“We’re only just beginning to understand nonhuman consciousness…”
Man still has much to learn about the world, and maybe the first lesson here should be: Nature can keep a secret. This one, as it turns out, has been right under our feet all along, going back to a time not just before lattes, but to an ancient era hundreds of millions of years ago.
While this particular green-leafed revelation still towers over the rooftops of our beloved town, it wasn’t first conceived in a Bozeman coffee shop (sorry, hipsters). Instead, voices echo from the forests of western Germany and British Columbia, from ag scientists in China. The field of forestry is expanding faster now than it has in a century, and what the trees do—have always done—is today the marvel of the world.
“Trailblazing arboreal research…”
Germany. Peter Wohlleben, a career forester, is responsible for managing a forest in the Eifel Mountains, a modest range huddled over the borders of Germany and Belgium. In the spring of 2015, his first book was published, titled, “The Hidden Life of Trees: What they feel, How they communicate.” The book quickly ascended best-seller lists in his homeland and brought international attention to Wohlleben. His worldwide status can be summarized easily because he, perhaps better than anyone in the world of scientists, could convey to a massive international community that the trees deliver messages as well and are, in fact, highly social beings.
“I use a very human language,” Wohlleben said, as quoted in a New York Times article earlier this year, “Scientific language removes all the emotion, and people don’t understand it anymore. When I say, ‘Trees suckle their children,’ everyone knows immediately what I mean.”
Via his unorthodox means, he’s helping convince the nonscientific among us that forests represent more than unrealized lumber, carbon filters, or shade for a park bench. Instead, we should make note of the reinvestigation of how they grow together, in part for the sheer wonder as well as the great bearing this has upon our increasingly urbane and disconnected world.
Wohlleben likens the importance of the tree’s supportive family versus a solitary existence to the same risks and sufferance of an isolated person. Trees feed one other continuously and nurse others when they are unhealthy (even those of differing species). Wohlleben asserts that they can count as well as remember, and when one tree dies, the loss might well prompt a neighbor to die.
This communication has remained secret for so long because, literally, it’s buried, and secondly, the organisms at work underground are only now, thanks to developing science, able to be properly studied. From a multitude of sources, we’ve learned that trees “talk” via the sharing of nutrients from one to the other and from one species to another. In the most selfless example yet accounted, older trees will, before they succumb, send their most vital nutrients to the youngest trees in the forest, as these newest members have the best chances for adaptive survival.
Just as we should consider trees as a group, so too is Wohlleben not alone. The scientific community has mulled the subject of plant consciousness for decades, conferring with others in academia and field research over the expanded understanding of trees. But it’s only of late that the digital community has delivered the news to a broader audience via mainstream publications, TED talks, podcasts, blogs in addition to radio and television. And it’s the great leaps in recent science that have fueled the worldwide discussion.
Canada. A scientist with the University of British Columbia is credited with a discovery that offers proof of the collective conversation between trees. Suzanne Simard established a study demonstrating Douglas fir and birch trees sharing carbon via a fungus network. Building upon and in parallel with her breakthrough, other scientists soon showed trees delivering to one another nitrogen and phosphorous, as well as sugars fundamental to growth.
Simard argues that under the forest canopy large, older trees deliver nutrients to small, younger trees that themselves could not possibly get enough sun to utilize. In the 2011 documentary Do Trees Communicate?, Simard said, “These plants are not really individuals in the sense that Darwin thought they were individuals competing for survival of the fittest. In fact they are interacting with each other, trying to help each other survive.”
Another German scientist, back in the 19th Century, is first credited with discovering the aforementioned fungus, which Professor A.B. Frank then named mycorrhiza. It’s a fungus completely separate from the plants they facilitate and, in fact, has more in common with fauna than flora. Mycorrhiza link the roots of plants related and unrelated, establishing a tubular network between root systems, dubbed the “wood wide web” (yep, look it up), to deliver nutrients and even messages. In exchange mycorrhiza derive the compounds necessary for their own growth, where the interconnected beings enjoy the benefits of the symbiotic relationship. Simard has argued that, without this exchange, most trees wouldn’t have the building blocks to grow much taller than a garden flower.
China. In 2010, a study led by a scientist at South China Agricultural University named Ren Sen Zeng offered proof that plants could warn each other of threats and thus foster greater survival rates. In the tests, a group of tomato plants were paired up and encouraged to establish a mycorrhizal network. The team then sprayed one of the pair with a fungus that promotes a specific blight, while the other tomato plant was safely shrouded in plastic. After 65 hours, the second plant was similarly exposed, and across the many examples of the study, this second group proved much less likely to incur blight. Even those plants infected experienced significantly less damage.
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In early October of this year, Living On Earth host Steve Curwood interviewed Peter Wohlleben. As a portion of the interview, the forester described a study on a stump so old and apparently dead that he first thought it a stone.
Wohlleben: “(It) turned out to be a century-old stump. The tree I think was felled 500 or 400 years ago, and when I stumbled upon it and researched it, I found out that it was still living without any green leaf, and that seemed to be impossible because a tree is a living being which burns sugar in its cells, like we do. And after 400 years every molecule of sugar should have been gone, and the only explanation was that this old stump was supported by its neighbors.”
Curwood: “Supported by its neighbors? Why do some trees feed a nearby stump?”
Wohlleben: “Yeah, that sounds incredible because we all learned in school that within evolution each being is struggling against each other so that just the fittest survive, but in the forest we have a social society which fights for each other so the whole forest will survive. Every tree is interested to keep its neighbors because together they create a special climate which is cool, which is humid, where every tree feels comfortable.” –BH
(Text and photo by Blake Maxwell)
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