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Plants can grow metal, perhaps we have something to learn from them?


“Rather than human intelligence being unique or the peak of some graduated curve, there appear to be many different kinds of intelligence with their own strengths, competencies and suitabilities”.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been working with researchers in northern Greece who are farming metal. In a remote, beautiful field, high in the Pindus mountains in Epirus, they are experimenting with a trio of shrubs known to scientists as “hyperaccumulators”: plants which have evolved the capacity to thrive in naturally metal-rich soils that are toxic to most other kinds of life. They do this by drawing the metal out of the ground and storing it in their leaves and stems, where it can be harvested like any other crop. As well as providing a source for rare metals – in this case nickel, although hyperaccumulators have been found for zinc, aluminum, cadmium and many other metals, including gold – these plants actively benefit the earth by remediating the soil, making it suitable for growing other crops, and by sequestering carbon in their roots. One day, they might supplant more destructive and polluting forms of mining.

The three plants being tested in Greece – part of a network of research plots across Europe – are endemic to the region. Alyssum murale, which grows in low bushes topped by bunches of yellow flowers, is native to Albania and northern Greece; Leptoplax emarginata – taller and spindlier, with clusters of green leaves and white petals – is found only in Greece; and Bornmuellera tymphaea, the most efficient of the three, which straggles across the ground in a dense layer of white blossom, is found only on the slopes of the Pindus (its name comes from Mount Tymfi, one of the highest peaks of the range).

What I have come to understand about these plants is that, by virtue of their evolutionary history and their close association with the soil, climate and wider ecosystem in which they have emerged, they embody a certain kind of knowledge: an understanding and accommodation with the places they have found themselves in. Humans have sought out deposits of rare metals for thousands of years, and developed ever-more violent ways of accessing them, but these plants have been around far longer, and have found more equitable and regenerative ways of doing much the same thing. Perhaps we have something to learn from them.

Hyperaccumulators are far from being the only non-humans that we might learn from, as scientific research in recent decades has shown us. Take slime moulds: strange, unicellular creatures somewhere between fungi and amoebae, which turn out to be very good at solving some very hard mathematical problems. Researchers at Lanzhou University in China have shown that Physarum polycephalum, a particularly lively slime mould, can solve the “traveling salesman” problem – a test for finding the shortest route between multiple cities – faster and more efficiently than any supercomputer humans have devised.

Cows, sheep, dogs and other animals have been shown to predict earthquakes in advance of tremors which register on seismographs. Squids and octopuses, we have learned, spread their neurons out through their bodies in ways that allow their limbs, and perhaps other faculties, to act independently of a centrally controlling mind. Spiders store information in their webs, using them as a kind of extended cognition: a mind outside the body entirely. A new conception of intelligence is emerging from scientific research: rather than human intelligence being unique or the peak of some graduated curve, there appear to be many different kinds of intelligence with their own strengths, competencies and suitabilities. (Source: theguardian.com, penguin.co.uk)

Found in a recent edition of one of my favorite newsletters, News Items.

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