Trees Have Their Own Songs

Posted by Soren Dreier
Author: Ed Yong

Just as birders can identify birds by their melodious calls, David George Haskell can distinguish trees by their sounds. The task is especially easy when it rains, as it so often does in the Ecuadorian rainforest. Depending on the shapes and sizes of their leaves, the different plants react to falling drops by producing “a splatter of metallic sparks” or “a low, clean, woody thump” or “a speed-typist’s clatter.” Every species has its own song. Train your ears (and abandon the distracting echoes of a plastic rain jacket) and you can carry out a botanical census through sound alone.

“I’ve taught ornithology to students for many years,” says Haskell, a natural history writer and professor of biology at Sewanee. “And I challenge my students: Okay, now that you’ve learned the songs of 100 birds, your task is to learn the sounds of 20 trees. Can you tell an oak from a maple by ear? I have them go out, pour their attention into their ears, and harvest sounds. It’s am almost meditative experience. And from that, you realize that trees sound different, and they have amazing sounds coming from them. Our unaided ears can hear how a maple tree changes its voice as a soft leaves of early spring change into the dying one of autumn.”

This acoustic world is open to everyone, but most of us never enter it. It just seems so counter-intuitive—not to mention a little hokey—to listen to trees. But Haskell does listen, and he describes his experiences with sensuous prose in his enchanting new book The Songs of Trees. A kind of naturalist-poet, Haskell makes a habit of returning to the same places and paying “repeated sensory attention” to them. “I like to sit down and listen, and turn off the apps that come pre-installed in my body,” he says. Humans may be a visual species, but “sounds reveals things that are hidden from our eyes because the vibratory energy of the world comes around barriers and through the ground. Through sound, we come to know the place.”

In his first book, The Forest Unseen, Haskell trekked to the same patch of Tennessee forest and described how a single square meter changed over a year. His keen observations and achingly beautiful narration earned him a spot on the Pulitzer finalist list in 2012. Now, he brings the same sensibility to his sophomore effort. In The Song of Trees, he visits a dozen specially chosen trees, including: a pear tree in the heart of Manhattan; an olive tree in Jerusalem; a sabal palm, roughing the salt and sun of a Georgian beach; a towering, rain-drenched ceibo in Ecuador; and a bonsai pine that survived the Hiroshima bombing and now lives in Washington, D.C. Each of these protagonists is a focal point for stories about the natural world.

But Haskell doesn’t treat the trees as individuals. He sees them as “nature’s great connectors,” living symbols of the book’s great theme—that life is about relationships.

Roots draw nutrients from symbiotic fungi and communicate with neighboring bacteria. Leaves sniff the air to detect the health of neighbors, while releasing alarm chemicals that summon caterpillar-destroying parasites. Seeds are dispersed by far-flying birds. Photosynthetic cells harness the power of sunlight using structures evolved from free-living microbes. And these kinds of relationships are ancient: A balsam fir that Haskell encounters in Ontario exemplifies this idea; it grows on rocks that contain the corpses of bacterial colonies that lived 1.9 to 2.3 billion years ago.

“The fundamental nature of life may be not atomistic but relational,” Haskell says. “Life is not just networked; it is network.”

Haskell sees life, as exemplified by trees, as less about the stories of individuals and more as “temporary aggregations of relationships.” And death, then, is the de-centering of those relationships, as the “self degenerates into the network. “There’s an ash log here in Tennessee, which is close to where I teach. I had been waiting for years in the forest to be there exactly when a big tree falls, and that particular log blew me away with how many cool creatures came in and used it. It even put out a few buds in the years after it fell. Compared to humans, the difference between life and death seems a lot less clear to me for a tree, and you could argue that its afterlife was more life-giving to the forest than its life.”…



Are Toxic Chemicals Turning Boys Into Girls?

Dr. Melody Milam Potter, Green Med Info
Waking Times

Male births have been in decline for decades, while researchers say developmental genital damage from chemical exposure can become hereditable.

Endocrine Disruptors Sabotage the Male Fetus

In the dark warmth of the womb, a miracle unfolds silently and inexorably. An unrecognizable glom of cells begins to take shape according to a master plan laid down eons ago. The tiny mass that will soon form a priceless treasure burgeons into human form with fingers, toes, and a minuscule nose. It is female, and only nature can read the instructions that determine whether the being remains female or transforms into a male.

