I’m Not a Tree, I’m an Ent(ity)

Clyde Welsh is being quite serious.

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Sometimes I cry while eating carrots. I remember being upset for weeks when the BFG told Sophie that he could hear flowers scream as they were plucked. In what is perhaps just the uncomfortable resurfacing of those memories, I am now convinced that plants have feelings. That they are alive and that we should respect them as we do other people. And yet the machinery of industry tears down their corpses to make paper, and fire, and houses.

Once, at a party in a park, I pretended to be a tree. I could feel a chemical signal travel up and down my spine, telling me that it was cold. The hair on my arms stood on end. An insect was munching on one of the tree’s leaves. I could feel a chemical signal, travelling from one leaf to the next, warning of the danger and readying the plant’s defence mechanisms.

Science tells us that plants have many of the same senses that we do, conveyed to the rest of the organism using the same hormones that we use. They see and react to light stimulus. They smell the chemical emissions of other plants and animals. They taste the saliva of the insects that munch on their leaves so that they can ready a specific chemical concoction with which to defend themselves. They respond to the touch of other plant roots and grow in other directions. They hear the sound of running water, even when enclosed by dry pipes. They synthesise these sense signals in a complex hormonal and chemical mess called a nervous system.

In highly populated areas, plants adapt their nutrient consumption habits and growth patterns in order to help build communities. They have at least a few thousand chemical signals that can be used to communicate with other plants and animals. When some plants are attacked, others in their immediate vicinity respond by readying the same defences. Others call bodyguards to fight off their aggressors.  Science has even found that plants learn to ignore fake or irrelevant stimuli in the same way that we do.

The complex interaction between the senses that plants have, and the varying reactions that they have to those senses, indicates something more than an object. The anthropocentric claim that plants aren’t sentient due to their lack of a brain demonstrates a strange fixation on neurons.

It’s also a normative claim that lies outside of the realm of purely scientific inquiry. It places unthinking and uninterrogated limits on our collective understanding of what may or may not be instrumentalised and abused for the purposes of humanity. I think it’s important that plants are given at least some place in our moral discourse. And it should be a discourse that extends beyond the cold language of science. It is an injustice to ignore the potential plight of potentially sentient and loving beings.

Sometimes the plants speak back to me. I can only hear them if I am very still. To the tree on whose body this article is printed: I’m sorry, they made me.

Vice Chancellor Michael Spence.

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