January 22, 2008
I like to keep a layer of trees between me and the
rushing madness of humanity.
Trees do not merely hide the frantic activity of
business and politics, but actually absorb the pollution and
noise. Psychological studies have shown that patients recover
from surgery more rapidly when they can see a landscape of trees, and
that children have reduced symptoms of hyperactivity if they play not
just outdoors but in a setting of green plants.
But the peace that plants create is not merely a
quiet absence of noise. Many people walk through parks and
forests without noticing the plants, and while making their own loud
noises. If there are no human structures in the forest, they may
say “There’s nothing out here!” (Guess how many times I have
heard this from my students.) But if you listen quietly and
notice the details, you will become aware not just of the absence of
noise but the presence of a powerful beauty. Gustav Mahler tapped
into this power as he wrote his Third Symphony in a cabin by a forest
and a meadow in the 1890s. It is a power that becomes stronger
when you learn more about plants, ecology, and the evolutionary history
of the Earth.
The world of plants is the real world, unlike the
world of corporate boardrooms, paneled by dead trees. The
powerful knowledge that you take back with you from the forest into
your work and into human society will enable you to live joyously and
to make the right decisions.
For more: see the book Green Planet when it is published.
Listen to the forest
February 18, 2008
An old friend of mine wrote to me about trying to figure out whether to believe in God. What he was looking for, and what he might have expected me, as a scientist, to tell him, was whether there was any verifiable evidence of miraculous activities of such a God, above and beyond the world of nature. Unfortunately, I had to tell him that evolution explains the entire history of life and the universe, and that all mental and spiritual experiences of humans seem to be explainable by the chemical reactions in the brain. I had concluded that there was no proof of God, and probably no Person we could call God, but only Love.
I told my friend that I believed in God because Gustav Mahler believed in God. That is a strange thing for a scientist to say. I do not know if Mahler had a specific theology in mind, but he believed in the kind of God you can encounter by listening to the forest and meadow that surrounded the cabin in which he wrote his Third Symphony. He entitled the second movement “What the flowers of the meadow told me,” the third movement “What the animals in the forest told me,” the fourth movement “What the night told me,” and the final movement “What the morning told me.”
Was Mahler experiencing a delusion of the evolutionary overgrowth of the human mind? We cannot know, since we are limited to our human minds. Long before there was any theology, humans experienced what Edward O. Wilson has called “biophilia,” the love of the natural world; and saw, or imagined, within nature a power beyond human experience.
Whoever listens to the forest is much less likely to pick up a gun and aim it at another person whose theology differs from theirs.
As interesting as watching grass grow
March 21, 2008
“As interesting as watching grass grow” is a cliché. It is also indicative of the ignorance that most people have of the fascinating world of plants.
Granted, it is not very interesting to watch plants grow in real time. But if their growth is compressed into the time span of human perception, as in the superlative films of Sir David Attenborough, or if you measure their growth over time, you can discover some very interesting things about them. While plants do not have intelligence, they adjust their growth to their environments in ways that look intelligent to us. Plants have to make a living, like everyone else, and their growth patterns allow them to do this. As a seedling grows, its stem may actually do a little circular dance (circumnutation) in search of light. As its leaves expand, their anatomical structure adjusts to the amount of light: thinner leaves with more chlorophyll in shade, thicker leaves with less chlorophyll in bright sun. Meanwhile the roots penetrate the soil and proliferate their growth in patches that are rich in nutrients. Plants have a limited amount of food stored in their cells, and they invest this food in growth that is appropriate to their conditions: they invest more in roots if the soil is dry, and more in leaves if the soil is moist. Plants also prepare for the future, producing next spring’s buds the previous autumn. When the leaves burst open from buds in the spring, you are seeing merely the expansion of tissues that were built the previous year.
Perhaps watching grass grow in real time is not very interesting, but to envision its growth over the course of days and weeks in the real and complex world can be astonishing.