I grew up, and still live, in the Pacific Northwest where trees are abundant. Because they’re everywhere — including 5,200 acre Forest Park located minutes from Portland’s city center — trees had a tendency to blend into the background of my life.
I always assumed nature is just nature — with no real difference between trees, ocean, desert, or mountain. But after moving away from the forests of the north, to be near the ocean in the south, I learned I was wrong.
We all connect to nature in different ways. I learned I connect to trees in a different way than I do with the ocean or desert. To me, trees and mountains feel like friends that listen when I talk. Whereas the desert and ocean are vast and full of secrets.
The more I learn about trees, the more my connection to them makes sense. Not only are they social, but if we pay attention to their teachings, we might just learn how to survive longer and better by working together.
Fungi link trees in an entire forest together which form a massive underground communication, and resource sharing, system between them. Sometimes dubbed as the wood-wide-web — isn’t that clever??
Suzanne Simard, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia learned these forest-wide networks include larger and older trees (she calls them Mother Trees) which appear to connect with hundreds of younger trees. Simard said in her 2016 TED Talk,
“We have found that mother trees will send their excess carbon through the mycorrhizal network to the understory seedlings, and we’ve associated this with increased seedling survival by four times.”
Trees Work Together
Peter Wohlleben, a German forester and author of The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, has learned trees don’t behave the way once believed. Traditionally, it was thought trees were lonely, individual entities that live in competition for nutrients and sunlight. Wohlleben discovered just how wrong we were.
Trees send distress signals to their neighbors when an animal eats its leaves. The trees that receive the signal will pump a chemical into their leaves to make them taste bad. The trees which get the most sunlight will share sugars, glucose, and other nutrients with fungi with the trees who get less light to keep them healthy.
According to an article in the Smithsonian,
[Wohlleben] came across a gigantic beech stump in this forest, four or five feet across. The tree was felled 400 or 500 years ago, but scraping away the surface with his penknife, Wohlleben found something astonishing: the stump was still green with chlorophyll. There was only one explanation. The surrounding beeches were keeping it alive, by pumping sugar to it through the network. “When beeches do this, they remind me of elephants,” he says. “They are reluctant to abandon their dead, especially when it’s a big, old, revered matriarch.”
Trees Are Smart
We don’t know precisely how they do it, but trees know which other trees are their kin. Professor of forest ecology, Suzanne Simard, and her grad students planted seedlings from some of the oldest trees in the Pacific Northwest. What they found was the “mother tree” recognizes the root tips of its kin, and favor them by sharing extra nutrients to help them survive.
Also, Leipzig University and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research learned trees know when an animal, like a deer, chews on its branch. As mentioned above, the tree will send chemicals into its branches to make it taste bad. But if a human breaks a branch with their hands, the tree sends a substance to help the branch heal.
Trees Are the Oldest Living Organisms On Earth
All of the above makes sense when you consider how long trees have been around. According to biologists at Arizona State University, the oldest individual tree so far recorded is a Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, located in California. Scientists date the pine tree to be 5,065 years old, making it the oldest living non-clonal organism on Earth. Is your mind blown? Because mine is.
That is until I learned 5,000 years is nothing compared to a quaking aspen tree root system in Utah named Pando. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Pando sprawls for 106 acres, weighs an estimated 13 million pounds, and consists of over 40,000 individual trees — all of which sprout from the same expanding root system. Some of the sprouted trees are about 130 years old, but Pando as a whole is thought to date back 80,000 years — when the last ice age occurred.
Now I find myself observing trees every time I walk my dog or look out my window. I stare at the branches of an oak tree in the front yard, the tallest and oldest on my street, and wonder about all the families it’s observed over the years. I can’t imagine not being surrounded by trees all the time.
We like to think we know everything worth knowing. The truth is, we don’t know how much we don’t know. We get so distracted by everything going on in the world that we lose sight of the wonders right in front of us.
We take for granted the most simplistic marvels, like trees. We walk by dozens of them every day and yet never consider how amazing and intricate they really are. Maybe, if we did we could learn to communicate, share, and work together, too.
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