The World is a Stage

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Did you know that trees talk to each other and nurture not only their own kind but other species?

Say what?

I recently read a fascinating article about this on Smithsonian.com. Here’s the jist.

Previously, modern humans have thought of trees as living things, sort of, happy when they provide shade and glad they make oxygen. Not so happy when limbs and leaves drop. Many people think of them as individuals fighting in the bush for sun and water, but it turns out that trees are part of a community that is interconnected, sharing food and sending messages to each other. In fact their interdependent relationships are maintained by communication and they have a united intelligence similar to an insect colony.

We always look up at trees whereas the communication network is down beneath the earth, where fine hair-like roots have created a relationship or network with fungi, to exchange needs. The fungi need a third of the sugar that trees produce from the sun and they in turn share the mineral nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that they scrounge from the dirt, needed by the trees. This is especially important to young trees not getting enough sunlight under the taller trees.

Peter Wohlleben used the metaphor a mother tree “suckling their young.” Although trained as a forester to thin out trees and spray pesticides and herbicides, Peter discovered that in privately managed forest in Germany the trees were bigger and more plentiful.

Scientist Suzanne Simard researched B.C.’s forests and likens the biggest, oldest trees which have the most fungal connections, as mother trees. They will draw up water with their roots for the little saplings and share nutrients with neighbouring trees and if she notes their distress signals she will increase the flow.

Unlike humans, trees have figured out that individualism doesn’t work. “They live longest and reproduce most often in a healthy stable forest. They’ve evolved to help their neighbours.”

So, thinning the forest doesn’t actually help, although with more sun trees can grow faster, but their fungi support system is damaged with the missing bigger trees, the microclimate within the forest changes and trees die faster.

How do we know that one tree shares with others? In B.C. bears sit under trees and eat salmon, leaving the carcasses there. The tree absorbs the distinct salmon nitrogen and they have tracked it to other trees.

Another study shows that related pairs of trees recognized the root tips of their kin and favour them with carbon through the fungi network.

How about a sense of smell? In Africa when giraffes chew acacia leaves the tree emits a gas and neighboring acacias pump tannins into their leaves, which can sicken or kill large animals. (Giraffes have learned to eat into the wind so the gas doesn’t ‘warn’ the trees ahead of it though.)

How about a sense of taste? Caterpillar’s saliva, when eating elm and pines trees, cause them to release pheromones that attract parasitic wasps which lay eggs and the larvae eats the caterpillars.

When deer eat a branch, the trees recognizes the saliva and makes the leaves taste bad. When a human breaks a branch with his hands the tree sends healing substances. Trees communicate with chemical, hormonal and slow pulsing electrical signals. Edward Farmer has identified a voltage based signaling system similar to your nervous system. (He is not saying they have a brain or neurons though.) They do recognize alarm and distress. Cut yourself and an electrical signal is sent to the brain; cut a tree and an electrical signal is also sent.

Some scientists don’t like some researches like Wohlleben and Simard who relate tree’s reactions to humans, yet somehow when you read the information it certainly pops into your mind. One scientist says “they aren’t sending signals to other trees they are sending distress chemicals. Other trees are picking them up. There is no intention to warn.” I would ask, why do they bother sending the signal them?

This emerging idea that trees are intelligent is not believed by all. But is the idea emerging? Hasn’t it always been around, not just in books and movies but in medieval and ancient folklore?

What did the ancients know that has been forgotten over time? Are we relearning the past? The Greeks had trees prophesize. Roman fables include talking trees. North American Natives also have stories of talking trees. Even my parents told me to talk nice to my plants in the house. Studies have been done on plants too, and guess what? They are alive, and they function in ways we cannot imagine.

Perhaps modern civilized man is finally proving what some humans have known for millennium and we need to change our attitude toward everything that surrounds us in nature because they are much more than most of us have ever dreamt they could be. 

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