In 2016 Suzanne Simard told us that trees can talk (Simard). Trees are not solitary, contained, singular beings. They are pieces of a wide web of knowing and being. Through a complex entanglement of earth, root, and fungal mycelium1 they speak to each other of danger and need. Through these networks they send aid to each other in the form of resources. They recognize kin.2
Trees can talk.
What can they tell us?
At a meeting on climate preparedness and adaptation, when the discussion of detection systems emerged, a voice rose above the din. “The trees can talk,” they said, “why not learn to listen? Why not ask them?”4 Although the idea was scoffed at as irrational,5 it sparked the interest of the public.
“The trees can talk.”
Echoed through the streets.
And thus, Ratatoskr was born. An elaborate, semi-autonomous learning computer, Ratatoskr was named for the squirrel who runs the length of the world tree Yggdrasil, carrying messages between the eagle perched atop and the serpent Nidhogg6 entangled in the roots below.7 Ratatoskr helps us access the forest’s network of information, allowing us to listen and learn from what they know. With input from scientists from a range of fields, from artists and innovators and prosthetists and arborists, a flexible material was designed to move with the trees for better integration. After years of careful testing on both networked and non-networked forest systems, a mode of non-hazardous implementation was found. Bark was carefully peeled away and replaced with circuitry.
The system starts in a false root, travelling up the length of the tree. It communicates with the fungal network via electrical impulses. Cameras placed in the leaves track migratory patterns and weather conditions. The findings are compiled, sorted, and relayed to human field agents through a series of screens implanted in what Simard called the “Mother Tree”: the oldest and most connected tree in the forest system.8 The Mother Tree serves as a hub for two entwined networks, a merging of the fungal, rooty knowledges of the trees and the digital, mathematically based reasoning of the AI.9 Ratatoskr is a bridge, a way for humans and trees to reach out towards each other, to touch and make contact with other ways of thinking and knowing (Crowder).
The trees can talk.
And we are making ways to listen.
Of course, like any change, the integration caused negative outcomes. We’ve seen a decline in several species of arboreal creatures: in North America woodpeckers were especially threatened, as they were either electrocuted or died slowly of heavy metal poisoning. We’ve worked with conservationists to do our best to correct this, and one solution has been to hire falconers. This has had the interesting positive outcome of compensating Kazakh falconers for their once declining art.10 Thankfully, we have largely managed to avoid harming insect populations, as the trees are able to warn us of potential cracks in the technology’s casing; we’ve mostly managed to remedy those problems before they are realised. It’s also opened a door to some humour: we’ve got a very multi-talented “de-bugging” department.
The trees can talk.
They speak of change.
Due to the fact Ratatoskr’s premise is the sentience of trees, there’s been a long-needed push to halt deforestation from the same public that willed the AI into existence. Although it is dangerous and limiting to think of all sentience as human,11 the ability for humans to sympathize with trees and to question if they feel pain—if they die, if they mourn, if they love—has created a situation in which practices like clear-cutting are untenable. Deforestation has always been something that harms the environment, but now it is also a very dangerous move in terms of optics, as people are learning to live with, and grieve with,12 our leafy companions.
The trees can talk.
They speak of reciprocity.
I am a fieldworker of sorts. I meet with the trees and ask them what they know. It is a joke among my coworkers that I connect more with the forest than I do with them, and in that I am a multispecies ethnographer.13 I see the trees as more than things, and even more so through our integration of another sentience into their systems.14 It may be irrational, but I give them respect and show them care as the living, knowing beings they are.
They jokingly (mockingly?) call me the Lorax.15
I know the trees speak for themselves.
I simply listen.
I visit the mother tree of the forest system biweekly and spend the rest of my time writing reports and conferring with my peers around the world. It’s a wonderful day for fieldwork—the air is fresh and crisp, and the sky is clear. I feel the wind in my hair and feel the buzz of life: a duet played by cicadas and Ratatoskr’s fans. I reach the tree and run diagnostics. Soil acidity, potential for drought, status of nutrients, precipitation, connectivity—the results are positive, the system is thriving. I reach out and place my hand gently on the rough bark of the tree, feel the hum of the tech and the breath of the forest.
