A forest’s networks also provide it with something that Haskell likens to intelligence—and he asserts that this isn’t anthropomorphism. Plants sense and respond to their surroundings. They store information—memories—about the threat of grazing mouths or past climatic conditions. They integrate information both within their tissues and beyond. When such processes happen in a nervous system, we talk of minds, thought, and behavior. So it is with plants, Haskell argues.
“I’m very comfortable using words like intelligence, but I need to emphasize that this is a very other kind of intelligence,” he says. It’s slow, diffuse, other. “We’re not putting elves in the forest or imagining one big super-organism that thinks in a human-like way. The forest’s intelligence is so decentralized compared to ours. To me, the closer analogy is of human culture. Ideas and human culture happens between points of consciousness in our brains. It’s very decentralized, but it has memory and contributes to our understanding and our ability to solve problems.”
There is grandeur to this view of life but it also carries a somewhat hippie aesthetic, with its talk of connections, vibratory energy, and in some cases, literal tree-hugging. “My fear is that academic colleagues will read this and think I’ve gone soft-headed,” says Haskell. “A New Age view of the world does capture some truth that relationships are important. But that doesn’t mean nature is a place of endless harmony and loving kindness. Networks are places where that tension between conflict and cooperation get played out. Any field biologist knows that the world is riven by pain as well as beauty.”
“The Victorians had a sugary natural history where divine providence was perceived in the opening of every flower,” he adds. “We’ve now had 100 years of people reacting against that. But in doing so, we’ve overlooked some of the other points about nature—the role of networks, and the importance of symbiosis and cooperation.”
This tendency to focus on individuals at the expense of networks has, Haskell believes, led us to distance ourselves from nature. “I don’t buy either the religious view that we’re separate, or the view from the environmental community that we don’t belong anymore, and the planet would be better off without us,” he says. Seeing nature as an untouched land that we wall off in national parks is, Haskell argues, just as damaging to our sense of belonging as the religious view that we have dominion above all creation. “Dogmas of separation fragment the community of life; they wall humans in a lonely room,” he writes.
We can find salvation in the view of life as a community. In The Song of Trees, Haskell champions a kind of “ecological aesthetics,” where we find beauty in connectivity, and where “the microbial community under our feet may be more richly beautiful than the obvious grandeur of a mountain sunset.” And critically, we are part of those communities—an “insunderable” part of nature’s networks, rather than observers peeking in from the outside. “We can have no deficit of nature; we are nature, even when we are unaware of this nature,” he writes. Becoming aware requires attention and deep engagement, of the kind that most of us rarely pay to our surroundings.