When such relationships between words get forgotten we tend to also lose an understanding of the inter-relatedness of things. Yet – the relationships are right there in the language, staring us in the face.
So, what truth do trees have to teach us? One truth is that of connection, community, mutual assistance.
For centuries our western-styled thoughts led us to believe that trees competed with one another for access to light, for nutrients, and for space to grow. This way of thinking about trees and forests suited the ideology that says “might is right,” and that we have to compete to get ahead. It suits the ideology of the individual as paramount.
However, over the past few decades, this way of thinking about trees has been shown to be false. Trees do not compete. Trees act in harmony with one another.
A number of forest scientists (notably Suzanne Simard – view this TED talk - in Canada and Peter Wohlleben in Germany) have been investigating, and writing and speaking about, the “hidden life of trees”1 since the 1990s. Underground, trees are connected to one another via mycorrhizal networks of hundreds of fungal threads that enable trees to: share resources, warn one another of danger, and provide nutrients to young trees. Far from competing, trees are actively communing with one another, and providing assistance.
Suzanne Simard identified what she terms the mother trees; the largest trees and the ones with the largest mycorrhizal network. Foresters used to think that removing the largest trees was not only economic but also opened up the forest to younger trees. Simard’s research, however, showed that younger trees were nurtured by these old trees. Removing the elders had deleterious effects upon the health of the forest.
Thus, although each ‘individual’ tree appears to be independent of all the others, unmoving and steadfast; it is, in fact, intimately linked with all others in a community.
Trees then, are the truth-tellers of the famous maxim survival of the fittest. Each individual tree does not survive because it is the fittest (in the sense of tallest or strongest); rather trees survive because they fit with one another. Trees point us towards the truth in Charles Darwin’s concept of fitness. See here for a previous post clarifying the survival of the fittest phrase.
Hence, one of the truths of trees is that of connection. Trees, and everything in and on the earth, are connected. Thomas Berry put it this way: “The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” Thomas Berry was undoubtedly someone who communed with trees.
Part 3 of this blogpiece will explore further the concept of “listening” to the trees.
1. Peter Wohlleben (trans. Jane Billinghurst), The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World, Greystone Books, Vancouver, Canada, 2016.