The Revenge of the Trees
By Charles Hand
The Dutch Goose is one of those cozy little bars in the neighborhood surrounding MIT. It’s a place where you can pick up a sandwich on the way home from campus or have a few beers while doing homework. Couples drop by to have a quick drink before their special event. It’s the kind of place where Einstein’s birthday is celebrated on Pi Day. Sometimes people play darts, but no one ever gets rowdy.
Fred was a permanent fixture at the Dutch Goose. Always alone, always drinking the same single malt whiskey. He looked like a scruffy graduate student who came to drink, not to meet people. He sometimes seemed to be part of a conversation only he could hear. People left him alone, and he seemed content.
Once, between semesters, I had an afternoon to kill and was in the mood for a drink. Fred was the only other patron, so I struck up a conversation. I asked him about his background and found it involved trees.
“I’ve always been fascinated by trees,” he said. “As a child, I climbed trees. As an adolescent, I carved girlfriends’ initials into tree trunks—not too deep; I didn’t want to hurt the trees. My first job out of school, with a brand-new botany degree, was working for the New York State forestry department. It was a dream job. I worked on a research farm in the Finger Lakes region. A beautiful place with trees as far as the eye could see.”
I love to hear people talk about their passions. Rodeo, cribbage, their grandfather … whatever. As long as they’re passionate, it’s fascinating. Fred turned out to be more interesting than I expected.
“My first assignment was to determine why trees in a government test orchard produced pears and apples with atypical proteins.” He paused then asked, “How much do you know about evolution?”
“Well, I’m studying electrical engineering, but I guess I understand evolution as well as most intelligent nonprofessionals.”
Fred considered this for a minute. His bushy eyebrows furrowed. Maybe he thought I wouldn’t understand, but it seemed like he wanted to talk anyway. Familiar with cross-disciplinary conversations, he changed to lecture mode.
“Evolution is a process where DNA makes a copy of itself. Sometimes copying errors occur, but if the copy survives—if the organism containing the copy lives and reproduces the error—it becomes a feature simply because a line of ancestors endured.”
He ordered another single malt. Although I prefer beer, I joined him. It seemed like the companionable thing to do.
“Each copy contains genes from both parents. Genes produce proteins, and proteins do the work of the cell. Some proteins are enzymes—they facilitate specific chemical processes. Some proteins migrate to the surface of the cell where they act as gates—determining what chemical messages go across the cell wall. Some do other useful things. The protein I was assigned to monitor did not seem to do anything. Evolution tends to eliminate useless proteins. For example, cavefish are blind. Use it or lose it. So, why were some trees reproducing the code for these useless proteins?
He looked at me as if he expected an answer. I had nothing.
“When I couldn’t find a useful role for the protein, I looked for similar proteins. NIH has an incredible online database. The only thing similar to my protein was a poison, but it was only poison for animals, not for plants. Animals weren’t discouraged from eating the fruit because the poison was tasteless. It seemed to have no function in plants. I beat my head against the problem for a year and got nowhere. Then one Saturday morning, when I was sleeping late, I had a weird idea.”
He paused as if to savor the delicious moment of insight.
“I was thinking about some of the research I had read about trees signaling each other.”
“Yes. The paper was about acacias, those flat-topped African trees. They’re a favorite grazing tree of giraffes. To dissuade the giraffes, acacias produce a substance that attracts ants, and African ants sting like hornets. Giraffes avoid ant-infested trees, but it takes a while to activate the ant-attracting process. The tree under attack signals nearby trees with airborne spores. The assaulted tree warns its neighbors downwind. Over time, giraffes learn to browse upwind. Trees outwitted by giraffes? Not at all. Making animals graze upwind exposes them to predators hunting from downwind.”
“What do proteins in African trees have to do with poisons in American fruit?”
“I traced the chemical pathways leading to the poison, and it always started with the trees getting a signal telling them to produce the poison.”
“Where did the messages coming from?”
“Other trees. Wild trees.”
“Tree conversations are difficult to follow. For one thing, they’re chemical instead of lexical. For another thing, they are slow. A brief conversation takes all summer, and a long discussion takes years. Few people are willing to spend years looking at chemical signatures in the hope of finding something like a conversation. Talk about a career-killer!”
I laughed at his little academic joke. The shared jest and the scotch warmed me up. He looked me in the eye. I braced for what was to come.
“Trees have been intelligent for a long time. They have no reason to contact us because they don’t consider us intelligent. They’re only interested in other trees. They are the lords of creation. Hundreds of feet tall and living for centuries. Animal lifespans are too brief to take seriously.”
He took another sip. I downed mine. He continued.
“Trees consider animals nuisances. They take a bite or dig a hole, no big deal. Humans are different. Humans apply technology to trees, usually in the form of chainsaws. Could a being who invented the chainsaw be a moral, caring being? Can an immoral being be truly intelligent?”
I couldn’t help asking, “Trees send messages moralizing about chainsaws?”
“Yes,” he said. “Trees are quite philosophical. One fundamental belief is you should grow where planted. They ridicule animals because their birthplaces have no relationship to their death places. Animals spend their whole lives scurrying about between birthplace and death place. To trees, animals seem to serve no purpose until their death, when they return to the earth and provide nourishment for trees.”
I ordered another drink, but Fred did not. Maybe talking was the drug he needed.
“The revolt of the trees is led, of course, by the redwoods. They are the stately philosopher kings of the tree world. Ten times as tall and ten times as old as other trees, these wise trees have had time to watch humans and learn about the relationships between trees and animals. It would be easier to kill all the noisome animals, but redwoods know animals and plants need each other. Animals exist to process trees’ waste products. They breathe in bad air and exhale good air. Without animals, plants, including trees, would slowly suffocate in bad air.”
I asked, “So, trees want to kill humans, but not other animals?”
“Right. Consequently, trees inject poison into fruits only humans eat voraciously, leaving little for other animals.”
I didn’t know what to say. It’s hard to recognize BS in complex arenas outside your area of expertise.
I asked him one last question. “When should I start avoiding pears and apples?”
“The poison doesn’t kill immediately. It works on the reproductive system, so it will take years, maybe centuries, to eliminate humans. That’s okay; trees are patient. Trees have all the time in the world.”
My education finally took hold. Look for the flaw.
“Okay, I see the fault with your story.”
“If the conversations take so long, how did you come to know so much about tree philosophy?”
“For years, biologists have made notes on tree physiology, the way ancient astronomers kept track of the stars. They hoped smarter people could make sense of it all in later ages.”
There were only three possibilities. In decreasing order of probability, one: it was a joke, two: Fred was insane, or three: his tale was true.
I stood up, put on my coat, and left the Dutch Goose for the last time. It would be easier to find another bar than to try and untangle the story. There are plenty of bars.