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A fig tree speaking about us humans | The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

I want to share one part of the book "The Island of Missing Trees" with you I'm currently reading. A part where a fig tree talks about us humans: It's wondering if we wouldn't be pleased and unsettled by what we'd find out if we learned more about trees. As someone who always wants to learn more about the more-than-human world, I find this part humorous. It encourages sharing all this knowledge about the world out there a lot more.

Fig tree by Francesco Paolo Michetti
© Francesco Paolo Michetti/Bridgeman Images

"Humans! After observing them for so long, I have arrived at a bleak conclusion: they do not really want to know more about plants. They do not want to ascertain whether we may be capable of volition, altruism and kinship. Interesting as they consider these questions at some abstract level, they’d rather leave them unexplored, unanswered. They find it easier, I guess, to assume that trees, having no brain in the conventional sense, can only experience the most rudimentary existence.

Well … no species is obliged to like another species, that’s for sure. But if you are going to claim, as humans do, to be superior to all life forms, past and present, then you must gain an understanding of the oldest living organisms on earth who were here long before you arrived and will still be here after you have gone.

My guess is humans deliberately avoid learning more about us, maybe because they sense, at some primordial level, that what they find out might be unsettling. Would they wish to know, for instance, that trees can adapt and change their behaviour with purpose, and if this is true, perhaps one does not necessarily depend on a brain for intelligence? Would they be pleased to discover that by sending signals through a network of latticed fungi buried in the soil, trees can warn their neighbours about dangers ahead – an approaching predator or pathogenic bugs – and such stress signals have escalated lately, due to deforestation, forest degradation and droughts, all of them caused directly by humans? Or that the climbing wood vine Boquila trifoliolata can alter its leaves to mimic the shape or colour of those of its supporting plant, prompting scientists to wonder if the vine has some kind of visual capability? Or that a tree’s rings do not only reveal its age, but also the traumas it has endured, including wildfires, and thus, carved deep in each circle, is a near-death experience, an unhealed scar? Or that the smell of a freshly mown lawn, that scent humans associate with cleanliness and restoration and all things new and zestful, is in fact another distress signal issued by grass to warn other flora and ask for help? Or that plants can recognize their kith and kin and feel you touching them, and some, like the Venus flytrap, can even count? Or that trees in the forest can tell when deer are about to eat them, and they defend themselves by infusing their leaves with a type of salicylic acid that helps the production of tannins, which their enemies detest, thus ingeniously repelling them? Or that, until not that long ago, there was an acacia in the Sahara desert – ‘the loneliest tree in the world’, they called it – there at the crossroads of ancient caravan routes, and this miracle of a creature, by spreading its roots far and deep, survived on its own despite the extreme heat and lack of water, until a drunk driver knocked it down? Or that many plants, when threatened, attacked or cut, can produce ethylene, which works like a type of anaesthetic, and this chemical release has been described by researchers as akin to hearing stressed plants screaming?

Most arboreal suffering is caused by humankind.

Trees in urban areas grow faster than trees in rural areas. We also tend to die sooner.

Would people really like to know these things? I don’t think so. Frankly, I am not even sure they see us.

Humans walk by us every day, they sit and sleep, smoke and picnic in our shade, they pluck our leaves and gorge themselves on our fruit, they break our branches, riding them like horses as children or using them to birch others into submission when they become older and crueller, they carve their lover’s name on our trunks and vow eternal love, they weave necklaces out of our needles and paint our flowers into art, they split us into logs to heat their homes and sometimes they chop us down just because we obstruct their view, they make cradles, wine corks, chewing gum and rustic furniture, and produce the most spellbinding music out of us, and they turn us into books in which they lose themselves on cold winter nights, they use our wood to manufacture coffins in which they end their lives, buried six feet under with us, and they even compose romantic poems to us, calling us the link between earth and sky, and yet still they do not see us."

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Shafak, Elif (2021): The Island of Missing Trees. Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition. pp. 44-46.


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