Tuning In to Thirsty Trees

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“Trees Call for Help—And Now Scientists Can Understand,” is how National Geographic has titled Gabe Popkin’s story on French scientists having captured the ultrasonic noise made by bubbles forming inside water-stressed trees.

The other day, upon learning about my work, someone told me: “You know, trees scream when they’re stressed.” I do indeed: but even I think there’s a bit of anthropomorphizing going on here.

I  hesitate to think of plants as “calling out” for help because when we decide to call for help, we could also decide not to. The cavitation process and “acoustic events” described by Alexandre Ponomarenko don’t sound particularly decision-oriented to me.

But then, I give a little more thought to screaming: the kind of call that one can’t repress, the absolute reaction of the organism to pain, the spontaneous reaction of babies to stresses. We learn to control these only because we’ve developed social systems where a well-phrased request can actually benefit us more than the scream that raises the alarm in all our surrounding human organisms. Who’s to say all speech isn’t some form of aaaaaiiiieeee!?

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