By using the word conscious, I mean to denote something different than the mere state of being alive. It is beyond this post (really, beyond this brain,) to mark the dividing line between the two; I only mean to make clear what kind of question I am asking.
No one will argue the point when you observe that trees are alive: we take that for granted. What intrigues me is whether they - or some of them - possess any measure of self-awareness. When you're in the right kind of forest, sometimes it's not hard to believe.
The Bible, the greatest fairy tale ever, (if I may say so reverently,) is far from silent on this question. Let's examine a few passages and see what we can find.
1 Chronicles 16:33 and Psalm 96:12 speak of the trees "singing for joy," and Isaiah 55:12 of them "clapping their hands." Psalm 148 calls upon all the trees - especially cedars - to praise the Lord. Ezekiel 17:24 speaks of the trees "knowing the Lord," and Jeremiah 6:6 names the cutting down of trees as part of God's judgment.
In Judges 9 we find a delightful parable involving the personification of trees that would hold its own beside any such story. Further, it seems to show that such stories have existed wherever men of vigor and imagination have lived among trees.
In 1 Chronicles 14, a rustling stir in the uppermost branches of a grove of Mulberry trees was to serve as the signal for David to go forth to battle. It is quite likely that the Lord stirred the trees, but it is interesting that He chose to give the sign in this way.
In Deuteronomy 20, the Lord forbids the children of Israel to cut down any fruit-bearing trees for siegeworks. (I suppose one could argue this was a strictly utilitarian prohibition, meant to preserve the fruit-bearing trees for the people to eat from later, but I rather think not.)
"When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you? Only the trees that you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, that you may build siegeworks against the city that makes war with you, until it falls."
Did you notice that? God explicitly stated - through His rhetorical question - that trees are not human. However, in contrast to our modern ideas about ethics, their very non-humanness means they must be respected. We're forever trying to define what is human and what is not so that we know what things we must leave alone and what things we can abuse and vandalize without compunction. As we can see from the above passage, this utilitarian thinking is sadly misguided.
All of this is interesting, but what really got my attention was a single verse in Luke 17:
And the Lord said,
"If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, "Be uprooted and planted in the sea," and it would obey you.
Branches and bristlecones! Not, "it shall be done," or "God will move it," but specifically "it would obey you." It, as in the tree itself. If this astonishing event were really to take place, we see immediately that two things would have to happen: 1) the tree would have to hear and understand the command, and 2) it would have to process the information and make a decision to obey. That sure adds up to something like a conscious tree in my book.
Of course, this may not be what happens at all; indeed, the whole thing may be only theoretical. But what is interesting is that Jesus spoke of the tree as its own entity. I don't know about you, but I find that terribly ticklish, not in a silly or amusing way, but in an exciting way, because it's always exciting to realize that the world is bigger and wilder than our ideas about it.
Image courtesy of willisms.com