The evolution of this minute universe parallels that of our immeasurable one, a big bang followed by unceasing organization of shape and form using the impetus of that force. Whether our boundless universe has proceeded according to plan may be a theoretic issue. Whether this tiny universe follows its own plan is a chemical one.

Where are the Boys?

As early as April of 1998, the Journal of the American Medical Association quietly released a special report that revealed puzzling news. The number of males born in industrialized nations has dropped dramatically since 1970, constituting a serious reversal in earlier trends. Records up to 2014 show that trend continuing.

Human male births have always held a marginal advantage, probably Nature’s way of insuring that enough of the somewhat more physically vulnerable male infants will survive. Earlier last century, between 1900 and 1950, typically as many as 106 males to every 100 female babies were born, probably because obstetrical practices improved so much that more male babies survived pregnancy and delivery. Census figures after 1970 indicate a trend reversal, a significant reduction in the number of little boys born. Today in industrialized nations, including Canada, the U.S.A., Sweden, and the Netherlands, that ratio has dropped significantly, a shift which over four decades translates to at least one male less in 1000 births or about 80,000-100,000 fewer males in a population as large as the U.S.A. Over the world that adds up significantly, creating a red flag for humanity.

Although in a population of 325 million, 80,000 seems like a drop in the proverbial bucket, the real mystery exists in what is happening to these little boys. While it may seem counter-intuitive, top environmental scientists say these little boys may be being born female.

This disturbing and unnatural alteration in sex ratio represents a potential threat to both our species survival and our cultural norms if the trend continues. And because scientists have identified a clear and reversible cause for this change, they have designated the shift a “sentinel health event,” a significant and preventable change in world health. The decline gives no hint of slowing; male numbers appear to be progressively decreasing in proportion to girls. The culprits? Synthetic chemicals pretending to be hormones, Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs).

This revelation comes as no surprise to anyone who understands fetal development. Gonadal cells that build male and female sex organs proliferate more rapidly than most other cells, such as bone or muscle, in a developing fetus. And, according to Dr. Devra Davis, founder of the Environmental Health Trust, since rapidly dividing cells are more likely to “incorporate and replicate errors,” these fast growing sexual organs are extremely susceptible to synthetic chemicals capable of converting genetic boys into girls and feminizing male babies.

But how can a chemical change the sexual future of a human being? The answer lies in the fact that human sexual development depends on delicately balanced biochemical processes.

Turning Boys into Girls

Within six weeks of conception, the flourishing embryo, in an exuberant burst of life, grows a heart, mouth, limbs, eyes, muscles, a set of unisex gonads and two pairs of genital tubes, one male, one female. The next step is genital growth.

Near the close of the pregnancy’s second month, the baby starts developing sexual organs. Inherently poised to construct a little girl, the baby’s body begins executing the female program unless specifically interrupted by male hormonal cues which should be transmitted if the baby is genetically male. If no male instructions are forthcoming, the pea-sized embryo generates female organs, ignoring the child’s genetic blueprint for male (XY) or female (XX). The male tubes dissolve, leaving the female tubes to metamorphose, sprouting oviducts, fallopian tubes, uterus, and vagina. The gonads, neurally wired for either gender, flower into ovaries.

If, however, the baby is genetically male, with both an X and a Y chromosome, and all goes as planned, around day 51 the Y, or male designating chromosome, signals the gonad’s Sertoli cells to blast the female organs with an anti-feminine secretion called AFH. The object is halting female development so male construction can proceed. Under this barrage, the female ducts shrivel like abandoned fruit, almost disappearing within days. With these structures out of the way, the female volition is sapped, allowing the evolution of male sex organs from the androgynous gonads.

