Monday, March 13, 2017

The Secret Society of Trees and the Wisdom of its Dynamics

Botany is not sexy. In fact, amongst all sciences — save for entomology: it’s probably the grimiest, the most grotesque of all disciplines. The Martian certainly did not hold back any secrets.

It takes a special kind of dedication and love to willingly dig through dirt for research only for the society to assume you’re one step ahead of a herbalist. Or a woman, depending on which decade you’re currently living in.

But I’ve recently come to realization that trees  and fungi are awesome, and have been withholding paradigm shifting knowledge I had been looking for in astrophysics and cosmology: the sexier and the more appealing sciences.

If we had leaves instead of hair, our lives would be quite different.
Hand-drawn by me.
The idea of observing mechanisms of the natural world and trying to translate or even compare it to the social world of human beings has always fascinated me. The fact that I have Asperger’s, therefore my difficulty in analyzing social behavior straight from the source, might have contributed to my unconventional habit of trying to see the social world through the lens of nature.

I’ll give you an example. When I was a kid, I was unbelievably impatient. Back in 2005, I found it unnerving that my classmates took so long to solve an algebra equation that I could in less than a minute. But I knew my impatience was irrational, so I compared my classmates’ difficulty with algebra to Pluto taking a lot longer to orbit the Sun than the rest of its friends. It clicked at once to me that kids accomplished tasks in different paces, just like the planets.

And so I deduced empathizing with inanimate objects in the universe is enlightening, and not at all insane.

This is why I was ecstatic to read that plants can transfer food to its neighbors before dying. It’s such a simple idea, is it not? It turns out, trees are intimately connected through a network of fungi, whose relationship with trees are awkwardly named Mycorrhiza — a word I cannot pronounce nor would I dare to, at the expense of sounding silly.

Scientific American wrote of this while observing a dying Douglas-fir tree transferring nutrients:

“This amazes me. On the face of it, it appears as if the douglas-fir is acting altruistically (without expectation of return) to help neighbors of a completely different species in light of its own probable demise. Even without the altruism, that trees as widely unrelated as douglas-fir and ponderosa pine can transfer resources to each other for any reason through fungi from a completely different kingdom is a shocker to me.”

In any case, this symbiotic relationship creates a network where food and resources get transferred to another tree when one dies saying, presumably something along the lines of, “avenge me, my fauna overlords!”

I only presume.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if human beings acted the same manner? Plants are altruistic, why aren't we? Perhaps it’s time we learned a thing or two from Douglas-fir and its intimate connection with the fungi, an entirely different kingdom, collectively working to be not just a dick to one another, but have the ultimate form of empathy for one another so they may all survive as species.

I believe ants exhibit the same characteristics of selfless, self-sacrificing habits of collectivism that astounds curious scientists. It’s almost charming how surprised we are to find out ants have two stomachs; one for keeping food for themselves and the other for sharing.

Mother Nature made them amazing creatures and they seem to have life figured out. They are the epitome of a collectivist, communal society. Bernie Sanders would approve.

So I’ve concluded that trees deserve to take over the world. They are organized, intelligent, and far more empathizing than humans. Or does the fungi network pulling the strings of the fauna world deserve all the credit?

I will redeem my ignorance of botany by apologizing to every plant on my way home and watering them with my newly enlightened tears. That sounds rational.

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