The Daily: 20 April 2023

When we learn of spinning galaxies filled with billions of stars, how can we believe that one country is more important than another? Why do we even have countries at all? We are riding a living planet through space, and we are all on the same ride together.
     — Akiva Silver, Trees of Power (2019, Chelsea Green)

The sixth moon of the year is the Greenleaf Moon. This is the time of the Green Man, when all the trees finally put out their finest spring greens. This year the new Greenleaf Moon is today or tomorrow, depending on whether you look for the crescent on the western horizon or just call the first day after the dark moon the beginning of the cycle. Since the moon was dark at 12:13am last night, I think there might be a crescent in the sky by nightfall (7:40pm here in central Vermont) even though today is still within 24 hours of the dark moon.

This is a month of frenzied garden activity and very few holidays. Arbor Day falls in this period, but that’s just another day spent in the garden. For those who like wild-crafting, this is mushroom season and time to gather spring ephemerals. If you’ve never gathered either, get a good guide — or better yet go out with an experienced forager — because many of these plants and fungi are poisonous in one way or another. Usually, this month is the end of the heating season, so it’s a good time to clean out the wood stoves and schedule chimney cleaning and maintenance. Here in Vermont, we’re still heating though. In fact, I may have to fill up the oil tank one more time this endless cold season. However, one of the best parts of this time of year happened last weekend — I got to hang the laundry to dry on the line outside. My towels and bedclothes smell like sunshine again. Which is fortifying against the sleet and snow flurries that have been blowing around since Monday afternoon.

The season of Easter shifts to the season of Beltaine at about Arbor Day, at least before Floralia which begins on April 27th. May Day happens during this season. This is the beginning of summer in the ancient Celtic calendars. In fact, it is one of a very few established calendrical names that has come down to us. In the old calendars, Beltaine marked the time when livestock were led to upland pastures for summer grazing. Often the whole family would relocate to a summer cabin, since cows need twice daily milking at this time. A focus of May Day festivals was on livestock protection. Cattle were led near the ubiquitous bonfires to be essentially smudged in the smoke. The idea is that this may have had a real beneficial effect by removing parasitic insects. I’m not sure that smoke in sufficient quantity to knock the lice and ticks dead (if that’s even possible, given the indestructibility of ticks) wouldn’t first make the cows and humans very ill. Maybe it’s a memory of a tradition of rubbing down the barn-bound dairy cows with ashes to get the bugs out before heading to the summer pastures.

The grass is starting to grow despite the lingering cold, so the cows here in Vermont will be getting out to pasture before long. Usually, farmers have to wait until the ground dries before sending heavy beasts with hooves out into the fields. There are legends of cows getting mired up to their bellies in saturated fields, never mind the damage those hooves can do to wet pasture grass. But our mud season was rather brief with all the dry wind, and there isn’t much keeping the cows in the barn. I am looking forward to spring milk. Not that I don’t like winter, hay-fed milk, but those first weeks in April and May when the dairy herds are let loose in the pastures make for the best milk ever! It’s like half and half. And I might be imagining it, because I know there are more nutrients in the spring grass than the late-winter hay which has been sitting in a barn for months, but I think May milk tastes different. Fresher, maybe. Or maybe just richer, more complex. It makes fantastic ricotta cheese.

This is mostly a season of waking trees. I love watching them slough off the cold, arraying twiggy branches in washes of pale green and soft shades of rose. Catkins are shaken out and dangled from birch and poplar. Cottonwoods — trees I find so delightful I named my bookstore after them — win the award for the most unusual spring bangles. Their flowers are like slender bunches of bright fuzzy grapes. Even better, they smell like honey, or maybe honey mixed with pine. There is a resinous note under the sweetness. I’m sure this is some advantage in attracting pollinators, but I sometimes wonder if there isn’t an element of sheer joy at the beautiful scent — either driven by the insects and birds that select the loveliest smelling catkins or by the trees themselves. There’s no reason that this would be true, but then there’s also really no reason for flowers to be so complexly scented — except that they smell irresistible. And I imagine other beings take the same delight that we do in needlessly beautiful things. After all, needlessly beautiful things existed before we did… as did many abstract things.

The other day I was reading a Baffler newsletter and came up against the opposite opinion. This was teaser essay about a recent scientific study on what communication among forest denizens entails. The essay writer said that, given recent flurries of popular science writing on interspecies information exchange, we would be forgiven for thinking that plants and fungi used language. The journalist went on to assert that the new study found that ascribing words to mycorrhizae and plants is merely anthropomorphizing. And then she seemed to draw that out one step further, saying that if there are no words then there is no communication, that plants and fungi are not talking to each other, that there is no symbolic information exchange.

