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photo of plant's complex societies

Complex societies

Since 2000, scientists, and in particular botanists, have been delving into the sentience of plants. They’ve made some amazing discoveries. Plants are not the insensate lifeforms Homo sapiens has believed for so long.

Most people, in the past and still today, think of plants as living, but sedentary things that just grew and either thrived or didn’t, but which provided humans food, medicine, and clothing. People presumed they lacked the ‘anima’ or movement and cunning of the upper echelon of life forms, animals, of which we humans, with our self-awareness and intelligence, dominate all other creatures and even the planet Earth. At least, again, that is what many think. We are now learning that we can change the Earth, but it isn’t always a smart thing to do, and that plants and ‘lower’ lifeforms might not be so much lower, and even in someways, smarter.

In reading a 2015 publication, Brilliant Green, The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence, Ismarty-plants’ve learned philosophers since before Aristotle have wondered and postulated about plants, and whether they have souls, a sign of intelligence. Even Darwin and his son had views on plant intelligence which seemed to have been largely ignored. The authors of this book go on to describe plants’ ability to communicate, to remember, and to feel, see, hear, taste, and touch.

Programs like Nature on PBS are also creating shows like “What Plants Talk About,” (also known as “Smarty Plants” in Canada) which cover the discoveries about the ignored nature of plants. On Ted Talks, Stefano Mancuso  speaks on “The roots of plant intelligence,” and The New Yorker’s video “Do Bean Plants Show Intelligence,” based on the research of Michael Pollen, show scientists’ perceptions of plants are changing. Many videos are available on line to show the extraordinary discoveries about plant behaviors.

I’m sure most readers know that plants can survive without humans, but most ‘higher’ life forms cannot survive without plants and their ability to use sunlight, carbon dioxide from the air, and minerals found in the soil to produce sugars and other food substances. Depending on the species, they can live one season or for thousands of years. They clean air, water, and the soil that humans pollute. As mentioned, they take carbon dioxide from the air and release oxygen back into the air. What we often don’t know is they live in complex societies both above and below the soil, and when we decimate a forest for wood products, we can also decimate the society of entities that made the forest a healthy and productive ecosystem in the first place.

It is time for humans to stop taking plants, and other life-forms for granted and to use the products and life forms on Earth in a responsible way. Our existence depends on it.

We had over twenty inches of snow a little over a week ago. Yesterday I was out collecting greens to make a wreath and the snow was nearly completely melted. Underneath the pine I clipped I found this moss, bright green and spongy. You can see a small clump of ice still on the ground. In botany we are concentrating on vascular plants and, in particular, dicots and monocots, but these tiny little plants are beginning to intrigue me.

Moss underfoot

Moss underfoot










Then while walking the road I saw these two tree trunks. I believe the trees are popple, but they are so different from the normal greyish-cream color.

Popple trunks

Popple trunks on a damp November day.


I joined a large audience to hear Jerry Dennis, author of The Living Great Lakes, today at West Shore Community College’s Main Stage Theater. He talked about many of the threats to the Great Lakes. It was a long list including invasive species (170 other species, although Asian Carp still remains only a threat not an actuality), pollution like molecular plastics, water shortages, Nestle and bottled water, general human apathy, and why change seems to take so long.

What I took away is that man is the greatest threat to the Great Lakes. Our uses of these massive fresh-water seas, the economic realities, loopholes in regulations, slow acting governments and agencies, and our irresponsible uses both in the past and the present. Mr. Dennis has strong hope for the lakes, their great strength and resilience. Considering the ever increasing human population consuming finite resources, I’m not so sure.

West Shore Community College, where I teach, has a cross curriculum topic: The Year of Water. The website devoted to this topic features some outstanding photography of Lake Michigan. Take a Look!

Whenever I work the soil–Master Gardener lesson one: gardens are made of soil, not dirt–I think about the science fiction series Dune, which ends with the entire universe of the story existing within the soil of a rose garden.

In some ways this is an accurate image of soil: a different universe full of life. Soil is a living thing containing the minerals of the universe (Another scientific but scifi like connection: Carl Sagan wrote: “We are made of star stuff”), water, air, the detritus of life or humus, and microbial life. And like any living thing, soil can be killed by poison, starvation, suffocation, or drowning. Soil is the skin of the living planet Earth, and like our skin, other life lives on and within it.

