Trees: do they have will?

I have been considering the self determination of trees of late, pulling on a few biocentric threads.

Self determination in humans is looked upon generally as a good thing. Food, warmth, nourishment, medicines; just some of the most basic of our needs but for the sake of this exploration, I’ll assume we in the West are guaranteed them. A wishful assumption.
If we in the UK generally want something more in life, and have a will to achieve it, like a secure job or a relationship, a house and children, our neoliberal society encourages us to pursue, especially if success is financial. Eudaimonic ‘incentives’ are laid in front of us, like opportunities for qualifications (setting aside the noble idea of education for its own sake), grant aid for business start-ups, bank loans and additional training. We just have to be motivated enough to make use of them, no? Whenever we are knocked down, we’re encouraged to stand up, brush ourselves off and carry on. Again, we are rewarded by re-enforcement; gongs, grants, tax breaks. We are also at liberty to legally reward ourselves, of course, with City Breaks, the new sofa, a new car. Mostly these rewards are material things (some of them at the expense of trees), and failure is still largely perceived as a socially unacceptable outcome. By turning these opportunities down for whatever reason, and rejecting the conformity of aspiration, one might even be perceived as lazy or odd.

Of course, there are other wants in life that aren’t financial, perhaps of higher moral worth. But I’ve emphasized material gains simply as we are living in an era of high consumption. Inter-species disturbance may well be the catalyst for biological change and diversity, but we humans, in our consumption demands, are still so dominant in the landscape that biological diversity is in decline.
To return to trees, do they have wants and a will to succeed beyond simple needs? Given adequate life support, a lone tree can be grown from a fertilized seed in a laboratory under synthetic conditions. We can offer the tree what it needs to exist, as we can offer a brain dead patient. Whether it flourishes to a natural end is another matter. Trees reproducing and existing in nature, in landscape and sunlight, rely on symbiosis; partnerships with microorganisms to supply the nutrients for growth using different bacteria and yeast to succeed, moreover, to flourish.

Unsurprisingly, I can’t make any assumption, not even wishful, that all trees in the UK are guaranteed even the most basic of their needs mainly because of direct and indirect consequences of human action, but recognize there are a good number of humans who do, at least, care.

Do trees want for more, beyond survival? We can assume they do not wish for a decent annual income or an education for their children but I think, innately, all species want to ‘succeed’. In the case of trees, this may require them to create community, collectives of many life forms and species, not just to survive but to thrive, reproduce and live a long and enduring life. Incentives may not be relevant, no city breaks, but ‘good’ soils, carbon dioxide, oxygen to roots in varying degrees, unpolluted water and the unrestricted ability to photosynthesize, respire and transpire. These are commonalities required by trees to exist in a more resilient, natural state, therefore, to flourish and reproduce via pollination and seed distribution, to be self determining. Trees lock in carbon and other elements as they grow, and then release via degeneration. Trees shed limbs, needles, leaves. If humans do not remove them, these become part of the cycles of life, in decomposition, regeneration and the perpetuation of healthy, living soils and therefore resilience to biological attack.

Of course trees need ‘place’. The size of woodland may once have been limited by climate, hydrology, altitude, coast and so on. High rates of human intervention have accelerated these factors (even altitude if you consider mountaintop mining), and imposed the development of farmland, utility forestry, transport infrastructure and urbanity. Resulting fragmentation, island bio-geography and edge effects change the very nature of living woodland community, and consequently what it is to be a tree. Mono-cultured stands are more vulnerable to pest and disease, without further human interventions like spraying pesticides and herbicides, although not exclusively. Indigenous trees in collectives may also offer some protection from windfall, fire and climatic change, and in the past with pre-industrial mammalian destruction. We see many lone trees around cities, fields and hedgerows of course, planted or selected for our utilitarian needs, at least with access to some of the most basic essential life support, whether or not they flourish. They may be less likely to reproduce naturally, however. A sociable tree may be the healthiest tree.

Many humans, I think, are aware of at least some of the needs of individual trees. Further, if a familiar tree should die, we may grieve for a short while, but only for its passing from the landscape of our own lives, not necessarily for its own sake. Some may consider trees are not conscious, they feel no pain. They are natural architecture, landmarks in our minds, but sacrificial for our utility. Can we be absolutely sure they are nothing more than living structure?

