What Forests Can Teach Us About Connection

In the deep grizzly backcountry of Canada in the mid 1980’s, Suzanne Simard was counting the ghosts of saplings that had perished seemingly without cause.  What she discovered was startling.

Susanne in the her memoir Finding the Mother Tree

She was researching the effects that the then current free-to-clear logging practices were having on the health and growth rates of the trees over long periods of time.

The reason that her saplings were dying was because a delicate balance of collaboration on the microbial level had been disrupted. You see, deep down below the undertow an enormous fungal web existed, which – under normal circumstances – would have been supplying her saplings with nitrogen – the crucial building block of photosynthesis.  A pyramid of creatures – earthworms, slugs, snails, spiders, beetles, centipedes bacteria, copepods, protozoa – all crunching one another, leaving behind tiny bits of excrements that then get consumed by even tinier critters – creating a nutritious soup full of nitrogen compounds.

But the land had all but been stripped bare save for the little saplings standing at arms row upon row.  The clear cutting policies allowed for ‘weeds’ like birch that were thought to hinder the fir by competing for sunlight and soil nutrients was actually killing the firs in the end.

What she discovered was that the birch was actually sending nutrients to the firs using a sort of mychorrozial network that transmit information molecules across synapses.

Competition and collaboration took on entirely new meanings.

Of course, when her research was published she was ridiculed by the policymakers and fellow researchers who were more interested in making sure a woman wasn’t the one to disrupt the politically fine-tuned industry of logging.

Trees know that the more successful the whole is the more successful the individual

She would later go one to show that elder mother trees provide nutrients and support to nearly every species in touch with its fungal web, even those that seem to compete against her saplings.  The reason for this is that the tree understands that its own young ones have a better chance of survival if the whole succeeds.

Today, her research forms the basis of most of our modern understanding on how plants communicate and interact with their surroundings.  The overall picture of all of her years of research is one where everything is recycled into itself in a symbiotic relationship of mutual benefit.

When I read of Susans’s recount in her book The Mother Tree, it reminded me that humans are also a part of this cycle of recycling and support.  We all need each other, even on the microbial level (or rather, especially), to continue to do what we do and thrive in order to also thrive.  We are all part of something bigger and the success of one of us means a higher chance of success for all of us.

It seems basic to say and common sense in a way but sometimes it’s easy to forget that we’re all in this together.

We have become isolated in our own technological worlds in many ways and perhaps there is something to be said in the exploration of the basic code of life transpiring as collaboration in forests and be inspired towards the possibilities of the implication on human life. The lone sapling may grow tall someday, but if it’s disconnection from the web of support it will be prone to decease and weather and decay and likely succumb at a premature age. Together with his siblings, however, the sapling will grow strong.