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If Only Humans Were Like Trees!

By Shlomo Maital


Prof. Dan Chamowitz

    “A person is like a tree in the field,

       Like us, trees grow,

         Like trees, we are sometimes cut down,

         And I don’t know where I’ve been or where I’m going,

       Like a tree in the field.”


   This poem, by Israeli poet Natan Zach, and sung by Shalom Hanoch, raises a question. Are people truly like trees? Because today we know that trees communicate and work to help each other thrive.   Do we humans?

     Dan Chamowitz, Dean of Life Sciences at Tel Aviv University, wrote a wonderful book, What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses. (2012).   “Plants can communicate like people,” he notes. “What does that say about us human beings?”

       What it says is: We should be more like trees.

       A BBC report on this research notes that trees have an Internet, comprised of fungi – thin threads that link the roots of plants deep underground, known as mycelia. This fungal network “helps out the neighbors by sharing nutrients and information, or sabotaging unwelcome plants by spreading toxic chemicals”. It’s the “wood wide web”, says the BBC. “Around 90% of land plants are in mutually-beneficient relationships with fungi.” Why? Plants provide fungi with carbohydrates. Fungi, in turn, help plants suck up water and provide “nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen….fungal networks also boost their host plants’ immune systems by triggering release of defense-related chemicals”.   Plants do business with one another. Douglas fir and paper birch trees transfer carbon between them, through the mycelia.

     Darwin through trees are like individuals, competing for surval. But they are not. “They are interacting with each other, trying to help each other to survive,” notes Prof. Suzanne Simard, UBC Canada.

     This raises two key questions. First, capitalism. Is capitalism built on greed, on individual ‘survival of the fittest’? Because if it is, it is a gross distortion of how ‘survival of the fittest’ works in Nature.  “Let’s work together for mutual benefit,” say the trees. Perhaps that is true capitalism.

     Second: Ecosystems. Plants and trees have evolved complex highly-sophisticated ecosystems, based on mutual synergies and collaboration. We humans seem to be busy, first, destroying the fragile ecosystems of Nature, and second, destroying our own fragile social ecosystems, neighborhoods, communities and families, that build social capital.

     Humans are less and less like trees of the field. And it’s a shame.



Laudato Si: Worth Careful Reading

By Shlomo Maital

“Our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.   This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which G-d has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. … This is why the Earth itself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor…she ‘groans in travail’.  

These are the eloquent opening words of Pope Francis’ new encyclical, Laudato Si, “Praise the Lord…”.   Yesterday was the Jewish holy day Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement.   My sister in law Rabbi Suri led a discussion of Laudato Si, as we read excerpts, and discussed the Jewish and Catholic views on ecology and ethics. I plan to read the entire document. Meanwhile, based on excerpts, I urge you to read it all.   Most Papal encyclicals are dense and scholarly. This one is written in Pope Francis style, clear, well-reasoned, with beautiful metaphors and sharp admonishments.

   We have indeed laid waste to our earth. The 15th COP Conference of Parties (the UN’s euphemism for impotent political gatherings) will take place in November in Paris. But there is a groundswell that holds out hope.   Rather than ineffective top-down political leadership to deal with global warming, we now are seeing increasing bottom-up activism, with each individual everywhere asking, what can I do to use less water, waste less, plunder less, in order to be a moral human being, as Pope Francis counsels?   If each of us acted on our beliefs, even in small ways, the aggregate effect would be immense.

   Perhaps Laudato Si will ignite such a groundswell of rebellion and action world-wide.  We will listen carefully to Pope Francis’ address to Congress today, and to the UN tomorrow.Laudato Si


  Monarch Butterflies Are in Trouble!

By Shlomo  Maital    

        Monarch 2               

After blogging about the incredible monarch butterly and its 8,000 km. migration,  I am saddened to learn that the Monarchs are in trouble, because of us humans of course.  

    The annual migration south of the butterflies should have brought 60 million of them to their feeding grounds in Mexico. Instead only 3 million have arrived!   Yikes.  Why?

     Partly because farmers use tons of Monsanto’s weed killer Roundup, which kills everything but genetically modified plants, engineered to resist it.  This means it also kills milkweed, which is exclusively what Monarch larvae eat. (Why? As I wrote – to make them poisonous and not tasty for birds). 

    Writing in the New York Times,  VERLYN KLINKENBORG summarizes the terrible threats to the Monarch butterflies:   “For the past 15 years, scientists have been watching monarch numbers plummet, as much as 81 percent between 1999 and 2010. They reached nearly catastrophic lows in the winter of 2009-2010 and have barely recovered since.   One recent study suggests that the long-term survival of the species may be in doubt. A few weeks ago, one of the scientists devoted to studying monarchs, Ernest Williams at Hamilton College, summarized for me the threats that have been reported in recent studies.   Nearly every link in the monarchs’ chain of being, he said, is at risk. Illegal logging in Mexico has reduced their winter habitat — an already vanishingly small area, which is itself being altered by the warming climate. Ecotourists who come to witness the congregation of so many butterflies disturb the creatures they have come to see. But perhaps most damaging is the demise of milkweed. What looks like agricultural success, purging bean and corn fields of milkweed (among other weeds), turns out to be butterfly disaster. This is the great puzzle of species conservation — it has to be effective at nearly every stage of a species’ life cycle. And this, too, is the dilemma of human behavior. We live in a world of unintended consequences of our own making, which can never be easily undone.”

     Over millions of years, Nature has evolved incredibly delicate, complex ecosystems.  When we damage one tiny part of it – a fragile butterly, an amazing bee – the whole system is endangered.  My grandchildren may one day see Monarch butterflies – in museums, on pins.  Alas. 


Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital