Humans are used to believing that they are the pinnacle of nature. Like a bunch of isolated chosen creatures whom god itself has ordered and mandated to fill and cultivate the Earth, and to rule over fish, birds and animals. To colonise everything. To be the measure of all things! To be capital-lettered! To sound important!
This is a big-headed delusion. Humans are vertebrates – interesting mammals who have one disproportionately large organ, like a giraffe’s neck, or a rhino’s horn. Our grotesquely large organ is the nervous system, and we have developed a type of consciousness that is strangely and very effectively reflective.
Our most important technological achievements are complex sign systems and phonetic language – a completely new operating system which makes elaborately coordinated cooperation possible. It is undoubtedly a remarkable branch of evolution, but as we have stooped to admire ourselves, we have forgotten that other quite remarkable types of consciousness also exist in nature. Finding ways to contact and cooperate with other life forms could be our main role here.
Stories about people who understand the language of birds is today often regarded as an old yarn, and any talk of plant consciousness is dismissed as tree-hugger’s drivel. But let me tell you about a vine called Boquila trifoliolata. Taxonomically it is difficult to define, as it can have pretty much any kind of leaves. It grows leaves to match the host tree it is climbing, accurately mimicking the size, shape, and colour of the tree’s leaves. As it reaches another tree or bush, its leaves will change to match the new host, the same will happen once it reaches a third host, and so on. It resembles a griffin with a lion’s body and eagle’s head and wings.
How does it know what kind of leaves it needs to grow? Does it look at the host plant, taste it, or smell it, or does it read its genotype? Or does it communicate on a completely different plane to which we have no access? Boquila trifoliolata is able to sense its environment exactly, to analyse the data and react adequately and purposefully. These are signs of consciousness. When we try to imagine this plant’s inner life, we start to understand the extent of differences within types of consciousness in nature that we should try to get along with.
The forest industry insists that unmanaged forests will age and die, and that clear-cuts are a natural part of a forest’s life cycle, its rejuvenation process. According to the market gospel there are only four types of wood: logs, firewood, wood pulp, and woodchips. To be on the same page, we must differentiate between tree fields and the living forest. Today’s economic forest is monocropped because in the clear-cut we won’t find trees of different ages and the understorey is too poor and lacking in species, owing to its youth. It is an artificial entity which is ecologically peaky and susceptible to disease.
Forests do not age or die, they merely grow and change; the older they are, the richer they are. Multitudes of different species live there: plants, animals, mushrooms, mosses, lichen, microorganisms. And different trees, too – and what is most important, they are of different ages. A living forest must have both trees that are being born and trees that are dying. The forest does not need humans to heal it, rejuvenate it, or manage it. It is humans who need the forest for various raw materials. The most important aspect of forests is their biodiversity, together with coral reefs they are the most biodiverse ecosystems on our planet. On top of everything else, forests bind CO2, produce oxygen, and are massive freshwater pumps without which water evaporating from the oceans would simply rain down a few hundred kilometres from the ocean and inlands would turn to desert. Next to those ‘ecological services’ provided by forests, any other economic gains seem hollow and fleeting. Without oxygen we would not have an economy.
However, I would like to repeat that forests are not here to offer services to us. To understand the forest at all, we must look beyond the trees. Look at the whole, try to understand the economic and social relationships, commingling and communications between different species. Mycelia have merged with plant roots, and they are forming vast webs that help exchange goods and information. Mushrooms get photosynthesised sugars from plants and in return they give plants minerals which plants would not be able to access otherwise. The same web is used by trees to exchange nutrients and invigorate saplings. Chemical signals help transport information, distress calls, and threats. Unions are formed with nitrogen-fixing microbes. Plants are capable of synthesising thousands of airborne compounds and use them to send messages and alter the behaviour of others. For example, they can simulate a certain bug’s pheromones, so that they would come and deal with unwanted pests. The forest air is refreshing. If we could learn the language of birds, we would understand these things better. But we are searching for life forms in outer space.
The forest also plays a spiritual role in our lives. We could not imagine Estonian cemeteries without trees. The sacredness of trees is self-evident, trees have always been soul soothers, forests the cradles of eternity. The sacred grove is the foremost symbol of the sense of the sacred, it is a spiritual accelerator in which the soul prepares to jump to the other side of the quotidian and reach values that are higher than our everyday pursuits. Death is a big thing, much bigger than life, it is the new measure of time and space. Death of loved ones and knowing that it will also happen to us puts us in touch with other-worldly values. These values we consider sacred, regardless of our religious leanings or lack thereof.
The Estonian Nature Conservation Development Plan states, ‘Some of the rarest and at the same time most endangered parts of Estonian landscapes are sacred groves, sacred springs, rocks and other natural sacred sites. Having all but disappeared from the rest of Europe, these historical places are now an important part of the European landscape and cultural heritage.’
In 2018, Deputy Secretary General of the Estonian Ministry of the Environment Marku Lamp led the removal of the map of sacred sites from the Forest register and then also from the Geoportal of the Estonian Land Board. This was done on behalf of the large forestry companies and with the approval of the National Heritage Board. Now, even with the best intentions it is impossible to consider natural sacred sites when making plans for forest management. Consequences were quick to follow. Sacred sites have been vandalised before, but now it has become an everyday, nationally mandated practice.
The forest used to back the Estonian currency. We have tried to imagine the forest as our national identity’s mother tree. The vision of future Estonia as a small digital but eco-nation of brains and heart was an ingenious idea which we are now letting slip through our fingers, cent by cent. Currently, there are no more important issues in the world than the natural environment. The climate wars have already begun.
Estonia’s mission could be to demonstrate how nature should be treated. We have enough infrastructure and IT prowess to become an international laboratory of ideas and centre for research, to think deeply and globally about the most burning questions. Besides Silicon Valley, the world needs Sphagnum Valley.