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Tree talk

Trees have not changed; some people have changed in how they look at trees. This is the least to be said as research scientists announce tentative findings that trees somehow send signals to warn other trees of danger. The same might be said about the past decade's debates about dolphins' means of communication, chimpanzees' ability to do sign language, or plants' reaction to sound.

It is not that nature is mysterious; it is only mysterious to us. And maybe at last it is getting a bit less mysterious even to us as scientists keep putting two and two together and coming up with fours that somehow hang together , too. More and more patterns of order and consciousness seem to appear, denting the century's earlier anarchic notions, reviving interest in concepts of universal law and guiding intelligence.

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A rather heavy response to a tale of talking trees? OK. Nothing wrong with the fun being had. It is natural to recall that lovesong writers long ago heard the whispering grass but warned ''the trees don't need to know.''

And it is natural, as well as wise, to be skeptical about jumping to unproved conclusions or reading cosmic messages into them. In this case, researchers have yet to undertake the experiments planned to explain what they have observed: that, when a tree is attacked by insects, unharmed trees as far as 200 feet away have responded with insect-repelling chemical changes in their leaves.

But for people accustomed to think of trees as defenselessly waiting for their insect executioners, it will be news that they even can take defensive action - let alone that they may be signaled to do so somehow through the air or roots and soil.

On the insect side of things, look to the locusts. When one swarm of thousands becomes aware of another at night, their behavior is said to change immediately; they become ''gregarious,'' their color turns to pink, they begin flying by day. Something evidently has been communicated.

What does all this mean? Maybe more than a song. Yet maybe like those songs that open our eyes to what we missed before.

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