Big white birds, intelligent bees, Ultra, and the tree lady
by Rob Tiller
Last week I drove to eastern North Carolina to check on the visiting wild birds. Some hundreds of tundra swans were there. These big white birds nest on the Arctic tundra and migrate long distances to winter at places like Pungo Lake. They really are majestic, swimming calmly or climbing the air. I watched them for quite a while, flying, landing, feeding, preening, and having minor disputes.
Shortly after sunrise I also saw thousands of snow geese in a riotous murmuration, circling around a farm field, landing, then taking off again. It was thrilling. What were they up to? They vocalize as they fly, and perhaps they’re debating how to group themselves and where to go for the day. Or perhaps that’s just their ritual, their way to greet the sunrise.
We have a lot to learn about the minds of other animals. A new book I’m reading, The Mind of a Bee, by Lars Chittka, shows that most of what I was taught about bees back in the day was ridiculously wrong. Chittka, a professor, discusses the special qualities of bee perception, communication, and behavior. He makes a convincing case that individual bees have memories and solve complex problems of navigation, flower biology, and structural engineering. It’s hard not to conclude that they have a kind of intelligence.
On the drive out east, I listened to Rachel Maddow’s new podcast, Ultra. The subject is American Nazis in WWII, including a couple of dozen members of Congress who collaborated with Hitler’s government. One group, inspired by the rabidly antisemitic Father Coughlin (the most popular radio personality of his time), stockpiled arms and planned to overthrow the U.S. government.
I enjoy learning about American history, and like to think my knowledge is above average. But the Ultra story was a chapter I’d never heard anything about. I’d had the impression that in WWII, there was hardly any disagreement among Americans on the proposition that Nazism was wrong and needed to be opposed with all our strength. But thanks to Rachel and her team, I now get that it wasn’t that simple.
The January 6 insurrection, election denialism, QAnon conspiracy thinking, and the MAGA penchant for violence and repression now make more sense. As disturbing as these ideas are, it’s clear that they aren’t random or isolated.
Fascist fears and longings have been part of our story for a long time. For some, there’s real appeal in the idea of finding unity behind an inspired dictator to beat down a supposedly grave threat. It’s easy to condemn this kind of extremism. But it’s better to understand it as part of a long-standing culture that adherents did not consciously choose. It might make us less judgmental and angry, and able to help the extremists calm down and perhaps find a measure of sanity and peace.
On a happier note, I was glad to see the Washington Post featured a good piece by Sarah Kaplan on Suzanne Simard. Simard is a pioneering plant biologist who made key discoveries relating to how trees in forests behave. (She was the model for a character in Richard Powers’ excellent 2018 eco-novel, The Overstory.) She discovered that mycorrhizal fungi connected to tree roots facilitate living forest communities.
Kaplan wrote, “Through decades of study, Simard and other ecologists have revealed how fungi and trees are linked in vast, subterranean networks through which organisms send messages and swap resources. The findings have helped revolutionize the way the world sees forests, turning static stands of trees into complex societies of interdependent species, where scenes of both fierce competition and startling cooperation play out on a grand scale.”
Simard’s current big experiment is called the Mother Tree Project. She’s designed different environments to see how trees and their associated fungi networks fare. It seems pretty clear that the logging methods generally used today are not sustainable, and she’s looking for a better way.