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The Gap Year Blog

The Wood Wide Web: The Secret Social Life of Trees

3 Jul 2019 11:05 AM

Listen to the trees and they shall grant you wisdom’. So solemnly opines Neyteri in 2009’s Avatar, the film that used its holistic arboreal deity, Eywa, to redefine the idea of a symbiotic, necessarily communicative forest for a whole new generation. The idea that trees can secretly communicate with each other, and indeed with humans, is a rich mythos that has reverberated through the cultural consciousness of various nations over millennia. From Tolkein’s malevolent Old Man Willow in The Lord of the Rings to the trees of ancient Celtic folklore that whispered to travellers of leprechaun gold, there seems to be a palpable human yearning towards the image of the thinking, feeling tree.

Whilst the mesmerising bioluminescence of James Cameron’s Pandora might seem to belong entirely to the realms of high fantasy, recent developments in the field of plant science have uncovered a complicated web of arboreal relationships, alliances and kinship ties that doesn’t not so far away from Eywa and her tree dependents. Whilst a Darwinian view of the lives of trees has long been common currency; trees have generally been perceived as striving, disconnected loners, competing for water, nutrient and sunlight, with the winners perpetuating their superlative genes- they are more team players than we might imagine.

The Social Trees

In 2016, ex-forester Peter Wohlleben published The Hidden Life of Trees to huge success, arguing that trees are highly alert, social, sophisticated and intelligent. New evidence of forest-wide communication has led to the coining of the term the ‘wood-wide web’, where a mycorrhizal network of roots and fungus simulates a kind of social network. A social network? How utterly relatable, we might think. Yet these networks primarily send urgent distress signals about drought, disease and insect attacks- potentially slightly more intense than your local group WhatsApp, unless you, like the Umbrella Thorn Acacia bush, habitually incite your friends to produce toxic leaf tannins for the poisoning of large herbivores.

But tree communications, if Wohlleben is to be believed, don’t end with flippant survivalist interchanges- no- some have apparently formed lifelong bonds. ‘These two are old friends’, he remarks of two formidable beech trees. ‘In cases like this, when one dies, the other usually dies soon afterward, because they are dependent on each other’. He further recounts the wonder of the ‘mother tree’ (sound like Eywa to anyone?) where larger trees pump sugar into the roots of frail young saplings, lacking the sunlight to photosynthesize, offering a literal lifeline to their younger companions.

Just Wishful Thinking?

Yet this burgeoning anthropomorphising of tree communities has not unanimously thrilled the scientific community. Lincoln Taiz, retired professor of plant biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has argued that is our fatal susceptibility to the alluring aesthetic of the Avatar-esque mother tree that facilitates this illusory ascription of purpose to tree signals.

Whilst the exact nature of arboreal interaction is contentious- the benefits of humanizing and respecting tree communities are unequivocal. Suzanne Simard, of the TED talk ‘How Trees Talk to Each Other’, which has garnered two million views online, recognises the importance of cultural myths in buttressing conservation work. Simard has chronicled the influx of support from myriad First Nation groups in British Columbia, as the dialectic of the mother tree is compatible with the First Nations perception of an intelligent, vital natural world. Metaphors are a crucial part of the way humans apprehend reality, and, as Simard aptly summarizes: ‘if we can relate to it, we’re going to care about it more’. Let us then indulge in elevating our trees, humanizing them, perceiving them as having wisdom to give us.

Trees may not be scrupulously analogous to lifelong pals or social media fiends, but an increased respect for these magnificent organisms is far from misplaced. After the publication of Wohlleben’s book a petition immediately sprung up in response, asserting that ‘it’s facts we want- not fairy tales. And yet, sometimes the medium of the fairy tale is devastatingly effective in engendering the public support and widespread understanding that enables the facts to be discovered.

By Laura Smith - Online Journalism Intern

Frontier runs terrestrial & marine conservationcommunityteaching and adventure projects in over 50 countries - join us and explore the world!