The Social Lives of Trees

by Dustin Rhodes

I grew up in rural Virginia, in a valley surrounded by mountains and forests. During the summers of my childhood, I spent nearly every waking hour in the woods: playing with friends, climbing trees, building forts, wandering aimlessly.

The forests were magical, a delight for every sense: the sound of leaves rustling; a glimpse of an animal going about their day; the touch of bark and bare feet on a pine-needle forest floor.

To this day, forests feel most like home, and I go there every chance I get. Most animal lovers know that forests are immensely important. Without them, countless animals (including us) would have no home. Our mother Earth would be depleted of oxygen and countless resources we take for granted.

Maybe some of us know, from the memories of childhood, that our lives might have less wonder. But emerging science into the nature of trees and forests tells us something new, and deeply profound: Forests are complex beyond our wildest imaginations—they are “cooperative,” “nurturing” and “caring.”

Trees are dependent upon one another, interconnected.

Dare I say that in many ways (but without our determination to self-destruct), they are very much like us—nearly human.

TREES TALK TO EACH OTHER

Most of us imagine communication as something very literal: talking. But in nature, especially among the vast animal kingdom, communication manifests itself in chirps, tweets, grunts, sound waves, gesticulations—the list goes on and on.

We’re often guilty of assuming our intellectual superiority because our species appears to communicate in the most elaborate language. Does it blow your mind to know that trees “talk” to one another, too?

Most of us take trees at face value: the size and shape of their leaves and trunks. But what we can’t see is far more fascinating. Underground are infinite pathways—roots, connected more intricately by fungi—that allow trees to communicate. This ability to communicate allows an entire forest to act as a single organism—an intelligence that we are only beginning to understand.

Canadian ecologist Suzanne Simard discovered tree communication almost two decades ago while researching her doctoral thesis. She found that trees communicate to one another via an elaborate system of latticed fungi beneath the ground.

The form of communication she discovered is so complex and highly attuned, trees are able to relay warnings to other trees about impending environmental damage; they are capable of searching for their kin, and perhaps most astonishingly, trees in forests possess the ability to save other trees by transferring nutrients.

She describes some trees special ability as “motherly.” Indeed.

Simard describes the process as an underground pipeline of sorts—which connects one tree root system to another. Simard’s work has demonstrated that, while trees do compete with one another, they also cooperate; thus when a tree needs extra help, other trees possess the ability to nurture and perform acts of salvation—providing extra nutrients to a struggling tree.

One tree can literally save another.

FORESTS AT RISK

Forests, and many species of trees, in North America and around the world are in trouble, due to many factors such as logging, beetle infestations, disease, human overdevelopment, animal agriculture, and more.

Much of the danger to forests exists due to climate change—specifically that warmer weather is changing the conditions of forests dramatically—causing certain types of trees to die en masse. In some places, entire forests are on the brink of death.

But there is much we don’t know about how forests can adapt to climate change, even though there are some promising signs when it comes to resilience.

Simard says, “Resilience is really about the ability of ecosystems to recover their structures and functions within a range of possibilities. For forests in particular, trees are the foundation. They provide habitat for the other creatures, but also make the forest work. Resilience in a forest means the ability to regenerate trees. There’s a lot that can be done to facilitate that because of these mycorrhizal networks, which we know are important in allowing trees to regenerate.”

But the bottom line is: We must stop decimating forests.

As we’ve long known, to preserve the environment, human behavior will have to change—dramatically. We’ll have to view the environment differently and lessen our impact.

Simard uses anthropocentric language to describe forest ecology and the environment, partially, to help humans understand their enormous importance and to be able to relate; but it’s also because trees are, practically, mystical. Children already know this. We adults simply need to remember.

TO LEARN MORE: Suzanne Simard did a TED Talk that I highly recommend. You can find it online here. The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben is a fascinating and beautifully written book that’s poetic, profound, and endlessly fascinating. 

 

 

 

 

WHAT YOU CAN DO

  • Be vegan. A plant-based diet lessens impact on all aspects of the environment. And it saves animals.
  • Consider minimizing the use of paper products and recycling as much as possible.
  • Use only FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) approved wood products, which ensures they were produced in an environmentally responsible way.
  • Get involved in forest preservation societies and organizations in your area.
  • Make reduce, reuse and recycle a mantra—a way of living.
  • Continue to support organizations like Friends of Animals that view animal advocacy in a holistic way. Animal exploitation and environmental degradation are deeply intertwined, and continue to help us fight both.