In my pocket, my phone buzzes an incoming message.
I look up in awe. This has never happened before. The trees speak to me, but always within certain parameters. Overwhelmed, I rest my forehead on the bark.
“How? Why me? And why now?”
“You see us. You hear us. And when you touch us, you become with us17. Sit down small one” they say, “and let us tell you what we know.”
The trees can talk.
And I listened.
McKenna Pipher is a neurodivergent, queer, nonbinary digital artist and animator interested in gender, sexuality, and in-between spaces. They use variance, liminality and potentiality to queer bodies, places, institutions, and expectations to ask what it means to live in a world, and to interrogate whose stories are valued and told. They are currently working towards their BFA in Digital Painting and Expanded Animation. They live and work on the traditional lands of the Mississaugas of the New Credit, the Anishinaabe, the Haudenosaunee, the Huron-Wendat (Wyandot), the Métis, the Oneida, and the Algonquin peoples. Much of this land is unceded or has been taken by force.
- Recall Haraway’s “tentacular beings”: “tentacle comes from the Latin tentaculum, meaning “feeler,” and tentare, meaning “to feel” and “to try” (Haraway 31). The reaching, growing, touching, haptic networks of root and mycelium is both tentacular and chthonic. Later we will meet another being who reaches out.
- “trees communicate their needs and send each other nutrients via a network of latticed fungi buried in the soil… [this network] help[s] trees send warning signals about environmental change, search for kin, and transfer their nutrients to neighbouring plants before they die.” (Simard)
- From the question that arises from De Wolff’s description of crate-dwelling fish, and the question of intervention: why not ask the fish? Why not consider their knowledges and stakes in existence? Why centre human existence? (De Wolff, 40-41)
- In her interview with Diane Toomey, Suzanne Simard addresses the “flack” she’s received for using less “scientific” language, instead using language that centres communication. She recognizes the limits of traditional “rational” scientific frameworks and has chosen to instead engage with the trees in their fullness as living things, rather than inanimate objects, and has opened her mind to the complexity of the forest as a relational system.
Note that these notions relate to Myers’ discussion of the “myth of science as the exercise of disinterested objectivity in service of securing universal truths” (Myers, 2) and how this conceptualization of science prioritizes certain “modes of attention, objects, methods and data forms” as “proper to the sciences” and makes “assumptions about whose knowledge counts” (Myers, 3)
Simard recognizes, like Myers, that the “regimes of evidence… operate within a constrained… field in which all claims to truth must appeal to a mechanistic world view, one in which forms of life and death are made alienable, extractable, commodifiable and reducible to their parts” (Myers, 3) and is directly confronting a “colonial ecology” with “affirmations of more than human sentience” (Myers, 7)
- “A dark dragon flaps up from Nidafjoll. / The shimmering serpent, Nidhogg” (Dodds, 35)
- “Ratatosk[r] is the squirrel who bounds/ in the boughs of Yggdrasil, he brings/ the eagle’s speech from the tree’s top/ to Nidhogg down below.” (Dodds, 73)
- “The biggest, oldest trees in the network [are] the most highly linked... Big old trees have… bigger root systems and associate with bigger mycorrhizal networks.”
“These older trees can recognize kin… the seedling that are regenerating around them are of the same kin… they’re offspring … and …. they favor those seedlings… That’s how we came up with the term “mother tree,” because they’re the biggest, oldest trees, and we know that they can nurture their own kin.” (Simard)
- In Haraway’s discussion of the tentacular, she touches on both the “natural”; “fibrous entities, flagellated beings, myofibril braids, matted and felted microbial and fungal tangles, probing creepers, swelling roots, reaching and climbing tendrilled ones.” As well as the “technological” or “synthetic” (although no less real) “nets and networks, it critters, in and out of clouds” (32) Here I have entangled these two kinds of tentacularities, often perceived as distinct.
- Erin Manning’s description of “touch as the incorporeal experience of contact.” (134)
Here there is a tentacular reaching towards not a physical body but a knowledge, an existence.
