Sideswipe: June 22: Join the biggest club in Auckland

Talking Trees

The Secret Life of Trees, a 1973 book by journalist Peter Tompkins, introduced the concept of plant sentience. A few years later, scientist David Rhoades discovered that plants, when wounded, emit “volatile compounds” as a kind of distress signal as a warning to other plants. But when the media relayed his findings in terms of “talking trees” — a shade too close to sentience — establishment academics cut the funding for further inquiry.In recent years, however, there’s been a resurgence of investigation into the idea. In 2014, researchers found that plants can “hear” the vibrations of caterpillars feeding on their leaves, and elicit chemical defences in response. In 2019 another team of scientists found that certain plants emit ultrasonic sounds when stressed. These noises are sometimes, dubiously, likened to screams. Another study, in 2018, found that when a leaf is being eaten, its cells signal the danger to other parts of the plant, alerting them to brace themselves and begin repairing the damage. The authors likened this stress response to a nervous system. Elizabeth Van Volkenburgh, a professor of biology at the University of Washington, says plants can detect light, but you can’t say plants can see. The same goes for hearing, tasting, feeling, smelling. Plants simply don’t need consciousness, nor pain. While disagreeable sensations taught our ancestors to avoid imminent threat this isn’t a big deal for an organism that can regenerate at will. (Via

Mystery of mass cancer sticks

A reader writes: “Spotted on Great South Rd across from my place of work, this pile of cigarette butts appeared and has been there for a few weeks. I’m thinking where would such a collection come from? Old-school car ashtrays were big but not that big. It’s pretty gross and really smells a treat.”

Neighbours can't ever get a look inside

A reader writes: “Am I being unreasonable to think that people who keep their curtains closed all day must be ill, or hiding something? The first thing that I do, when I get up in the morning, is to open the curtains. Possibly a window as well, to let a breeze in. There are a few houses nearby, who never open any curtains. Bedroom and lounge curtains are always firmly closed, even on lovely summer days. The gardens are unkempt and scruffy, all the paintwork is peeling. But someone definitely living there, as in one case, a brand new car on the drive and I’ve seen pizza delivery to the other. Does anyone else find this really odd, and think that there must be something amiss with these people? It must be so dark inside. I find it almost a bit creepy.”

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