In 2022, as part of the MEMBRA project, we asked the question: do trees have memory? And if they do, how would that change our perception of them and their standing in our world?

Read more about our work with MEMBRA below.

Do Trees Have Memory?

by | Oct 30, 2022 | 0 comments

‘Like trees, humans are also being challenged to learn and adapt in the face of global change. Increasingly we realise the debt we owe to trees and treescapes in creating and maintaining a habitable climate for us. This leads naturally to considering the rights of nature, including treescapes.’
– Estrella Luna-Diez (UoB), Lecturer in Plant Pathology

MEMBRA is a distinct project taking place within an overarching interdisciplinary UKRI (UK Research Institute) funded programme called Future of UK Treescapes.  MEMBRA is an acronym for Understanding Memory of UK Treescapes for Better Resilience and Adaptation

Walking Forest is working with researchers across all the different academic elements.

Critical Zone science is transdisciplinary science that studies the Critical Zone – the Earth’s outer skin, often defined from bedrock to treetop. This is an enviro​nment where rock, soil, water, air, and living organisms interact and shape the Earth’s surface. Humanities are academic disciplines that study aspects of human society and culture- delete this section  

MEMBRA asks the question: do trees have memory, and if they do how would that change our perception of them and their standing in our world?  We take the phenomenon of memory for granted in human beings, but seldom consider if any plants might have anything similar.   Recent findings suggest that they might – with certain events being recorded in tree rings and potentially even passed onto progeny.

The MEMBRA team will be studying stressful times in a tree’s life to see if any information is handed down to their progeny via epigenetics (the heritable trains or changes of cell function that happen without changes to the DNA). 

One of the dendrologists (a tree scientist concerned with dating and interpreting past events through analysis of tree rings) working on MEMBRA, Rachel Mailes from Birmingham University, explains epigenetics as follows (inspired by The Epigenetics Revolution by Nessa Carey):

“DNA is like the original script, however, a script can be interpreted in different ways as is done in remakes of old stories and films… if DNA is the script, then the actors and their performances are translating the DNA into proteins, and epigenetics are the annotations on the script which help interpret the scene. These annotations are temporary and change with different directors but until they are crossed off or rubbed out, they tell the actors which parts of the dialogue to emphasise and with which emotion they should be delivered. In this way, the annotations work the same as epigenetic methylation which informs the transcription apparatus what sections of DNA to read and when to increase the expression of certain genes.’

By the end of April 2021 we found a break in both the Covid crisis and the weather to come together with scientists and academics from the MEMBRA team to explore the project in person, in depth and through a variety of different activities designed by Walking Forest in a ‘creative lab’. Together for a period of three days and two nights, the camp and this time together marked the true beginning of our project.

Held by ancient beech trees and newly planted broadleaf woodland where birdsong punctuated the days, fires blazed into the nights  we explored the gaps between, and the crossover areas of our disciplines and new stories and even words emerged.

We invited Louise Romain from Stop Ecocide to lead us into a deep consideration of just what it would mean in legal terms if we gave trees standing:

Knowing that we’re living in times of emergency……what are some of the tools that belong to our societies and have the power to influence societal norms? How about law?  What if law could be used to value nature and maybe, just maybe, stir consciousness and behaviours towards more harmonious trees/human relationships?

How would the world change?  What would it look like?

We shared ways of seeing, understanding and making sense of the world with one another, working in small groups to share our particular ways of interacting with a small area of the forest framed by a quadrat (a metal frame used to isolate a standard unit of area for study)

We shaped forest beings with our hands with clay behind our backs and played on giant swings enabling us to go high up in the tree canopy.

One evening our host Robin Bowman led us through the young woodland to listen to and learn more about the birds who sang their chorus as the light faded. This included references to the Nightjar an endangered crepuscular species which is drawn to the edges of woodland and scrub to roost.  We returned to the camp fire in the twilight, led by Anne-Marie in a Nightjar mask and costume.  At the end of the camp we reflected on how we might start to weave our interdisciplinary expertise together and what forms this might take.

The team met again in early Autumn 22 in a wholly different environment on the very green Birmingham University campus, to explore what the next phase of our work together might look like. This will be ‘Creative Pairings’ which are short, intense collaborations with scientists and ecologists from the project during 2022-23 which will generate new artworks. Through a curated day of guided conversation, making and creative exchange we edged towards shared themes and areas of enquiry which will be finalised by the start of 2023.

Walking Forest will also design a second creative lab in 2023 and collaborate on designing and shaping a ‘Catalogue of Terms’ exploring the language of trees in different disciplines led by researchers Katherine Earnshaw and David Wallace-Hare at University of Exeter. We will also contribute to a policy workshop and interdisciplinary conference in 2024 which brings together the findings from the research into a legal framework regarding advocating for the rights of nature and to inform future government policy around trees and woodland.  We will also be working with the scientific team to identify and grow some of the trees from their research to be planted in our Walking Forest Intentional Woodland which will mark the culmination of our ten-year project in 2028.

To keep in touch with our work with MEMBRA see updates on Twitter @MEMBRA_Trees or join our mailing list.

All photographs thanks to Jenny Steer.