03 maggio 2022 12:27
For the past two years I have been working with some researchers in northern Greece who grow metal. In a distant and magnificent field, on the heights of the Pindus range in the Epirus region, a trio of shrubs is being tested that scientists have defined as “hyperaccumulators”: plants that have evolved developing the ability to thrive on naturally rich soils. metals that are toxic to most other living things.
They do this by extracting the metal from the soil and storing it in the leaves and stems, which can be harvested like any other plant. In addition to providing a source of rare metals – in this case nickel, although hyperaccumulators have also been found for zinc, aluminum, cadmium and many other metals, including gold – these plants actively benefit the planet because they repair the soil making it suitable for other crops and trap carbon dioxide in the roots. One day they may supplant more destructive and polluting forms of mining.
The three plants being tested on in Greece – within the framework of a network of research plots across Europe – are endemic to the region. L’Alyssum murale (alisso), which grows in low bushes covered with tufts of yellow flowers, is native to Albania and northern Greece; there Leptoplax emarginata, taller and more threadlike, with clusters of green leaves and white petals, it is found only in Greece; there Bornmuellera tymphaeathe most efficient of the three, spreads a dense layer of white buds all around the ground and is found only on the slopes of the Pindos mountain range (its name derives from Mount Tymfi, one of the highest peaks in the range).
Intelligences beyond the human
From what I have been able to understand, by virtue of their evolutionary history and their close association with the soil, the climate and the wider ecosystem in which they appeared, these plants carry a certain knowledge, an understanding and a harmony with the places where they live. Humans have been rummaging for deposits of precious metals for thousands of years and have developed increasingly violent ways to access them, but these plants have been around for much longer and have developed more just and regenerative ways to do more or less the same thing. Maybe we can learn something from them.
Hyperaccumulating plants are not the only non-human beings from whom we could learn something, as scientific research in recent decades has shown us. Let’s think, for example, of mucilaginous fungi: strange unicellular creatures halfway between fungi and amoebas that seem to be very good at solving some very complicated mathematical problems. Researchers from Lanzhou University in China have shown that the Physarum polycephaluma particularly vibrant mucilaginous fungus, can solve the “traveling salesman” problem – a test for finding the shortest route between different cities – faster and more efficiently than any supercomputer created by humans has ever been able to.
We are finding that all kinds of abilities suggest the existence of entire worlds among non-human beings that we were not aware of
Cows, sheep, dogs and other animals have been shown to be able to predict earthquakes before seismographs register tremors. We have learned that squid and shrimp diffuse neurons in their bodies so that the limbs, and possibly other faculties, can act independently of a mind controlling them from the center. Spiders store information in their webs, using it as a kind of extended intelligence: a mind completely outside the body. A new idea of intelligence is emerging from scientific research: human intelligence is not unique, nor at the top of some graduated curve, but there would seem to be different types of intelligence, each with its own strengths, skills and congruities.
We are also finding that all kinds of abilities suggest the existence of entire worlds of entity and awareness among non-human beings that we were not aware of. Apparently plants hear and remember. In one experiment, their ability to respond with chemical defenses to the specific sound of caterpillars chewing leaves was demonstrated, even if it is transmitted by a tape recorder. In another, the plants of Mimosa pudica – that if disturbed they curl the leaves – have learned to ignore the fact of being watered from a short distance if this has not damaged them and to react in the same way when the experiment has been repeated after days or weeks, showing that they have somehow internalized the experience. And from underneath the forests we know of the trades and conversations of trees exchanging nutrients and information between families and species through the networks of fungi connecting their roots in ways we are only beginning to understand. These are also types of intelligence, and they are also ways in which other species have learned to survive life-threatening events.
In the struggle to mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis and all the other intertwined crises we face, we are only now beginning to understand that other ways of knowing and acting about the world, from indigenous knowledge systems to changes in our consumption and our own life models are vital to survive and thrive on a warmer, wetter, and more conflict-ridden planet.
We also know that this survival depends not only on our skills and inventions, but on the survival of the other species we share this planet with. The collapse of biodiversity already underway makes it more difficult for us to stop the collapse of entire ecosystems on which we too depend; for crop pollination, for disease resistance, for access to safe and adequate sources of food, for protection from fires and other natural disasters. We will all thrive together, or none will.
The profound knowledge possessed by animals, plants and more – or, as we should begin to say, their intelligence – is another reason to safeguard and protect them. But there’s more: we should listen to them, learn from them and collaborate with them. Hyperaccumulating plants, for example, show us that there are other ways to get what we need from the planet; they also remind us that there are limits to what we can extract, as turning them into another agro-industrial resource such as soybeans or palm oil would be just as harmful. The awareness that there are other ways to be intelligent on this planet should force us to rethink our own centrality and usefulness. Other worlds are not only possible, they have always been growing around us.
(Translation by Giusy Muzzopappa)
This article appeared in the British newspaper The Guardian.