. You can watch a TEDx talk Are plants conscious? where he talks about our ‘plant blindness’. In Why ‘plant blindness’ matters — and what you can do about it for the BBC Future site (29/4/10), Christine Ro looks at how humans succumbed to plant blindness and advocates for everyday interactions with plants.

And in The ‘messy’ alternative to tree-planting for the BBC Future Planet feature (25/5/21), Catherine Early explores how trees are excellent at taking carbon out of the atmosphere and trapping it in their trunks, roots and leaves, but asks what if planting them wasn’t the solution? A brief BBC News item (25/7/21), Weed garden wins RHS gold at Tatton Park flower show, explains that the team behind the garden wanted to show that native plants are not just beautiful but essential for wildlife, while in ‘Not just weeds’: how rebel botanists are using graffiti to name forgotten flora in the Guardian (1/5/20), Alex Morss describes how Pavement chalking to draw attention to wild flowers and plants in urban areas has gone viral across Europe.

Jamie Lorimer’s book The Probiotic Planet: Using Life to Manage Life is published by University of Minesota Press (2020), and you can download the introduction an hear an interview with the author at the link. And Rob Hopkins’s book From What Is to What If’: Unleashing the power of imagination to create the future we want is available from the author’s website.

In Does Consciousness Pervade the Universe? for Scientific American (20/1/20), philosopher Philip Goff explores panpsychism and the possibility that consciousness is not something special that the brain does but is instead a quality inherent to all matter?

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben (published by Harper Collins, 2017) makes the case that the forest is a social network. And in Rare Albino Redwoods May Hold Clues to Ecosystem Health, at Atlas Obscura (9/7/21), Marina Wang describes how these ‘ghosts of the forest’, once thought to be a burden to neighbouring trees, may actually benefit them. And Michael Phillips’s book, Mycorrhizal Planet: How Symbiotic Fungi Work with Roots to Support Plant Health and Build Soil Fertility (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017) explores the science of symbiotic fungi and sets the stage for practical applications across the landscape. 

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