Trees Embody the History of All Life on Earth

October 17, 2019

lace yourself on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand, near the Franz Josef Glacier. Officially, this forest is a temperate podocarp-hardwood rainforest, but these dry words belie the rich diversity of plant life around, encompassing every imaginable shade of green, brown and grey.

They also do an injustice to the experience of standing dwarfed by the soaring trunks of the 400-year-old rimu trees draped in moss, with their beautifully drooping branches of tiny deep-green needles like a million cascading green waterfalls. And then imagine standing in this forest during an all-too-common torrential rainstorm blown off the nearby Tasman Sea; the literal waterfall from the sky mirrors the vegetative waterfall, and your senses are overwhelmed by the power of water and vegetal life. To stand in this forest is to understand one of the most basic facts about life on Earth: trees are by far the most significant beings on this planet.

Every schoolchild learns some of these seemingly straightforward facts – trees provide us with sustenance, and their photosynthetic activity creates an atmosphere that enables our survival. Without them, the Earth would be uninhabitable – and with their rising rates of death and extinction, the Earth might indeed become uninhabitable soon. Trees also populate our imagination, and many schoolchildren become familiar with trees through fairytales where the forest looms large, or through Aboriginal cultures, where trees are regarded as community members. We are also becoming increasingly aware of the extent to which they improve our mental wellbeing.

And yet, despite the biological and cultural significance of trees, we rarely notice them – a phenomenon that scientists have described as ‘plant blindness’. This might have to do with the fact that they are immobile, or that they don’t appear to pose danger. It might also have to do with their marginalisation in Western thought – a fact that the philosopher Michael Marder in his book The Philosopher’s Plant (2014) attributes to Western philosophy’s self-understanding. Since Socrates, the primary aim of philosophising has been to save the soul from its bodily corruption.

Yet, trees (and plants more generally) symbolise the ongoing transformations, and thus corruptions and degradations, associated with the living body: from growth to decay and eventually death. In other words, before us and in plain sight, they present precisely that from which we want to distance ourselves.

Even when philosophers turn their attention to understanding life processes, they largely ignore trees or relegate them to the periphery. In his Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790), Immanuel Kant regards trees as ‘self-organising’ but not as ‘alive’ – because they lack an essential characteristic of life: desire (which animals possess).

In The Phenomenon of Life (1966), Hans Jonas argues that plants don’t possess a ‘world’ because they can’t be contrasted with their environments. Thus, while the animal-environment relation is one between a sensing, directed subject and a ‘world’, the plant-environment relation is between a nonsubject and nonobjects, or as Jonas puts it: ‘consists of adjacent matter and impinging forces’.

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