A MEETING WITH GARRY

I rounded a corner on a dusty hiking trail, and there they were on a grassy rise: gotcha!

I wasn’t hunting Pokemon, but rather a sparse deciduous tree, Quercus garryana. The Gary oak’s habitat is limited mostly to Washington, Oregon, Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.

I walked up to a moss-covered oak, sat down under it’s gnarled limbs, and looked out to a sunlit stretch of Vancouver Island.

The species is named after Nicholas Garry, a 19th century deputy governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Victoria’s Oak Bay, in turn, took its name from these twisting pillars of phylum and phloem. And for the purposes of this article, I’ll refer to my leafy friend as “Gary.”

 
garry.jpg

 
According to Parks Canada, Garry oak woodlands support more species of plants than any other land-based ecosystem in British Columbia. Quercus garryana has a lifespan of up to 500 years, and the District of Oak Bay has a $10,000 fine on the books for anyone who cuts down or damages their iconic tree.

Gary is likely a centenary youngster, but he appears to have the gravitas of a stately sequoia or wizened Jericho tree. Sitting at his base it occurred to me the more I learn about human beings the more I like trees.

Don’t get me wrong; people can be perfectly delightful, one-on-one. They’re not all that bad in small groups either. But beyond a certain number all bets are off.

Ballistic missiles, reality television, fiat currency, megachurches, safe spaces, cheese in a spray can: all spawn of networking hairless apes. In contrast, trees in groups – a forest – constitute nothing more dangerous than a canopy. All our geologically recent isms, from absolutism to Wahhabism, lie outside their leisurely photosynthetic enterprise. Trees and plants mastered solar power well before our ancestors were tree shrews.

Trees and plants also utilize the mycelial networks of fungi – the world’s first Internet –  to mediate the interspecific exchange of nutrients. The green crowd figured out the thorny problem of resource distribution millions of years ago. In contrast, humans are still trying to puzzle out how to efficiently direct aid to regions struck by earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and international banking.

Scientists insist that biological evolution has no definitive progressive direction. I think we can say the same for cultural evolution. As our consumer electronic devices get smarter, we appears to be getting dumber. For example, the owners of mobile phones are now being led around like cattle by their own apps. The Pokeman-chasing fellow who risked electrocution by leaping onto the tracks at a Canada Line station is not an outlier. There’s plenty of other reports of couch potatoes activated by “augmented reality” into witless encounters with their urban environments, like the wanted man in Michigan who was arrested in his pyjamas while playing Pokemon Go outside a Milford police station.

Such tales makes plants ability to stay put in un-augmented reality all the more admirable.

The botanical crowd don’t seem do much of anything, but that’s only because they occupy a different temporal realm. Most have experienced surprise at the liveliness of plants seen in time-lapsed footage, but this goes beyond tendrils trembling towards sunlight. Scientists are now discovering that almost every behaviour we attribute to animals has a variant in plants – just at a slower pace.

If you think that’s an exaggeration, I encourage you to snap up a copy of Brilliant Green: The Surprising History of Plant Intelligence, by Stefano Mancuso and Alessandra Viola.

Among their findings is that Charles Darwin was correct about the radicle, or root tip of a young plant: it functions as a kind of botanical brain, altering its direction of growth before contact with rocks and other obstacles. Plants have up to twenty senses as opposed to humans’ five. These includes senses for gravity, humidity, and electromagnetic fields.

As I relax at Gary’s base, perhaps I’m just a blur to him: a momentary flash of funky animal pheromones. Trees are playing a long game, based not on the megahertz cycles of the microchip but rather the seasonal shifts of the sun. With the world of humans unravelling from our own short-term thinking, it seems we could still learn a thing or two from the time-tested wisdom of trees.

The Vancouver Courier, July 28

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