Many of us have heard of people hugging trees to feel their energy, and of the Druids, Celts, and Vikings, revering their forests. Recall Avatar’s plot, which was based on the interconnectedness of all living things, with the Tree of Souls being the closest connection to the deity Eywa, the guiding force that acted to keep the ecosystem in perfect equilibrium.
As with many whose livelihoods depend on working with living things, our carpenters feel an ambivalence toward their craft. While they appreciate the beauty of wood, and understand its various practical qualities and applications, turning living matter into beautiful household items makes some question their trade.
That humans anthropomorphize trees is not surprising – the very shape of the tree in many ways echoes the human body, with roots firmly planted in the ground like feet, and trunks appearing like torsos supporting arm-like branches, that reach toward the sky to receive sunlight.
However, we are now finally beginning to understand there are many more similarities between trees and humans, which go far beyond abstract, physical representations. And if they could speak a language we understood, what would they tell us?
Peter Wohlleben is a German forester and expert dendrologist who sought to answer that question. After spending decades caring for an entrusted birch forest, he wrote a best-selling book, called “The Hidden Life of Trees”. His conclusions confirm what some of us, including our carpenters, have always suspected…
Trees in the forest are social, highly communicative creatures, albeit with a much slower pace of life. They can form family ties to take care of each other. In particular, mother trees take care of their offspring; and healthy adults care for the elderly and infirm. Trees know how to prioritize needs for minerals, glucose, and water, giving an equal share to young or sick trees within their community. The experiments carried out by a group of scientists led by Wohlleben were based on measurements of the movement of radioactive isotopes, which exposed sugar in the soil and in the root system. Originally present in vicinity of large, healthy relatives, a “fair” share of observed sugar was reported to migrate to weaker trees.
In addition, there is a special kind of friendly pair bonding that occurs between trees – according to Peter Wohlleben, an average case of one couple per fifty usual trees. As a rule, foresters cut them together, because left alone, these trees do not survive for long. They grow side by side, often with their trunks inter-twined, and their branches growing to opposite sides to give the friend more sunlight for photosynthesis.
The root system is intelligent, and functions simultaneously as a neural network and a system for delivering chemicals, water, and electrical impulses. It makes decisions about the direction and dynamics of the growth of the rhizomes, to support the vertical stability of the tree, its diet, and ultimately, its survival.
Trees have associative memory, and by accumulating experience, they can take different decisions. For instance, take the first year of severe drought in the life of young trees – initially, they do not save water; however, in the future they begin to consume less water in the spring to make reserves for the hot summer.
The quality of wood falters as we cut forests down, destroying locally unique turf, disrupting the microbiological ecosystem and thus the overall resilience of trees. Due to the increase of carbon dioxide in today’s atmosphere, contemporary trees grow 30% faster than they several decades ago. They are less resistant to parasites and “exhale” quicker. And because they lack the experience and support of their older kinsmen, their lives now span several hundred years, instead of several thousand.
The wood of artificially planted trees is inferior in quality to its counterparts grown in natural conditions, since the cells of such “new” trees are larger, and the process of cell division happens faster. Additionally, the neural networks of their root systems have little to no experience fighting parasites, fungi, and insects.
Moreover, the natural forest has considerable experience in cohabitation with mycospores (fungi). This symbiosis is of a strategic nature to both parties. In the process of photosynthesis, trees secrete glucose, fueling colonies of fungal cultures. But in the case of incoming parasite danger, other trees alarm kinsmen to the threat by a special electrical activity of the roots. The residing fungi interpret such signals as a cue to release specific toxins that are dangerous to the tree invaders. Thus, the root system of the tree community receives a timely warning from relatives about impending danger, and use the fungi’s natural antibiotics and toxins to defend themselves against invasion.
There was yet another unexpected finding of Peter and his associates about the relationship of logging to global warming. If the naturally grown forest with an established ecosystem and dendrological diversity is disrupted with wood cutting, the environment temperature is set to increase. Their observations prove that in the artificially restored areas of the forest the temperature on average is 3 degrees higher than the historical local norm.
Humanity has always been short sighted in its application of applying caste systems to living creatures, and this has been no less so in the case of trees, with the forest considered only as a producer of oxygen, wood, and a canopy that blocks the sun.
We consider plants to be perhaps of the lowest caste, because we have largely failed to understand them. But, for those who have taken the time to study them, it’s been demonstrated unequivocally that plants are indeed wise, and they process information in a similar fashion to many animals, albeit at a slower pace.
So we must ask ourselves: Are our lives as human beings more valuable simply because we belong to a different kind of living species, which we’ve put more time and effort into studying? And what of how we perceive consciousness and pain? It seems, too, that our understanding of these, with respect to other living creatures, has certainly fallen short, and deserves much greater consideration. Perhaps someday we can give these beautiful, silent creatures the voice they deserve.
It certainly gives us pause to think.
Melissa Breyer. Trees form friendships and remember their experiences.
Richard Schiffman. Are trees sentient beings?
Peter Wohlleben. The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from a Secret World.