The Secret Life of Trees and What It Means for Humans

Elm and silver maple in the sunlight

By Angela Noel

June 8, 2017

When we first moved into our house I sat in my backyard gazing up at the canopy of tree branches overhead. Two trees, their trunks big enough around that two adults with arms outstretched couldn’t encircle them, blotted the sun. For reasons I cannot explain two names popped into my brain: Erin and Bertie. I told my husband and son the trees had names. Not that I had given them names, but that they already had them–like they’d accepted me into their community as one of their own. (Weird, I know.)

Among the oaks and cottonwoods that dot the rest of my little wooded lot, Erin and Bertie are special. A fact, Suzanne Simard, noted forest ecologist, professor, and TED speaker would find not-at-all surprising. Her work, and those of other researches around the globe, has opened up a greater understanding of the complex and beautiful world of tree interdependence. How trees communicate and contribute to the common good of the ecosystem in which they live has a lot to tell us not only about nature, but about ourselves as well.

Mycorrhizal fungi
Mushrooms are mycorrhizal fungi. Imagine these tiny little caps as outposts of the network below.

Bertie is an elm tree, Erin, a silver maple. Beneath my feet, a network of mycorrhizal fungi and roots connect these two to each other, and to many of the other trees within what ecologists call a stand. (Of course, I call this stand, “my backyard.”) Through this network, they pass nutrients and information. Professor Simard proved this more than twenty-five years ago.

At first, people scoffed. But over time, her results and persistence in speaking about trees as having communication networks, has resulted in even more study of the mind-boggling complexity beneath the ground. For example other ecologists, like Richard Karban or Yuan Yaun Song seek to decode the alien language of trees and plants as they attempt to defend themselves and each other from invasive species and pests. A bestselling book by forest ranger Peter Wohlleben entitled, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate–Discoveries from a Secret World makes the case for reimagining trees as something more they may seem. The science speaks for itself: Trees are talking to each other–and to us. But what are they saying?

Certainly, competition for resources like sunlight and water seem obvious. The tree with the best access to the most resources grows the biggest and it’s offspring populates more of the forest, right? But that’s only part of the story.

While the trees reach for the sky, climbing higher and spreading farther, their roots are doing the same–but not always to squeeze out other trees–to nurture them. When one tree has an excess of a particular nutrient, it shares. When another tree is in trouble, because its been shaded too long or sustained an injury, it receives aid. It doesn’t have to be a related tree- it just has to belong. In other words, trees share within their community.

Trees form an interdependence with each other, regulated in some way by “Mother” trees. These trees, unlike the Ents of Tolkien’s novels, are not tree herders. They don’t direct the behavior of other trees, so much as distribute the wealth. Their superior size and age, makes them repositories of knowledge the younger trees need. Without these hub trees, forests suffer. The presence of hub tree weakens disease outbreaks and pest infestations. Mature trees, though, do not live forever. There must be young ones to pass their knowledge on to. All forests need variety in species and in age. They need diversity and a chance to thrive. However, not all trees get along.

Interestingly, according to Professor Simard’s research, some trees don’t participate in the underground network. Professor Simard’s hypothesized a Douglas fir replicant and a paper birch would communicate. But a western redcedar would be in “it’s own world.” In her experiment, the redcedar received no nutrients and no communications from the other trees. Yet, fir and redcedar share forest space in Oregon. So, what’s going on? Why can’t fir, birch, and redcedar get along in Simard’s experiment?

One reason may be the fungal networks that form the interconnected webbing of the “wood wide web,” can be selective. Some fungi are generalists, others are more particular, pairing only with certain plants. In Simard’s experiment, the fungal network–the link to understanding each other–may not have included the right biological language for redcedar.

Forest communities can teach us a great deal about the wonders of

Forest community
Flowers, moss, grasses and more dot the forest floor–all part of the community.

interconnected relationships, and the importance of sharing resources for the good of all. But they are–in the end–trees. A tree, even one as special as Erin or Bertie, can’t bridge the distance between a tree whose fungal language it recognizes and one it doesn’t. And yet, humans can. Humans, I think you’ll agree, can be smarter than trees. As smart, at least, as the generalist fungi that connect the biologically diverse forests we live in, near, or around.

But we aren’t sometimes. And that’s a shame.

I’d like to think that if given the choice, Bertie and Erin would step up to the challenge. They, and their generalist fungi would invite a western redcedar to a dinner of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and phosphorus. But, I wouldn’t expect that of them. But I do expect it of myself. The next time I meet someone who doesn’t seem to be a part of my world, I want to find out the ways we’re the same. And the ways we can share our knowledge, to build a stronger, more resilient world.

Your turn: What are the best ways to help someone integrate into a community? How do you create connections?

 

Author: Angela Noel

Seeker and promoter of awesome people and ideas.

17 thoughts on “The Secret Life of Trees and What It Means for Humans”

      1. I find that I end up being the keeper of all sorts of secrets as people find they can be honest with me! It’s strange! But I’m glad people van feel comfortable with me 😊

  1. I remember the first time I “heard” a tree. Sadly, it was tragic. My husband and the neighbor were trying to dig out a maple that was rooting around a shed. I could hear it screaming as it was being ripped out. I actually had to leave it unsettled me so much. Yes with out a doubt trees communicate.

  2. Fascinating, Angela! I’ve heard of some tree networks such as the Aspen in Colorado, but not these you mention.

    1. I need to know more about Aspen now! It really is fascinating stuff. I can see how forest ecologists fall in love with the complexity of the networks all around us. Thanks for reading!

  3. Awesome post! I love trees and being in nature and I love the fact that they communicate and care for each other. We could learn so much from trees. 🙂

  4. The first step in helping another to integrate into a new community is to get to know him or her with sincere interest and without judgment: where she is from, what brought him here. If there are cultural differences (even if its Southern v West Coast), ask questions. Listen and enjoy the communication. Offer tips on the community quirks or just how to get to the post office. A person who truly feels welcome is one who will want to integrate. Not everyone will want to integrate. I just need to have the wisdom to discern resistance from shyness. And if I don’t particularly like someone (or they don’t like me!) I still have to remember that each individual is just that, and is a child of our Creator no matter what the other’s philosophy.

    1. Oh I love this! The difference between shyness and resistance is a topic that’s been on my mind, too. As a talker, I can bowl people over with my eagerness. Sometimes, I need to pay more attention–just like the trees–to giving only what the other person is ready to receive. Thank you for the thoughtful comment!

  5. Angela, I LOVE my visits to your blog. I can almost feel the weight lifting as I settle in to your world for a moment. I suspect I’m gushing again, but in all sincerity, I’m a fan.

    I’m also a card-carrying, tree-planting, and contribution-giving tree-hugger. Ever since I learned that the aspen groves thriving near my childhood home were all one interconnected organism (aspen trees are apparently the largest organism-by mass- on earth), I was intrigued.
    But your point about learning from their interdependence and the lessons we can learn from them is so true. Thanks you for giving me a much needed lesson in another language.

    1. Oh the Aspens are so amazing! Colleen also mentioned them and now I want to know more. A friend of mine also wrote a book about a tree scientist. . . I feel like trees are talking to me in a million ways and it’s time I paid even more attention. I think I can be a better steward of nature. I only hug the trees I know well, for example. 🙂 Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments and your amazingness.

      1. If you ever get the chance to visit the Aspen groves in Colorado (they’re everywhere once you head for the mountains), you’ll be forever transported to a world filled with understanding whispers from woods that know the meaning of life and love and hope and growth.

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