Everyday, scientists solve more puzzles. For instance, trees may not feel pain as we do, using a central nervous system like ours, but are able to sense vibration, oncoming rain and gravitational orientation. We didn’t know these things a hundred years ago. Many questions remain unanswered. A fertilized seed will sprout given basic prerequisites and seek to root. There are signs that trees have a will to self-heal, recover, regenerate and adapt to a changing environment. Research in hormones, i.e. jasmonates, are key to signalling morphological changes in plant cells, such as dwarfism, and through natural selection, like species spinescence, in response to environmental conditions or ‘stressors.’ A tree can generate new limbs, should others fail. New life can even spring from a fallen tree crown, phoenix generation could be the ultimate evidence of ‘will.’

So, to me, trees do have a will to survive, reproduce, moreover to flourish. Grub out a forest, stop burning heathland, knock down a building and watch the regeneration in action. To me, primary and secondary succession are all pointers to a will for life. Aren’t there recognizable similarities here between the will of a pioneer tree and the will of a person?

To lead a full life, to flourish and reproduce, are just a few of the basic things we humans value about life. You could say we are genetically coded and socially primed to do so. One could say the same of trees.

I would not yet call for the rights of trees as persons. We too are nature, and have needs to survive and reproduce, moreover to flourish and this may involve killing trees before they live a long and productive life. However, just because trees cannot run away from a wielded axe, we shouldn’t treat them simply as disposable assets for excessive luxury, or woodlands as dispensable in the face of economic downturn. Trees of course are beneficial to humans as they are to many other species, and some benefits will be reciprocal. They are self determining living species. We need to remember this in our individual and collective relationship with them and in our decision making or utility of them.

For more on habitat fragmentation, please see Trees For Life… Image

2 thoughts on “Trees: do they have will?

  1. gcrcrisis

    Good thoughts, Ginny.
    If I may crave your indulgence for a moment, I think you might find Schopenhauer’s take on these matters interesting.

    He has begun by discovering the unconscious driver of mind and body as the Will. The metaphysical Will underlies and generates the world of phenomena, acting as what he calls ‘the kernel of existence’. Because we are always within time and space we can never directly approach the Will as it is in itself. We can just see its effects in the phenomenal world. He has considered words like ‘force’ and ‘energy’ as the possible correct terms for this ‘kernel of existence’, but decided on the word will’ because that is what he finds at the root of his being. He says that a person who has made this leap of understanding…
    “… will recognise that same will of which we are speaking not only in those phenomena which exactly resemble his own, in men and animals, as their innermost nature, but the course of reflection will lead him to recognise the force which shoots and vegetates in the plant, indeed the force by which the crystal is formed, the force which turns the magnet to the north pole, the force whose shock he experiences from the contact of two different kinds of metals, the force which appears in the elective affinities of matter as repulsion and attraction, decomposition and combination, and, lastly, even gravitation, which acts so powerfully throughout matter, draws the stone to the Earth and the Earth to the Sun,—all these, I say, he will recognise as different only in the phenomenon, but in their inner nature as identical, as that which is directly known to him so intimately and so much better than anything else, and which in its most distinct manifestation is called will. It is only this application of reflection which no longer lets us stop at phenomenon, but leads us on to the thing-in-itself. Phenomenon means representation and nothing more. All representation, of whatever kind it may be, all object, is phenomenon. But only the will is thing-in-itself; as such, it is representation at all, but toto genere different therefrom, It is that of which all representation, all object, is the phenomenon, the visibility, the objectification. It is the inmost nature, the kernel, of every particular thing, and also of the whole. It appears in every blindly acting force of nature and also in the preconsidered action of man; and the great difference between these two is merely in the degree of the manifestation, not in the inner nature of what is manifested.”
    (‘The World as Will & Representation’, bk.1, chap.21)
    Best wishes,
    Tim HW

  2. Thank you so much, Tim. As I read your words, and then Schopenhauer’s paragraph you’ve kindly quoted, I remembered Dylan Thomas’ poem, ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’ and it seems I’m not the first to think they may be linked in some way… . Force, energy, will; it’s difficult to rebuff what he is saying. I must read more Schopenhauer, perhaps less of his views on women and more on the welfare of animals.
    Best wishes, by return!

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