Trees - Podcast Episode

Trees are often seen merely as backdrops or immovable scenery. When we start to learn about the physical realities of trees, their names and histories and the ways they interact with the world around them, we start to wonder if we’ve gotten the wrong idea about what trees are. In this episode, Jim and Colin go on a journey to see trees more completely, to see them as living, dynamic creatures. Learning about the scientific reality of trees leads to an enriched understanding of the role trees play as symbols in the bible and helps eventually for trees to be seen as creatures who praise God.


Without listening first . . .

I see trees as providers of organic matter for the soil via shedding leaves or needles, providers of shade to smaller plants, potential housing locations for birds and other critters, and ultimately soil-builders and nurseries to other plants once they die and fall over, as well as when still standing and dead providing housing for a variety of critters.

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Really enjoyed this episode. I’ll have to listen to it again and write down some questions.

Trees are a form, not a clade obviously. People often joke crabs are the ultimate form since multiple species evolved a crab shape, but the reality is that the tree form is a far more dominant form. We see trees in many families that are distantly related. Even tree forms with grasses ( palms ) and ferns ( tree ferns ). I’ll go more into thoughts later.


Listening to that at one point reminded me of the vacation Bible school a few summers ago at the church just down the block. I don’t know what the theme was but they had people in costumes as trees and hills and streams, all being part of leading worship.

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It is nice that a growing proportion of people, even believers, are starting to value trees. A few decades ago, trees were viewed just as sources of wood or fruit. I remember reading about the thickest oak in the country. It was so thick it would have been too laborous and difficult to cut it with saws, so it was harvested by using dynamite. Much of the wood turned to splinters but the largest pieces gave also much usable wood. I see it as a sign of greed but it was the common attitude during that time.

Some of the old attitudes still lives. I once watched a reality series about lumberjacks in North America. Their livelihood depended on the amount of wood they could collect so large trees were clearly seen just as a source of money. As an ecologist, I did not share the attitude.


Another cool thing about trees is that they are self-calibrating elapsed time clocks that certify and validate the calibration of others (varves and C-14, for instance).


It is cool to think that the oldest trees were already old when Jesus was born. Trees that are several hundreds or even thousands of years old give a different perspective to history when you stand by the tree and touch it. It is like living history, a realisation that the events told in the history books did not happen so long ago - someone living still remembers those times.

I wish the trees could tell their story in more detailed ways than the thickness of the yearly growth.


Trees have been used to date ancient volcanic eruptions, which in turn allows the ash layers from those eruptions to provide solid dates in the geological strata.


This should be compelling to YECs, but the idol is strong:

    Testing and Verifying Old Age Evidence:
Lake Suigetsu Varves, Tree Rings, and Carbon-14


I wonder how the number of independent branches that ended up that way would compare to limpet-shaped shells in mollusks, and a few elsewhere.

I’m not qualified enough to determine lol. You have a far better chance I imagine at determine it lol. I mostly just meant it as a joke though. Or making light of convergent evolution or carcinisation.

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Well, I’m sure not qualified when it comes to plants.

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The general form of trees can be obtained with simple algorithms. One student making these algorithms as part of his thesis showed how very simple changes in the algorithm could change a spruce-shaped tree to a pine-shaped tree.

Maybe the prevalence of trees is based on very general rules in nature. Dominance in competition for light demands that you can grow taller than the competing plants. If your goal is to grow taller than your competitors, then the growth needs to happen in accordance with some general rules. Structural strength, ability to lift water to the height of the top, growing of branches according to simple rules of growth. The endpoint would be something we recognize as a tree.


Interesting. What about a western hemlock?

I am not an expert of tree growth so I do not know. I assume that the general pattern is not too complicated to model. What we see is affected strongly by what happens at the level of individual trees so we probably cannot find a perfect model tree in nature.

Thanks for this podcast. I really enjoyed it. Trees are a rich scientific field of study. The aspect of communication among trees in a forest is amazing.

I have always been fascinated by the Equisetum family of plants (Equisetum - Wikipedia), with their segmented stems. This one is common in forests in my area: Equisetum hyemale - Wikipedia. They have been called “living fossils”. Many of us have likely seen fossilized equisetid trees from the Carboniferous in museums.


This is one of those subjects that reminds me of the question that if we were to discover life or even intelligence elsewhere, would we even be able to recognize it? Our concept of intelligence and life is so anthropocentric that we can still scarcely recognize the other sentient creatures on Earth as sentient because we can’t empathize outside of our narrow experiences.

I have strong suspicions that fungal networks of plants could be intelligence of some sort. Networks and feedback systems create circuits. Circuits of circuits create larger, more complex systems. At what point do neural circuits become brains? At what point does response to stimuli become behavior? How complex does behavior and decision making have to be before it is some kind of personhood?

We see that the more complex the neural system the less an organism has a simple response to a stimuli as it processes that stimuli in it’s own individually unique way, compares it to is unique memories, and responds based on countless other factors to the point that even insects are not little automatons, but are individuals with actual behavior, personalities, moods, and exhibit unexpected/unusual behaviors in the presence of what we think of as simple stimuli. (Just ask anyone who has done choice experiments or personally kept lab colonies.) That’s not saying every organism that shows complex behavior is sentient in the same way an elephant or raven is, but there is more than just simple cause and effect as the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

We see memory, behavior, and learning in creatures like plasmodial slime molds that lack a neural system. We see social interaction and sharing of resources in plants, along with individual behaviors.

So I would posit that the likelihood that plant communities are in some fundamental way an intelligence of sorts is quite high and we really ought to be trying to look into that more, especially since Suzanne Simard has been showing a lot of proof of concept there for a very long time. 'Mother Tree' Ecologist Suzanne Simard Shares Secrets Of Tree Communication : Shots - Health News : NPR

Unfortunately without any real funding outside of narrowly defined grants, we have to keep trying to do science under capitalism.

I think that we most likely would be able to recognize life on other planets. Not just biologically speaking but would be able to recognize intelligence as well for the most part. While I really like the work by people like Wohlleben, Simard and Lowenfels I also think that they anthropomorphize a bit at times.