DEAR DR. FOX: You have written about animal sentience and feelings, and I want to ask you about plants. They, too, are sentient in some ways; I have been told they respond to human touch and are more sensitive than we give them credit for. What is your opinion? -- R.E., Washington, D.C.
DEAR R.E.: My recent columns have addressed the issue of animals having feelings: emotional reactions similar to our own. It would be an omission not to mention plants.
Contemporary "forest bathers" and Indigenous peoples alike know there is wisdom and healing in plants, and that we can derive benefits from our feelings and communications with plant life. Some cultures believe that their crops are healthier and more productive when sung to.
Nobel Prize winner and plant geneticist Dr. Barbara McClintock observed, "If you pinch a leaf of a plant, you set off electrical impulses. ... There is no question that plants have all kinds of sensitivities. They do a lot of responding to an environment. They can do almost anything you can think of."
"The Secret Life of Plants," a 1973 book by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, documented controversial experiments that claim to reveal phenomena such as plant sentience. This set the stage for more research into the sensitivities and intelligence of plants, which are attuned to each other and to insects and other animals in their environments. For instance, some flowers open to make nectar more accessible in response to the sounds that bees make while hovering over them.
"Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest" by Suzanne Simard, just published, is a landmark treatise opening up the reality of the symbiotic communication between trees and fungi, and the evident sentience of interdependent plant life. Plants use chemical and electrical signals to communicate with each other (wired.com/2013/12/secret-language-of-plants). Plants can communicate with insects as well, sending airborne messages that act as distress signals to predatory bugs.
I am very concerned about the impact of various herbicides, insecticides and fungicides, as well as nonionizing radiation from cellphone towers and power lines, on these highly evolved interspecies communication systems and symbiotic relationships.
DEAR DR. FOX: I am a musicologist, and was enthralled when you described playing your flute and having a socialized wolf howl/sing in harmony in your book "The Soul of the Wolf." Some dog owners tell me their dogs like to sing along when they are playing a musical instrument. Others say their dogs howl when they hear a siren because it hurts their ears. What is your opinion on this? And do you agree with me that many animals like music? -- L.V., Palm Beach, Florida
DEAR L.V.: Music can certainly help calm animals. Dairy farmers are well aware that soothing music makes their cows more productive! As for dogs, I have always felt that they howl when they hear a siren because the sound triggers an innate communication response.
Wolves will howl to communicate with pack members when separated. Group howling may have a territorial function, informing neighboring wolf packs of their presence. The lone-wolf howl is like the lonely howl of dogs left alone all day that touches our hearts.
According to an opera singer who heard the ululating howls of my socialized wolf (whom I had raised during my studies of canid behavior and communication), she was "chording" -- singing two notes at the same time -- while I played my flute. My interpretation is that such singing is a soulful expression of communion or joy.
In the book I wrote with my wife, Deanna Krantz, "India's Animals: Helping the Sacred and the Suffering," I describe how the top dog at her animal sanctuary would respond when I played my flute: "On hearing my first note, he would utter a cascade of high-pitched whines and whistles that ignited the entire (resident) pack in a cacophony of yips, yaps, howls and birdlike whistles and trills of happiness that spread to the nearby village, where community dogs began to sing." I imagined this wave of song spreading across the subcontinent.
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