Fungi on a pile of bark mulch looking like an alien species invading Earth.

As a gardener, the first thing I learned was respect for the soil, and rightly so, as a great deal of the world’s life is supported by what lives in soil. Only plants can produce their own food, all of us of us eat either plants or other animals to survive. I expect our society might be more peaceful if human bodies could manufacture their own food. Oops! Off topic. (Besides, on reflection, I realize plants are often at war with each other—doesn’t this sound like a scifi tile? War of the Plants.)

How much life is underground? It depends on the soil, its temperature, moisture, air content, mineral makeup, and condition. Within my soil I can see macro life such as worms and insects, even mammals like moles living in the depths, but by far the largest category of life is invisible to the naked eye: microflora and fauna like bacteria, mold, fungi, algae, protozoa and nematodes. If you’re lucky, your soil is full of life, or like me, you continually feed your soil with compost and mulch to make it healthy.

Here’s a fun fact to put this unseen life in perspective. Jeffrey Gordon, a professor at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine has stated that up to ninety percent of the cells in our bodies are non-human cells, from microflora and fauna similar to those found in the soil. So imagine a being as big as the world’s soil mass. What’s more, our lives need that non-human life living in and on us just as much as the soil in your garden does.

So there it is, Frank Herbert, Dune‘s author, was right, there are millions of alien species living on the trillions of mineral planet particles within our soil’s universe. Bet the next time you work the soil, you might hesitate about just what you’re sinking your hands into.

Update: National Geographic has the scope on dirt — #5 Soil is Alive — also some scary information on how humans abuse soil at great risk to themselves.

*This is from one of my older posts on*

Are worms…that is at least what science claims. It seems the forests surrounding the Great Lakes developed without earthworms. Ten-thousand years ago native species disappeared during the glacier period. Since then, our trees and plants have evolved to live in a wormless soils. In this region, a thick layer of duff, the debris of trees and shrubs, lined the forest floor. Duff normally remained for years, slowly decayed by fungi, and providing a habitat for many ferns, delicate wild flowers, and small animals like salamanders.

Since settlers first moved here, earthworms like the red wriggler used in fishing and for composting, have been introduced into the forest lands. Gardeners usually think of worms as a desirable asset to soil. They eat decaying matter, aerate the soil and leave humus-rich worm castings behind as they burrow. In general they do good things for soil where garden plants grow.

In the forests, however, worms eat the duff in just a few years, lowering the soil’s acidity and making nutrients more available. The plants in our forests survived in the poor fertility and the high acidity of our soils. While this won’t necessarily harm the mature trees growing there, the duff’s absence affects the number of seedlings growing in an area. It also makes an advantageous situation for unwanted invasive species that couldn’t have grown in the original, more acidic soil.

As this debris layer disappeared, so did the habitat for plants like Trillium, lady slippers, Solomon’s seal, blue cohosh, sweet cicely, mayflowers, wild ginger, lady fern, bloodroot, bellworts, and the globlin fern. They adapted to germination and growth in the thick layer of duff. The duff layer provided them nutrients, moisture, protection from extremes in temperature and predators, and a habitat for microorganisms like fungi necessary for the plants’ survival.

It is also believed the loss of the duff effected the salamander population that fed on insects living in the debris. The salamanders in turn, provided food for snakes, shrews, thrushes, and screech owls, so the earthworm invasion effected a whole chain of living organisms.

We introduced worms from dumped fishing bait, on purchased plants’ soil balls. The tires on all of our motorized vehicles’ entering our forests often carry worm eggs, so the most severe invasions are usually near roads.

Once the earthworms infest an area, little can be done to remove them without more harm to the forest. We know many of the previously listed plants grow in worm-infested soil, because we grow them in our gardens, but a study in the Chippewa National Forest in northern Minnesota shows these species do not return to worm-infested forests.

Some ecologists hope the ecosystem of the forest may eventually come to a new balance. In the meantime don’t spread earthworms into wormless areas, don’t dump worm bait in forested lands, and keep your vehicles on roads and trails. Gardeners in wooded areas need to keep compost piles and worm contaminated soil from contaminating the woodlands. These may seem like small measures, but a little thing began this big change.



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