Tree Speak



Through her research on forest ecology, Suzanne Simard has found that trees and plants literally communicate with one another through a large underground network made up of roots and fungi. The fungi populate underground locations and connect the roots of one tree or plant to another, which allows the trees to pass carbon and nitrogen to neighboring trees.

According to Simard, the forest organisms are in effect sharing elements among each other rather than competing for survival. This paints a much more comprehensive and holistic picture of the relationship between plants. Instead of attempting to understand organisms individually, the whole forest must be considered as a single entity that works in concert in order to gain clarity and insight on what is really going on. A picture that contrasts with Darwinian evolutionary sentiments and one that supports the oft-quoted Gaia hypothesis of the earth as a single living being, this particular line of research details a system of communication that closely resembles a neural network like that found in the human brain.

These underground networks can be organized around "mother trees" — old, large, well-established trees that appear dominant in the area.  The mother tree networks are massive, connecting large numbers of trees and plants from many species into a single structure. This process supports a healthy ecosystem by maintaining and fostering biodiversity as well as its own longevity. As trees connected to the network die, they continue to pass carbon and nitrogen on to others, transferring "some of their legacy to the new generation."

Dr. Simard stresses the importance of forest integrity:

“Some of the forest practices that we have done pay no attention to the role of these ‘mother trees’ or that trees actually will move some of their legacy to the new generation. We didn’t pay attention to it. Instead what we did is we went and cut down those trees after they died so that we could make 2 x 4?s out of them. And we didn’t give them a chance to give back to the community, I don’t think. So what those dying trees will do is that they will also move resources into living trees, to the young ones coming up, before they go, before they completely collapse. So it’s a transfer, like a passing of the wand from one generation to the next, if we allow it to happen.”

Image "Avebury Tree Roots" by Gordon M Robertson on Flickr courtesy of Creative Commons.