Updated: Dec 28, 2020
We live in a world that tells us to “make up our mind” and “get our heads straight.” What if there is a species that has no brain or its surrogate, the mind, but adapts well to its environment? What if this species came before us and outlives the average human being on this planet? What if this species can communicate with one another, defend itself against predators, reproduce only when conditions are most suitable and is socialized to help other members in times of need? What if this species can feel distress and pain? According to Forester Peter Wohleben and the research he did in the woodlands of Germany, there is such a species and it is the tree.
Although unsettling, leaning into the same idea is Canadian Ecologist Suzanne Simard’s research. She uproots the thought that nature constantly competes for survival. Simard’s work demonstrated that trees use underground fungal networks to talk to each other and share resources resembling a “wood wide web.”
Are trees really social beings? Why do they share resources and even nurture their competitors? Their reasons for being social are similar to our own. A single tree is at the mercy of wind and weather. But with other trees, it can create a supportive ecosystem, store a great deal of water, moderate extremes of heat and cold and maintain humidity. In such a protected ecosystem, even frail trees grow to be very old. If trees were selfish and many died, gaps in the tree canopy would leave them open to the extremes of the weather which would uproot more trees.
Do trees allow euthanasia? Apparently not. Sick individuals are cared for and nurtured as long as possible. Similarly, every tree is valuable to the community it lives in. A tree is only as strong as the forest that surrounds it.
Beech trees are bullies and willows are loners. Acacias ward off giraffes in African Savannahs. Are there second-class citizens in tree communities? The mysteries of these relationships are encoded in the forest canopy and is available to anyone who looks up to decode.
The average tree only grows as tall as its neighboring tree. It doesn’t grow any taller. It doesn’t grow any wider either because the space and sunlight are already taken. A pair of thick friends are also careful not to grow branches or thicken them in each other’s direction. The trees do not want to steal from their friends and so only develop sturdy branches in the direction of non-friends. The friends are so interconnected in their roots that some of them also die together.
In the next article of this series, we dig deeper into the emotional and social life of trees and how we are more alike than we think we are.