March 19, 2017
We all know trees are living organisms, but did you know they can talk? I read Jane Goodall’s Seeds of Hope last year and was absolutely entranced with the chapter on trees (surprise, surprise, given the name of this blog). In my favourite section she talked about the ability trees have to communicate through their underground network of roots. Then, only a few months later, I was YouTubing it up one night and came across a TEDTalks by Suzanne Simard about – you guessed it – the communicative abilities of trees. THEN, a few months after that, I was at the bookstore and the woman in front of me at the cash register was buying a copy of a book called The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. Clearly someone was trying to tell me something. Perhaps it was the trees.
When we built the road on our land, the tree hugger inside of me reared it’s passionately idealistic head. The previous owner had already cleared a path through the forest where they thought the road should be and we agreed it was the best location. However, I pleaded that every single remaining tree be preserved – regardless of the fact that substantial elevation changes made this a near impossible feat. (I say “near” because, of course, there was one way of making it possible – don’t build a road.)
As I’ve previously written, the finished road is beautiful and we preserved as many trees as we could and – as I always say – we believe the land was sent to us because we would care for it in a way that the majority of other’s would not, meaning a few trees were gone, but many more remained and we intended to keep it that way. Still, I mourn for every single lost tree. At the time, I couldn’t explain why. But now I can.
“Underground there is this otherworld,” says Simard in her TEDTalk How Trees Talk To Each Other. “A world of infinite biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate and allow the forest to behave as though it were a single organism.”
Twenty-five years ago, Simard had a hypothesis about how trees talk to each other. She began conducting field experiments to see if a tree would pass injected tracer isotope carbon dioxide gases to another tree. This may not sound that exciting, but it was actually quite controversial at the time. When Simard discovered that trees were “not only conversing in the language of carbon,” they were also communicating via nitrogen, phosphorous, water, chemicals and hormones – it was a revelation.
Furthermore, certain trees within a forest were responsible for the majority of the communication. Referred to as “mother trees,” they are often the largest in a forest. Scientists now know that mother trees send carbon to seedlings within a forest, which increases their survival by four times. Mother trees even favour their own offspring seedlings rather than “stranger seedlings” and show their preferential love by sending them more carbon, creating larger underground pathways to communicate with them and reducing their own roots to make room for their children to grow. I don’t know about you, but that makes me tear up a bit.
If that doesn’t get you misty, then how about this? Injured or dying mother trees send the knowledge they’ve gleaned over their long years to their seedlings in hopes the little trees will avoid the same fate. And it works! Scientists have actually found that these distress signals help the seedlings resist future stresses.
And now for a sobering fact. In 2014, the World Resources Institute reported that Canada over the last ten years has had the highest forest disturbance rate out of any country in the world. As Simard notes, “a massive disturbance at this scale is known to effect hydrological cycles, degrade wildlife habitat and emit greenhouse gases back to the atmosphere, which creates more tree disturbances and more die-backs.”
Thankfully, Simard is not a pessimist and neither am I. There is always a way. A way to do better. Be better. And take better care of our planet and all the wonderful things that call earth home. Here are four ways Simard believes we can help our forests retain their collective knowledge.
Re-establish local involvement. Manage forests based on local conditions, not on a one-size-fits all approach.
Save old-growth. Preserve mother trees, which preserves their genes and wisdom.
Cut thoughtfully. Keeping mother trees means keeping their ability to nurture new-growth trees.
Retain diversity. Respect the intelligence that forests have instead of bending them to our will by weeding out “unfavourable” species.
The more I learn about the current state of our environment and the choices we must make to preserve it, the clearer it becomes that my fondness for trees is more than a quirk. Instead, it’s a deep root connected to a vast network that is much, much, larger than me.
What are your thoughts on how trees talk to each other? Have you ever had to cut down a tree (or several)? Do you have any suggestions for how we can better care for our forests – or even just individual trees? Let’s have a deep and meaningful conversation about it in the comments and then go hug a birch or something. Don’t forget to subscribe to have new posts delivered directly to your inbox!