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If a Tree Screams in the Woods…

Thought Experiment:

  • Imagine yourself drifting through space… You aren’t wearing a helmet… You scream for help

  • Imagine yourself screaming, wherever you are… You probably won’t… Someone might get the wrong idea

  • Now, imagine swimming through a hypothetical lake of maple syrup… It’s not Grade B… SCREAM!

  • You have no vocal chords, not even a mouth… You breath carbon dioxide through your leaves… Scream

In the vacuum of Space, there is no sound, but light passes through at 300,000 km/s, just as it does through our atmosphere. Light is a constant, while sound varies through the medium it requires. Sound is a disturbance of air, much like waves are a disturbance of the water by wind. These fundamental truths are grounded in physics, even if light is that fickle chimera that acts as both a wave and particle. As distinct as sound and light are, they are both critical in our means of communication. From the lighthouse beacon in the storm, to the smartphone in our pockets, light and sound have kept ships from sinking as surely as they have captured our attention and eked into obsession, through our devices. Of course, there is the power of the human voice. A voice can horrify as surely as it can sooth, captivate through singing and mesmerize the masses from a platform. The forest is a vast realm, from the micro and macro perspective. Thousands of miles of mycelium lie beneath a handful of footsteps, while eons of collective life squirm, swim, crawl, fly, hop and replicate. Close your eyes and think of the sounds of the forest… Perhaps you heard an owl at dusk, crickets, the wind in the leaves… If you heard a tree screaming, what would it sound like?

Such a question leads to a kind of arboreal-morphism, the kind of tree you might see in a Disney movie. If a tree screams, it does not scream alone and certainly not for us. Scent is the primordial scream of the forest. For example, a savannah acacia being fed on by giraffes will release ethylene through their leaves. Not only does this deter the giraffes, the chemical scent warns the neighboring trees to do the same, in anticipation of the looming threat. However, the trees upwind do not get the message, much like a human scream loses effect to the people outside of a soundproof room. When a caterpillar takes a bite from a leaf, that leaf releases an electrical signal. But the blessing of the long-lived tree proves a curse in this case, since the signal moves at the snail’s pace of a third of an inch per minute. Therefore, it takes about an hour for the defensive chemical in the trunk to reach the leaves. Such tardiness in the scream seems like the stuff of nightmares, but for all we know, it’s relatively instantaneous from the tree’s perspective.

Bats are not blind, they see with their ears. Dogs see with their noses that smell on the atomic level. Butterflies see the ultraviolet and polarized light that passes through us like wind through a screen door. Trees have no voices, but they can smell each other scream, as surely as the wind carries it.

Hayden Moore

October 28, 2021

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