The Secret Lives of Trees

When we think of healthy forests, we imagine lush trees and shrubs existing mostly above ground. And we would be wrong. This is because the bulk of a tree, the roots, reach through the earth below and it is there that the health of the tree, and indeed, all trees in the forests depend. There exists a constant communication between those roots and mycelium or root fungus, where often the ill, weak or stressed roots are supported by the strong and surplused. By which I mean a tree over there needs nitrogen and a nearby tree has extra, so the mycelium ferry it over, like a fungal ambulance. Constantly, this tree to that, and that tree to this, 24/7. This is the secret lives of trees that most of us do not know exist. But it is crucial to the health of all forests of the world, and crucial to our survival on planet Earth.

Let me elaborate.

The Woodwide Web

When most of us think of fungus, we imagine mushrooms sprouting out of the ground. Those mushrooms are in fact the “fruit” of the fungus, while the majority of the fungal organism lives in the soil interwoven with tree roots as a vast network of mycelium. Mycelium are incredibly tiny “threads” of the greater fungal organism that wrap around or bore into tree roots. They compose what’s called a “mycorrhizal network,” which connects individual plants together to transfer water, nitrogen, carbon and other minerals from one tree to another as mentioned. German forester Peter Wohlleben dubbed this network the “woodwide web,” because it is through the mycelium that trees “communicate.” So, trees do talk to one another. The natural question is: why are trees so generous? Why do they share their nutrients with other trees?

Let’s Thrive Together

The answer is that trees do it for “selfish” reasons: if surrounding trees die due to lack of nutrients, the forest’s protective tree canopy becomes sparse, allowing too much sunlight to fall on healthy trees, possibly scorching them, as well as overheating the cool, damp microclimate of the forest floor that forest trees need. Also, more wind than is optimal will penetrate the entire forest, potentially uprooting trees. In the words of ecologist, Suzanne Simard, the “generosity” of trees is motivated by their own survival needs. It is another beautiful example of symbiosis, one which ensures that one tree thrives when all other trees thrive.

Which leads me to a more philosophical question that relates to us: if trees, which do not have brains, can act in such cooperative way, why can’t we, self-proclaimed apex of all sentient beings do much better? As I muse upon this, I’m thinking right now of the endless bickering among rich countries in the name of protecting their own markets by shutting off mutually beneficial trade and investments. Alas, we have a lot to learn from trees!

Documentary: The Secret Lives of Trees

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