Trees and Time

Biology, dendrology, horticulture, arboriculture, stats, maths and analysis – there’s a mountain of scientific knowledge on the subject of trees. Does that make them easier to risk assess? A little bit.

It’s the other, the bigger bit, full of unpredictability and unanswered scientific questions that I find most fascinating. Take photosynthesis for instance, one of the defining processes of all things green. You were probably taught about it at school, I know I was. In biology lessons in that stuffy ‘Lab’ with the long tables and the bunsen burners. And yet, when it comes down to it, no-one actually really understands how photosynthesis works.

“One difficulty with fully understanding the process is that, unlike the parts of a solar panel, which are rigid and designed to last, the crucial proteins in the photosystem of a plant are dynamic, and don’t last very long before they fall apart. The plant then regenerates these structures. Everything’s changing constantly — because the plant, unlike the solar panel, is alive.Joel Achenbach Washington Post

I get criticism from my sons when I begin sentences with “It looks like the tree’s decided to…” ‘You’re anthropomorphizing’ they say ‘trees don’t decide, they don’t have brains.’

I know someone who would take issue with that…Trees make decisions. They can decide things. We can also say that a tree can learn, and it can remember a drought its whole life and act on that memory by being more cautious of its water usage. ” Peter Wohlleben, Forester and author of ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’

Do I know what’s going to happen next then, when I evaluate a complex, mature woodland specimen? Can I read a tree’s body language and make reliable observations about its future?

Sometimes. And broader-scoped comparative assessments are a good way to reach decisions as to where on the risk spectrum what you’re looking at is most likely to lie. But there’s an art to it beyond the science. Of course there is. The reliable, proven jewels of knowledge you can access and apply, a ledger filled with genuine observation, these things combined in the medium of in-depth experience make for a useful lens through which to ponder, and then to rationalize. It’s very rarely a matter of being ‘right’ though, more a case of staying bolted to real, observable data and then being sensible in terms of recommendations.

I do an awful lot of reading on the subject of trees and, to me, it feels as though we’re always reaching for a level of understanding just beyond our grasp. One major, often overlooked reason for this is that they occupy a totally different time zone to us. They develop at a pace imperceptible. When something happens very slowly, we can easily miss it altogether. If we pick up on a miniscule fragment of a happening at a specific point in time, it’s a huge task to draw any accurate conclusions or make accurate predictions. I wonder, how many very important things do we miss about trees because, like Mayflies, we’re here and gone?

Watch these bean plants in time lapse actively striving, choosing behaviours, changing moods – it’ll astonish you.