Trees can't vote — but that doesn't mean they shouldn't have a voice

Klye Keeler

Kyle Keeler

Kyle Keeler is a PhD. student in Environmental Sciences, Studies, and Policy/Literature at the University of Oregon. His work has appeared in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Edge Effects Magazine, Early American Literature, and The F. Scott Fitzgerald Review.

On October 28th, 2020, Donald Trump and his cabinet enacted legislation to allow logging in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. According to those within the Trump administration, and Alaska’s state representatives, such logging was necessary in order to buoy a drowning timber industry and create jobs. On the other hand, according to scientists like Dominick DellaSala, “We need those rainforests to survive, … The trees will do fine without us, but they're pulling that carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and acting as the planet's lungs.” Such framing is typical — we are regularly presented with trees as either objects for profit, or carbon tanks necessary for human survival. The fate of the trees and plants is decided, ultimately, in the human-centric political arenas that are legislation chambers.

But what if we framed such discussions in a different manner? What if, instead of looking at these legislative battles as constituting only human actors, we instead included the very entities at the center of this battle as well? That is, what if we reevaluated our interactions with, and relationships to, the very trees and plants that we threaten to destroy, or use to breathe, and viewed them as having not only a stake, but an effect in and on human political decisions? What if we opened up areas of human thought and experience to the other-than-human entities that we inhabit the Earth with? What if we viewed politics as encompassing a wide range of Earth’s inhabitants, such as trees and plants, to create a politics beyond the human, so to speak? I’d argue that in so doing, we might just see that most of the endeavors we view as uniquely human are anything but, and we might be able to develop a relationality that allows for a more sustainable, enjoyable, and inclusive life for all beings moving forward.

In order to view politics as an endeavor that encapsulates and involves the flora of the Earth, we first have to take a look at how trees communicate. The idea that arboreal beings communicate is nothing new. For centuries the Anishinaabe peoples of North America have been well aware that trees communicated with one another and humans. While this relationality with the other-than-human world was and is disregarded and violently oppressed by centuries of colonialism, the thoughts and practices continued, and scientists are just now catching up to the idea that trees and plants do in fact speak to one another through fungi networks deep below ground.

When trees communicate, according to German forester Peter Wohlleben, they “exchange information.” However, they’re not discussing their favorite Troy and Abed moment on Community. Trees are actively working together in order to survive: “When one tree is attacked by insects, we can measure electrical signals that pass through the bark and into the roots and from there into fungi networks in the soil that alert nearby trees of the danger,” and they “also send chemical signals through the air when they are attacked by insects. Nearby trees receive these messages and have time to prepare their defenses.”

And trees aren’t just reacting to burrowing insects, birds, or squirrels — they actively respond to human encroachment as well. When foresters chop down a number of trees in a forest, more sunlight enters the forest floor, and, Wohlleben continues, “The climate becomes hotter and drier and the environment becomes worse for the trees that remain … parts of the forest that grew naturally were 3 degrees C cooler than those that are managed and disturbed by humans.” As a community of trees becomes warmer, they may act together to drop more seedlings so that more trees might grow, and these gaps in their canopy might be covered by these new trees. In short, trees form a community, and they protect one another through communication and cooperation.

This type of communication and cooperation does not stop at trees, though. In fact, numerous plants exhibit such behavior, and they don’t just communicate with other flora. Plants and trees regularly communicate with a wide variety of beings, from insects to mammals. Studies done by various scientists, from Stefano Mancuso, to Monica Gagliano, to, specifically, chemical ecologists Robert Raguso and Andre Kessler, show that plants also communicate by emitting “Volatile Organic Compounds,” or “VOCs.” These VOCs are emitted from plants, and if you’ve ever picked and smelled a flower, you’ve also picked up some VOCs. VOCs aren’t just for pleasant walks through the park, though. They’re also picked up by pollinators such as bees, and the bees are then guided to plants in need of pollination where they make the exchange for, in the case of most bees, nectar. This is so important for plants and pollinators that specific plants will develop specific modes of communication with specific pollinators. A specific type of plant may call to a specific type of bee, who will in turn pick up that specific plant’s “call,” and travel to it in order to carry out pollination. In short, just like you might enjoy daffodils over daisies for their distinct aroma, pollinators are also keenly aware of different flowers based on the scents they produce.

On the other hand, herbivorous insects and mammals, or even parasitic insects like the Lysipia nana wasp, may “eavesdrop” on these private VOC channels. In turn, these creatures may move to eat the flowering plant, steal the nectar within, or eat (and in some cases parasitize!) the pollinator that has picked up the plant’s signal. In response, plants guard against such attacks by releasing VOCs that these predators may not recognize, or the plants might even mimic a neighboring plant’s VOC signal so that the predator recognizes their prey as a less-tasty plant. Plants may also share these VOCs with neighboring plants in order to guard against attacks, thus working together to solve problems in much the same way that Wohlleben’s trees do against a warming forest floor.

Plants and trees, then, seek to communicate and cooperate for the greater good of their floral community, working together to solve problems so that they may reproduce and live a longer, safer life. This type of thinking could be viewed as “anthropomorphism.” Indeed, ecologists in Wohlleben’s native Germany have accused him of anthropomorphizing trees. However, numerous thinkers have argued that it is beneficial to all life on Earth to make note of and understand similarities between humanity and other-than-human beings. As political theorist Jane Bennett has argued, in doing so we can “reveal isomorphisms.” That is, we can see crucial similarities between the human and the other-than-human. It is especially important to pay attention to such similarities given our current ecological crisis. According to philosopher Val Plumwood, “In the present context of ecological destruction, … we desperately need ways to increase our sensitivity to and communicativity with the others of the earth …”. Once we embrace the idea that trees and plants do indeed communicate with one another, as Wohlleben and some plant scientists do, we begin to see such similarities, and we may even be able to further recognize opportunities for cross-species communication.

Specifically, we can take a look at plant and tree communication through a political lens. In so doing, we may begin to see that the arenas that we regard as distinctly human are much like, and are much more dependent on and affected by, the other-than-human beings that populate our planet. In turn, we can come to concentrate fully on plants and trees reacting to problems caused by humanity, and we begin to see plants and trees responding to and acting alongside, with, and against humans in a distinctly political manner.

In order to view floral responses to problems as political, we can focus on Bennett’s discussion of philosopher John Dewey. In Bennett’s book Vibrant Matter: The Political Ecology of Things, she explains, per Dewey, that when problems arise, they give way to publics, or groups with the ability to “affect and be affected.” A public then becomes “a cluster of bodies harmed by the actions of others or even by actions born from their own actions as these trans-act; harmed bodies draw near each other and seek to engage in new acts that will restore their power, protect against future harm, or compensate for damage done—in that consists their political action” (emphasis Bennett’s). More simply, when one group is harmed by the actions of another group, or by actions of their own, they work together in a variety of ways to make themselves stronger, to regain any power that was taken from them, and they also take precautions to make sure that those same negative actions will not harm them again. These actions are innately political, as they will affect other political bodies surrounding them, resulting in a chain of effects across the political spectrum.

To look at an example from a human perspective, we can concentrate on the governmental and private interests at play in opening the Tongass National Forest for timber production, which creates a problem for some of the public citizens of Alaska. Those citizens will either do nothing, or they will work together to solve this problem, becoming a public with the ability to act politically. They might call Donald Trump’s agricultural secretary in order to protect against future harm, or they could band together to elect new representatives in order to restore their power, or they may plant more trees in order to compensate for damage done. In each of these examples, the human public is harmed, and they draw together to protect against this harm and compensate for damage done to them.

Beyond the human, though, we can also see trees and plants banding together in much the same way in order to restore power, protect against future harm, and compensate for the damage done to them. While Tongass has not been deforested yet, let’s take the old, and yet still recent example of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. As the Amazon is mined, chopped, burned, and destroyed, the trees within it may band together to survive, or they may die. If trees are dying, this presents a problem for the living trees, as Wohlleben explains, “Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy, which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of the summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer.” Moreover, destroying the Amazon rainforest undoubtedly speeds the rate of climate change, as it increases atmospheric CO2. Thus, in the Amazon, and wherever such large-scale deforestation occurs, it becomes hotter and hotter for the trees that still stand, and much like before, they must find a way to cover gaps in their canopy. They might do this by dropping more seed pods again, in turn closing the gaps to cool down the forest, cooperating with their neighbors and depending on them for survival and support. In this way, the trees of the Amazon, or any deforested area, will, much like human publics with the ability to act in a political manner, “draw near each other” in order to “restore their power, protect against future harm, or compensate for damage done.”

The problems caused by deforestation do not stop at trees, though. If we again extend our view to other flora that we share the world with, we can see that the increase in CO2 caused by anthropogenic (human-caused) deforestation, and climate change in general, could very well have a “significant” negative effect on VOC emissions. As plants are less able to communicate with one another via VOC emissions, they will not be able to communicate effectively with their chosen pollinators, they will experience “developmental delays,” and they will be more at-risk for eavesdropping, and thus attacks, from parasitic insects and herbivorous mammals.

However, much like groups of trees and humans, plants will respond to these problems caused by humanity. In the specific case of VOC emissions, Ragusso and Kessler explain that plants will develop “chemical neologisms.” In other words, plants will develop new language in order to communicate with one another and pollinators in the face of anthropogenic deforestation and the climate change that it causes. As it relates to political endeavors, when presented with a problem, plants, much like trees and humans, will respond “to engage in new acts that will restore their power” and “compensate for damage done.” Or, they exhibit the same characteristics of publics with the ability to act politically that trees and humans do.