- There is a balancing act that must happen, where we acknowledge non-human potentialities for thought and feeling, without erasing their non-humanness by centring ourselves. Haraway touches on this when discussing the need for stories “with room for the hunter but which weren’t and aren’t about him” (40). She also describes the human-centring in discussions of the Anthropocene as “sap[ping] our capacity for imagining and caring for other worlds, both those that exist precariously now… and those we need to bring into being in alliance with other critters (50) This is not about the trees being like people, but the ability for people to be with trees, and the ability for us to form an alliance with them,
- Haraway cites the work of Thom van Dooren, proposing that “it is not just human people who mourn the loss of loved ones, of place, of lifeways; other beings mourn as well… neither the capacity nor the practice of mourning is a human specialty. Outside the dubious privileges of human exceptionalism, thinking people must learn to grieve-with.” (38)
- To borrow the language used by Kim De Wolff.
- The main character is “Earthbound” a term for “those who eschew the dubious pleasures of transcendent plots of modernity and the purifying division of society and nature.” (Haraway, 41) They recognize the way Ratatoskr is entangled with the forest, and the way they are entangled with both. Beyond that, they recognize the fact that those two existences are existences, not things that are separable from human-people’s concept of their own existence.
- “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues.” (Dr. Seuss 23)
- Becoming-with, like living-with and dying-with, is recurring terminology in Haraway’s work.
One example from page 40: “stories of becoming-with, of reciprocal induction, of companion species whose job in living and dying is not to end the storying, the worlding… To think-with is to stay with the naturalcultural multispecies trouble on earth. There are no guarantees, no arrow of time, no Law of History or Science or Nature in such struggles. There is only the relentlessly contingent sf worlding of living and dying, of becoming-with and unbecoming-with, of sympoiesis, and so, just possibly, of multispecies flourishing on earth.”
The main character is becoming with the multispecies happening of the tree-fungus-cyberbeing through contact of their physical-electrical bodies as well as their conceptual/abstract knowings.
Works Cited & Consulted
- Crowder, Nicole. "Hunting with eagles: This 4,000 year-old art is dying out in Mongolia." Washington Post, 21 August 2015, www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-sight/wp/2015/08/21/the-4000-year-old-art-of-falconry-is-dying-out-in-mongolia-see-some-of-the-last-eagle-hunters-in-the-world/. Accessed 1 April 2021.
- De Wolff, Kim. “Plastic Naturecultures: Multispecies Ethnography and the Dangers of Separating Living from Nonliving Bodies.” Body & Society, vol. 23, no. 3, Sept. 2017, pp. 23–47, doi:10.1177/1357034X17715074.
- Dodds, Jeramy, translator. “Grimnir’s Sayings (Grímnismál).” The Poetic Edda, Coach House Books, 2014, pp. 73. Canadian Electronic Library/DesLibris, www-deslibris-ca.ocadu.idm.oclc.org/ID/467298.
- Dodds, Jeramy, translator. “The Volva’s Prophecy (Vǫlospá)” The Poetic Edda, Coach House Books, 2014, pp. 35. Canadian Electronic Library/DesLibris, www-deslibris-ca.ocadu.idm.oclc.org/ID/467298.
- Dr. Seuss. The Lorax. New York: Random House, 1971.
- Haraway, Donna. “Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene.” Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, 2016. https://books.scholarsportal.info/en/read?id=/ebooks/ebooks0/duke/2016-11-15/1/9780822373780
- Manning, Erin. “Sensing beyond Security: What a Body Can Do”. Politics of Touch: Sense, Movement, Sovereignty, University of Minnesota Press, 2006, pp. 134-161. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/oculocad-ebooks/detail.action?docID=322593.
- Myers, Natasha. “Ungrid-Able Ecologies: Decolonizing the Ecological Sensorium in a 10,000 Year-Old NaturalCultural Happening.” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience, vol. 3, no. 2, Oct. 2017, pp. 1–24, doi:10.28968/cftt.v3i2.28848.
- Simard, Suzanne. "Exploring How and Why Trees ‘Talk’ to Each Other." Interview by Diane Toomey. Yale Evironment 360, 1 September 2016, e360.yale.edu/features/exploring_how_and_why_trees_talk_to_each_other. Accessed 28 March 2021.
Header Artwork by McKenna Pipher. Networking, 2021.