Once the gonads emerge as testes, these near microscopic male organs discharge the male hormone, testosterone, driving the cultivation of even more male features. Testosterone first directs the male ducts to build a bridge between the baby’s testes and ejaculatory duct, via a tube called the ductus deferens. Afterwards, testosterone action propels the testes into the scrotum, providing the baby with a full set of male equipment…



Where to Turn When You’re Shooting Blanks

Infertile men find community online

Phillip Congelliere calls his sperm his “little guys.” He talks about them in a jocular way, though they’ve consistently let him down. In a YouTube videowith his friend Mason, part of a series on his family’s adoption process, he makes a cone with their hands to describe how his sperm are supposed to look: pointy enough to pierce an egg. “Mine look like little hammerhead sharks, or at least that’s how I’m imagining them,” Mason admits, weaving his hands together to form a bridge. “They just hit [the egg] and bounce off.”

Male infertility is a topic that’s rarely broached at all, so you don’t expect to see two men in their late 20s discussing it on YouTube. While many TV show plotlines feature women struggling with infertility, men are typically positioned as virile sperminators able to sire children well into old age. The myth of the 85-year-old man impregnating his much-younger honey hasn’t died an easy death.

But Mason and Phillip have pledged to “get vulnerable” in this video, even as they engage in bro-y behavior, giving each other high-fives as Mason talks about his better-than-average sperm count (which, unfortunately, still isn’t enough to fertilize an egg). They appear most stricken when discussing how their infertility affects their wives. “I wasn’t thinking as much about me,” Mason says at one point to the camera. “My thoughts were about how Sarah was dealing with this.”

Around 40 percent of infertility cases these days involve men, whether due to misshapen sperm, low sperm counts or decreased sperm mobility. But while decades of research have focused on how women react to their own infertility, male experiences have been largely pushed aside, “an oversight of considerable proportions,” according to one study.

Today, though, researchers are finally getting hip to the male experience, looking at how infertility affects a man’s perception of his own masculinity and, yes, sense of self-worth. In the U.K., a recent study at the University of Warwick analyzed how social scripts concerning masculinity prevented men from opening up about their inability to sire children. A survey of 22 men found that many repress their feelings in order to not further overwhelm their female partners. “I don’t want to give away how worried I am to my wife… I just don’t want to… add it to her burden,” one of the respondents told the surveyors.

Turning to male friends can also be a minefield. “Masculinity is inherently relational: It is all about men’s relationships with other men and, indeed, women,” says Dr. Alan Dolan, the study’s author. “Regardless of their status, their infertility can potentially always be used to subordinate them.” Dolan adds that this dynamic may even contribute to the dearth of surveys on the topic. “It’s very difficult to recruit men to qualitative studies regarding infertility, which is why it took a great deal of time to recruit the men we did.”

Carole Lieber Wilkins, a Los Angeles marriage and family therapist who focuses on fertility issues, says it’s rare for men to contact her on their own. “There’s no question that it’s difficult to talk about,” Wilkins says. “Societally, male fertility issues tend to be associated with virility and sexual prowess, which is too bad because that has nothing to do with it.”

Typically, Wilkins adds, her infertile male clients suffer from the same insecurities as her infertile female clients. “They question their role with their wife; they question whether she will still see him as attractive; they question whether infertility will affect their sexuality. A lot of their concerns have to do with how they’ll be perceived by society.”

While infertility among women is rendered sensitively in books and film, men are told their misfiring sperm will lead to the downfall of civilization. In the nineties, after a British Medical Journal found that papers published over a fifty year span pointed to a “highly significant” decrease in sperm, follow-up research appeared to confirm these conclusions and a “consensus began to develop that sperm counts in human males were in decline,” according to a paper titled Masculinity, Infertility, Stigma and Media Reports. Researchers tied the lowered sperm density rate to a rise in testicular cancer and genetic defects that affected the penis, and also floated the idea that estrogen, or “estrogen-like compounds” could be causing the decrease in sperm density.

The media, of course, hyperventilated over this prospect: “[A] Worrying Pattern that Could Threaten the Future of the Human Race,” ran a headline in the Independent in 1998. Other papers were even more creative: “Man Sows the Seeds of Doom,” wrote the Observer. Some of these articles clearly tied sperm to self-worth, drawing unflattering comparisons between infertile men and rodents. “Men are becoming so infertile that they produce only a third as much sperm as hamsters,” the Independent wrote. (It’s no surprise that the book, “Children of Men,” about a dystopian future in which all of humanity is rendered infertile, was published in 1992.)…