On the other hand, if plants are unable to develop new language, they will be unable to communicate with their chosen pollinators and will not be pollinated, or, they will be overheard by the aforementioned parasitic insects and herbivorous mammals, and they, or their pollinators, will be attacked. In the end of this very real scenario, if trees and plants are unable to communicate with pollinators due to anthropogenic environmental destruction and the climate change it causes, both will cease to exist. Indeed, as ecologist Jane Memmott and her peers have predicted, “the large‐scale extinction of interactions” between plants and their pollinators due to this type of anthropogenic disruption will result in “the extinction of pollinators, plants and their crucial interactions.”

If left unchecked, anthropogenic deforestation, and in turn catastrophic climate change, will ultimately result in the extinction of pollinators. In terms of the flora that these pollinators rely on, these changes are discussed in the media, scholarly studies are done, I write about it, and you read about it. As much as we might like to believe we are above and separate from the other-than-human world, we are deeply and delicately intertwined with trees and plants, and we exhibit similarities with them from our use of language to the ways that we band together to solve problems, which we cause for one another. As trees and plants respond to human-caused crisis by expanding their range, planting more of themselves, and developing new language to communicate within their communities, humans respond by passing legislation in order to protect plants and pollinators. In this way, human legislation not only affects plants and trees, but it arises in part because of the actions of plants and trees.

As humanity realized that the death of pollinators would mean societal collapse at best, and the end of human life at worst, policy makers scrambled to draw near one another and protect against damage done. Since 2008 the United Nations has spent over one-hundred-million dollars to “promote monitoring, research, and assessment for the conservation and sustainable use of pollinators.” According to the UN’s initial press release regarding the program, the initiative seeks to find “best management practices for maintaining and protecting pollinator species,” which “will be introduced worldwide and countries and  regions will be given assistance to help them protect pollinators.” Since the UN’s initial push, at least “At least 28 [US] states have enacted legislation on this topic in recent years,” and “In 2019, at least 16 states — California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington — enacted legislation or adopted resolutions related to pollinator health.” As the United Nations and United States are both recognized as publics that exhibit political action, they too “draw near … and seek to engage in new acts that [would] restore their power, protect against future harm, or compensate for damage done.”

By drawing near one another and engaging in acts that would protect themselves from future harm, or compensate for damage already done, we are able to see the United Nations and the United States following the same political pattern that trees and plants have practiced for generations. Yet, humanity only enacted such legislation when it became clear that our very existence was threatened. As the United Nations’ “World Bee Day” Website explains, bees must be saved because the plants they pollinate “produce 90% of the world’s food. A third of the world’s food production depends on bees, i.e. every third spoonful of food depends on pollination.” Just as scientists and environmentalists view Tongass National Forest and the Amazon as necessary because they function as “carbon sink[s],” legislation to protect pollinators occurs only when humanity is threatened, and many times, it occurs much too late. Therefore, it is imperative that we begin to adjust our current political system so that it is more attentive to the voices of all of Earth’s inhabitants, whether their testimonies arrive via our ears or our noses. While this may seem radical at first glance, once we apply political framing and theory to the interactions of plants and trees, we can come to see that these entities have been practicing such political thought, comprising publics and community wide-cooperation, far before humans ever had the idea.

In writing such an essay, though, it must be said that I am in no way calling for a political representation beyond the human before we achieve actual political representation and justness for all human beings. Indeed, as Bennett states, even she “cannot envision any polity so egalitarian that important human needs, such as health or survival, would not take priority.” In light of recent protests around the world that call attention to the intergenerational impacts of anti-black and brown racism fueled by ongoing  white supremacy, colonialism, slavery, and land theft, it is especially important that this is clear. On the other hand, recognizing the polities of the other-than-human broadly, and plants and trees specifically, cannot be imagined or done without first acknowledging and understanding that numerous North American Indigenous peoples such as the groups that comprise the Anishinaabe have been aware of floral communication and politics since time immemorial.

Thus, once we begin to realize that these other-than-human actors play an active and important role in every area of our lives, from our very survival to the politics that we very often view as the pinnacle of human achievement, we may be better equipped to listen to such actors at all times. I understand that to do this is no small task, and it will require an intense reevaluation of the acceptance of human exceptionalism. Although, this may be easier to imagine once we begin to understand that human politics are not as human as we’ve been led to believe, especially if trees and plants have been following political patterns for centuries. Redeveloping such a relationality beyond the human will allow us to view trees as much more than carbon sequestration tanks that we depend on to breathe, and instead, we can accept and celebrate the diverse beings and voices that inhabit our planet alongside us. To do so may very well allow us to take into account voices beyond the human before an ecological crisis has already set itself in motion. Even outside of an in-process ecological cataclysm, it only makes sense to cultivate and develop a deeper and more intentional relationality with every citizen of the Earth, be they human or not. To recognize a public and a political system beyond the human, to work toward a more comprehensive public of the Earth, is to strive for a more inclusive, honest, and just present and future for each inhabitant of our planet.

A longer version of this essay, titled “‘Will-of-the-Land’: The Political Action of the Wilderness Ecology” appears in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment and can be found here.

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