Which is simply not true. First, information is all talk. Information is not the thing in itself; it is symbolic representation of the thing. A bird call warning of predators is not the predator. The bird is not tossing a snake in the middle of his territory. He is making sounds — words — that mean ‘watch out for the snake’. Words that are understood by other birds, and also by other kinds of animals. Maybe even plants. Similarly, fungi are using strings of symbolic biophysical exchange to tell trees that there are pathogens nearby and possibly heading this way. These are not words as we understand words, but that doesn’t mean they are any less symbolic representations of the world used purely for communication — ie words. These exchanges are not the thing itself, but some sort of meaningful representation of the thing. Maybe code is a better word, but it’s still communication, still language, still talking together.

It seems to me that the opposite is anthropomorphizing. Claiming that fungi and trees can’t be talking because they aren’t using words as we do is certainly a naive view of information exchange. One that feels rather blindly egocentric, actually. The study did not claim that there was no information exchange; the offense seemed to be that we’re being twee when we call that exchange language. Well, we don’t have another word for this exchange, and it’s not at all clear to me that our forms of talking are any more authentic, really-real communication than other forms of talking. Reserving words to humans and not giving words for words in other species seems a bit human-centered. And restrictive.

What are words but electrochemical impulses in the mind that can be translated into sound waves and then back again to neural impulse? Is that much different from electrochemical impulses through fungal tissues and rootlets? In the latter case there’s no mouth, but then there’s also no loss of information in translation and interpretation. Furthermore, do I have to point out that these are entirely different life-forms that are exchanging data in meaningful ways? We can barely figure out what our cherished dogs are trying to tell us. (But the dogs understand us just fine, it should be noted.) Imagine if we tried to communicate with a squid or a rutabaga. Isn’t it more the case that the fungi-plant languages are probably more sophisticated? These are life forms with nothing in common except proximity and yet they talk about a great many things — that we know of! Just imagine what else is happening that we have yet to perceive!

That we have no word for other kinds of communication is, perhaps, the most egregious case of anthropomorphizing. Because it erases all those other forms. Even all the communication that goes on between humans that doesn’t get packaged into words. I hate talking on the phone. I’m also not fond of video conferencing. I used to think this was because I was shy or nervous. But as I’ve gotten older — and especially in these last few socially distanced years — I’ve realized that I rely on all the non-verbal cues coming off another human body to interpret words. If I can’t read expressions, I can’t understand what is being said. I think I might even be responding to messages that I don’t consciously comprehend, things like scent and other chemical exchanges. I don’t feel like I know what is going on in a phone conference even though I can hear just fine. And it’s also true that all those extra forms of information exchange can be overloaded by too many bodies sending out signals that my body is trying to detangle into a coherent message. I don’t communicate well in crowds either — unless the crowd is gathered for one common and intense focus. Like a concert. Or a dance club.

I’m not an unusual human. So I know other people have these wordless experiences with information exchange. And yet if we don’t call plant-fungi exchange communication, then we can’t call what we do without words communication either. See how nonsensical this becomes?

Writers are apt to limit ideas to the words we write. We want to be able to tell our stories with no loss of information between our minds and the minds of our readers, so we want to believe that words contain all the information there is. So maybe the Baffler writer can be excused. Maybe. But to say that humans are the only species with language because humans are the only species that use human forms of language is, at best, a bit circular. But to then say we are anthropomorphizing when we call other forms of information exchange language — in the context of a complete lack of other suitable words for that information exchange — well, I think that’s just pure arrogance…

Or maybe… guilt. Because if these other beings are talking, then they have interiority… and maybe we aren’t as free to abuse them as we’d like to think…

©Elizabeth Anker 2023

4 thoughts on “The Daily: 20 April 2023”

  1. So if there can’t be communication without words, what are human babies doing before they can talk? Are their cries and smiles, and expressions not communication then? Also, anyone who has ever shared space with an animal knows full well there is plenty of communication that happens all the time without a single spoken word. That Baffler writer needs to do some rethinking about all sorts of things.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Arrogance, indeed, and of the sort that has always had deadly consequences, even as we are only now being forced to face up to them. I was reminded of this nugget from Gary Snyder: “ … the brain and nervous system all infolded ectoderm: thought but a kind of skin perception.” What a lovely, humbling idea. We have no more reason to take pride in applying Reason to the world than we might in acquiring a nice tan. Our ignorance of what is going on around us is breathtaking still, after all these millennia of talking.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thousands of years of otherness, assigning lesser-than values to non-human species by denying their abilities and adaptations in our world is a core belief of patriarchy and capitalism. Clear-cutting, industrial agriculture, slavery, racism, ageism, and misogyny all rely on this belief to maintain their systems of oppression.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. It is interesting to note that when a giraffe starts chewing acacia (now called vachellia in South Africa) leaves, the injured tree emits a distress signal using ethylene gas. Neighbouring acacia trees pick up on this and, in response, begin pumping tannins into their leaves. If you watch giraffe browsing, they nibble only a few leaves of a tree and often skip one or two to nibble at the leaves of another.

    Liked by 1 person

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