The Truth About Trees


My Dear One,


This year, I have been fortunate to spend some time hiking in old-growth forests. These are forests where the trees have grown for centuries, largely undisturbed, with a wide variety of species, sizes, and ages. Some trees are very tall and hundreds of years old. Some are brand new. They are often very densely populated with tree next to tree next to tree. In school, I remember being taught that trees are a classic “survival of the fittest” scenario, with all of them individually competing for light, nutrients, and root space and where the taller trees with a larger canopy of leaves and deeper roots have the upper hand. It’s “every tree for themselves” out there. But, it turns out, nothing could be farther from the truth about trees. Trees actually collaborate, share, care for, and even communicate with one another. We’ve had the forests all wrong.


And, I wonder, if we don’t have the same misconceptions about how communities of people work as well.


In the traditional way of thinking about forests, it’s each tree for themselves. If a seed is fortunate enough to land in a place that has enough light, enough space, enough good soil, and gets enough rain, then it grows. If it doesn’t, it dies. The trees around it all compete for the same amount of limited resources. Their branches reach out into any open space they can find to soak up the light before another tree’s limbs get to it. As the tree grows taller, it shades out the other trees around it, thus allowing it even more access to light and water. It’s a literal race to the top. And underground, the tree’s roots are doing much the same thing, competing for space to spread, grow and soak up water and nutrients needed for the tree to thrive - all before another tree gets to them.


But it is precisely there, in the root system, that the true story of the forest begins to take shape.


In the last 30 years, thanks to the pioneering work of ecologist Dr. Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia and her colleagues, our understanding of trees and forests have taken a whole new shape. It all began with a hypothesis she had (for which she could get no research funding at the time) that trees weren’t competitors so much as they were collaborators. Undeterred by her initial lack of support from others, using the most basic of materials and some borrowed equipment, she set out to see if she was right.


In the forest, she began setting us experiments to see when something happened to one tree, good or bad, if it had any effect on the surrounding trees. She used small trees since they were easier to quarantine from one another using bags, and she exposed dozens of these small trees to radioactive gas, while others in the area she gave regular carbon dioxide. An hour later, after the trees had time to process the gases through photosynthesis, she returned. Sure enough, a geiger counter showed that the trees that had been exposed to the radioactive gas were now radioactive themselves. But the truly astounding thing is that the trees around them, which had not been exposed to the gas or allowed to process that radioactivity, also showed up as radioactive. The same was true, of course, when good nutrients were given to a tree; it was shared with others. But how could this be?


Somehow, that experience had been shared between the two. They were linked in a way that couldn’t be explained by the “every tree for themselves” way of conceiving of the forest. The health of one tree wasn’t in competition with the others, but rather depended on the health of the trees around them. Somehow, they were mutually interconnected, even across species of trees, but peculiarly, not all. The cedars seemed to always stand apart and alone, disconnected from the rest.


The science of it all is fascinating and I’ve placed two videos below, both from TED, with more about Dr. Simard’s research. But briefly, it was eventually found that trees in a forest are connected by something called mycorrhiza, which is a fancy way of saying “mushroom roots.” The root systems of the mushrooms, those small “insignificant” fungi, are what connect one tree’s roots to another tree’s roots. Along this system, trees begin to exchange nutrients, water, hormones, and signals that tell the trees next to them what is happening in the larger community. The bigger trees, the “Mother Trees” as Dr. Simard calls them, rather than compete with the younger trees actually share their nutrients, encouraging their growth and awareness of the conditions of the collective forest. Mother trees even know which trees around them are from their own seed and which are not. The mothers recognize their offspring and help them all the more. Their roots will move over to make space for the roots of the other trees.


This is not the same story as “two trees both take root next to each other and begin to compete for limited resources.” This is the true story of trees - that they are vastly and intimately connected and they are constantly sharing and communicating with those around them, with the wisdom of the older trees being passed down to the younger trees which will someday take their place as the mothers of the village.


Is the traditional conception of a forest not the same sad paradigm we too often, both overtly and covertly, teach our children - that we are individuals in competition with one another in an “every person for themselves” race to the top? That the world is a place of limited space and resources and the way to ensure your own survival is by elbowing out others for food, water, attention, appreciation, love, recognition, wealth, and success? Could it be that we have yet to fully appreciate the ways, just below the surface of what we can see, by which we are deeply and mutually bound; and that we all reach our fulfillment through sharing what we have, both in resources and knowledge, with one another?


In loving God with all our Soul, we learn that true love of self necessarily includes love of neighbor. These are not competing values but rather deeply dependent and intertwined. We are linked through networks of family, community, society, religion, and our mutually shared humanity. A colleague of mine recently shared how firmly he believes that it is impossible to be a Christian apart from the Church. The Church, he said, is what binds us together and lets us see, if you will, the ways our roots are interconnected with one another and with God.


A tree that stands alone may indeed be a tree, but it will never, by itself, constitute a forest.


We need one another. Our souls yearn for deeper connection. Once we establish those connections, we seek them all the more. When they are absent or cut off, we mourn. This is the true nature of trees. This is the true nature of humanity. This is the true call of the Church. God’s creation is of a whole, and what is true of one part is true of all.


The truth about trees is they are stronger together. They don’t compete so much as they compliment and collaborate. And as the mycorrhiza bind together the roots of the trees, so too the Holy Spirit reaches out and grabs hold of the tips of our souls and binds us to one another, if and when we allow that to happen.


Be open this week to that process, that reality. See the forest in the trees and the trees in the forest. See God in you and you in God, neighbor in you and you in neighbor. Rather than be a tree alone in a field, or a cedar that refuses to connect (why I don’t know, let’s ask Dr. Simard), find ways to be open to the deeper connections all around you. Allow God’s Holy Spirit to penetrate your loose edges and begin to share with you the power to be found in our collective connections.


The world needs it. Those around you need it. And, I am willing to bet, you need it as well. Happy hiking.


following The Way,

Rich



17 For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. 19 Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.

- Romans 14:17-19


"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." 

- Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail


"Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals." 

- Martin Luther King’s sermon “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart”





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