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Trees talk to each other deep underground. It’s an idea still relatively new to science but familiar to ancient beliefs.
Today, scientists are confirming that forests act like one big superorganism. Below the ground, fungal highways connect the trees. Through this highway, the oldest trees nurture their young. What’s more, the trees communicate and cooperate with other species. Thus, they may help each other, contrasting with the idea of selfish competition.
Trees Talk on the ‘The Wood-Wide Web’
Yes, trees talk to each other, but how?
After millions of years of evolution starting 600 million years ago, fungi and plants formed symbiotic relationships called a mycorrhiza. Notably, the word comes from the Greek for fungus and root.
Here’s how it works: In exchange for sugars and carbon from the trees, the fungi provide what trees require: minerals, nutrients, and a communication network.
Similar to an internet connection, the mycorrhizal network extends throughout the forest. Fungal threads called hyphae create a highway and merge with tree roots. Then, trees can send and receive items like these:
- defense signals
Amazingly, one tree can connect to hundreds of other trees, sending out signals. Along the threads, bacteria and other microbes swap nutrients with the fungi and the tree roots.
A Global Map of the Tree Network
In 2019, scientists began mapping this “wood wide web” on a global scale. Since then, the international study produced the first global map of the mycorrhizal fungi network. Importantly, it could be the most important and ancient social network on Earth.
See how trees secretly talk via It’s Okay To Be Smart:
‘Mother Trees’ Protect the Forests
For three decades, ecologist Suzanne Simard from the University of British Columbia has studied how trees talk. After extensive experimentation, she has learned how the network she calls “the otherworld” connects life in forests.
“Yes, trees are the foundation of forests, but a forest is much more than what you see,” says Simard.
“You see, underground there is this otherworld, a world of infinite biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate, and allow the forest to behave as if it is a single organism. It might remind you of a sort of intelligence.”
Reaching out along the network, hub trees, she calls Mother Trees can nurture growing saplings. When older trees die, they may bequeath their nutrients, genes, even a kind of wisdom to others. Thus, by tapping into the otherworld, trees gain valuable resources and insight into their surroundings.
As a consequence, connected trees have a distinct advantage and resilience. However, if you cut a tree off from the network it becomes vulnerable. Often, they succumb to disease at much higher rates.
Unfortunately, practices like clear-cutting or replacing forests with a single species decimates this intricate ecosystem. Sadly, trees that don’t tap into the community network are vulnerable to disease and bugs. As a result, harvesting becomes unsustainable.
In a TED presentation, Simard notes:
“…Trees talk. Through back and forth conversations, [trees] increase the resilience of the whole community. It probably reminds you of our own social communities, and our families, well, at least some families,” said Simard.
See Simard discuss her research via TED:
Ancient Beliefs and Trees
Today, scientists can confirm that trees communicate in a social manner. However, the idea isn’t new. For example, for centuries, indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast, called the Tsimshian, have known that life in the forests is interconnected.
Suzanne Simard’s graduate student, Sm’hayetsk Teresa Ryan, is of Tsimshian heritage. In a recent New York Times piece, Ryan explained how Simard’s studies of mycorrhizal networks are similar to aboriginal traditions. However, European settlers were quick to dismiss these ideas.
“Everything is connected, absolutely everything,” said Ryan. “There are many aboriginal groups that will tell you stories about how all the species in the forests are connected, and many will talk about below-ground networks.”
The Menominee Forest
Ryan explained how the native American Menominee tribe sustainably harvest the 230,000-acre Menominee Forest in Wisconsin. Rather than focusing on money, they focus on ecology and are richly rewarded for it.
“Sustainability, the Menominee believe, means “thinking in terms of whole systems, with all their interconnections, consequences and feedback loops.” They maintain a large, old, and diverse growing stock, prioritizing the removal of low-quality and ailing trees over more vigorous ones and allowing trees to age 200 years or more — so they become what Simard might call grandmothers.”
By allowing old growth to continue, the forest continues to remain profitable, healthy, and densely forested today.
“Since 1854, more than 2.3 billion board feet have been harvested — nearly twice the volume of the entire forest — yet there is now more standing timber than when logging began. “To many, our forest may seem pristine and untouched,” the Menominee wrote in one report. “In reality, it is one of the most intensively managed tracts of forest in the Lake States.”
What if all forests were managed using the wisdom of Native tribes? Imagine the potential if forests were always sustainable rather than exploited for short-term gains?
An Ancient Republic
As we learn more about the intricate network of forests, it becomes clear there is a desperate need to change how we treat them.
“The razing of an old-growth forest is not just the destruction of magnificent individual trees — it’s the collapse of an ancient republic whose interspecies covenant of reciprocation and compromise is essential for the survival of Earth as we’ve known it,” write Ferris Jabr.
Today, Sir David Attenborough and thousands of scientists believe urgent action is needed to combat the climate crisis. Forests are a fundamental component of the recovery. Thus, rewilding the world, restoring and wisely managing forests as stewards is a top priority.
“We’ve taken trees for grants and cleared nearly half of our planets’ forests,” said Attenborough. “Luckily, forests have an extraordinary ability to recover,” he explained.
After centuries of decimating trees, it’s critical to preserve ancient forests. Attenborough calls for better farming techniques and planting more forests as part of an essential global restoration. In return, people would have more natural forests than ever, stabilize the climate, and get all the resources we need.
The Tree of Life
Ancient beliefs from all over the world have held trees as symbols of connection and worship: The Tree of Life.
“Trees have always been symbols of connection. In Mesoamerican mythology, an immense tree grows at the center of the universe, stretching its roots into the underworld and cradling Earth and heaven in its trunk and branches. Norse cosmology features a similar tree called Yggdrasil. A popular Japanese Noh drama tells of wedded pines that are eternally bonded despite being separated by a great distance,” wrote Ferris Jabr for the Times.
In ancient Mesoamerica, the ceiba tree was the Tree of Life where the world came into existence. Its roots went deep into the underworld while its branches supported the heavens. In the Bible, the Garden of Eden was home to the Tree of Life.
Egyptian myths also refer to the Ished-Tree, where the gods were born. In ancient Assyria, artists often carved a tree that some say looks like DNA central to sculptural reliefs. Throughout world religions, a mystical tree appears in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism.
Trees have been important to cultures around the world since the beginning. Today, it’s never been more important to protect trees and our interconnected natural world.
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