In a book called Should Trees Have Standing ?, law scholar Christopher D. Stone went so far as to argue that forests, lakes and mountains should be given the right to sue in US courts. The idea is not as forced as it seems; in the eyes of the law, companies and ships are already “legal persons”, so why not trees too? Stone’s argument was actually accepted by Judge William O. Douglas, and in recent years some lawsuits have been successfully filed on behalf of trees and other natural objects.
I’m not sure I appreciate the idea of my maple becoming an easy-going brawler. Although proponents of the rights of nature certainly have the interest of my tree and nature in general at heart, I am concerned that, in a world where trees had rights, those of human beings would in all likelihood be substantially diluted. The rights of the individual – this very fragile conquest of Western history, and obtained at such a high price – would not fare well in a world of “natural rights”: if only because, in nature, species always count more than others. individuals. From the “biocentric” perspective that radical environmentalists are pushing us to adopt, the latest grizzlies matter more than any single human being. In attempting to expand liberalism to the point where it embraces nature, we may end up destroying it.
Of course this is a purely pragmatic objection, and it will not change the positions of those who think they have discovered a new truth about nature. The idea of the tree as a rights holder is actually just another metaphor, which we are free to accept or reject. If it makes its mark in this country (and I fear it will) it will be because it coincides with both our liberal tradition and Thoreau’s Romantic Tree. (Because what is the Wrangler Tree but a Romantic Tree assisted by a lawyer?). Yet, with all their talk of biocentrism, proponents of the rights of nature never really escape the trap of anthropocentrism: rights, after all, are a human invention, which it is always up to us to grant or deny.
And, in any case, can’t we find a less clumsy metaphor than the umpteenth one based on “rights”? Indeed, science has recently proposed some new tree descriptions which struck me as far more promising and which, in retrospect, lend a singular prescient character to the ancient, intense feelings of mankind towards trees.
We think of the tree as the respiratory system of the Earth: an organ that contributes to regulating the planet’s atmosphere by exhaling fresh oxygen and inhaling the carbon dioxide that animals, decomposition processes and civilization pour into it. In this new description, the tree is not only a member of the local forest ecosystem (where we have long known that it exerts a considerable influence on life, soil and even climate); it is also a vital organ in a more intricate and interdependent global system than we have ever realized. In all likelihood, the Earth is not a spaceship but an organism, and the trees could be its lungs.
Using gas analysis instruments installed on the flank of a volcano in Hawaii, humans have actually observed the Earth’s breathing, which follows an annual rhythm: every summer, as the forests breathe, in the atmosphere of the Northern Hemisphere the amount of carbon dioxide decreases; and every winter, as photosynthesis sets the pace and the civilized world increases its consumption of fossil fuels, carbon dioxide levels rise again – a little higher every year. (In our age, probably, the breath of the Earth is becoming labored, while the inhalation of carbon dioxide by the forests is struggling to keep up with the heavy hot breath of civilization). Here, then, we find the features of a new arboreal metaphor, of great power, beauty and meaning.
Science has also come to consider trees as barometers of our ecological health, since they seem to manifest, long before they surface elsewhere, the effects of human damage to the environment. Ecologists think the greenhouse effect will first show up in forests, where species that love cool climates, unable to migrate north fast enough to keep up with the ever-warming climate, may soon become ill and succumb. Already the forests of New England show the effects of acid rain (as the reader will recall, this is why I brought home a curly maple; my tree is probably an indication of our early efforts to adapt to this new world) . Trees are like canaries that miners used to take with them to coal mines; as birds succumbed to poisonous gases long before humans, they warned miners of invisible dangers.
Given the choice, I would prefer the Lung Tree or the Canary Tree to take hold, rather than the Wrangler Tree. These first two metaphors (which in fact are closely related) have the advantage of forcing us to see the connections between our small local actions and the global health of the planet; they encourage us to preserve the trees we have and to plant new ones; but – even more important, I think – the metaphor of the lung puts us back into mutual relationship with the trees. It erodes the romantic ideas about their Otherness, orienting us towards a shared existential plan. If we came to think of trees as lungs, and of the Earth as an organism, it would no longer make sense to think of ourselves as creatures external to nature, or trees as beings external to culture. In fact, the whole external / internal metaphor may wither, and that would be a good thing.
Obviously it is impossible to predict which of these new metaphors will take hold, if one of them does; it will depend on how useful they prove to be, as well as on the usual vicissitudes of our conversations about nature. In fact, at any moment, a new Thoreau – who this time may or may not be a scientist – could appear and completely recreate our idea of a tree, along lines that perhaps we cannot predict. But I am able to say this: if I could know what will become of my maple in a hundred years from now, I would also know a great deal about the fate of nature.
One day, not long ago, I pondered exactly what kind of news I would like to receive from my tree. It was an early morning, after a night that had brought the first snow. In the eastern sky the sun was so low and so bright that the maple cast an unusually long and well-defined shadow on the white snowy surface. It ran straight west across the meadow, then curled up a knoll, and finally entered the woods, where I lost track of it.
So what did I want to know from there, from the horizon? Certainly a botanist’s report on my tree would have been helpful. Curly maple is a species that loves cool climates, and if in the hot climate of 2091 it got sick, I would know the greenhouse effect is real and we haven’t been able to avoid it. But perhaps even more revealing than a scientist’s report would be a letter, written in the future, who by chance would dedicate a few sentences to the description of my tree, in everyday language. From that I could learn how the people of 2091 will look at a tree, and that would inform me well about the future state of nature. If the letter described it in terms that Joe Matyas – or for that matter, Henry Thoreau too – would have found familiar, there would be something to worry about, because it would mean that we have been mired in ancient metaphors about nature, and that we probably haven’t been able to. extricating ourselves from our current predicament.
But perhaps the letter would contain evidence of a new metaphor, something intense, powerful and, at least for some time, true. In all likelihood, at first it would sound strange, even incomprehensible. But eventually its meaning would surface. So that’s what a tree is! How could we ever think otherwise? If so, there may be reason to hope that some new truth has taken root, and that perhaps we have finally given a firmer foundation to our relationship with nature.
Taken from: Michael Pollan, A Second Nature, A Gardener’s Education, Adelphi