Thriving together through vibrant connections.


Not So Different – The Social Network of Trees

Social networks are all around us; what comes to mind for you when you think of social network? Your lifelong friends from childhood? A gardening group? Book club? Sunday school class? Perhaps instead you gravitate to work relationships and the tentacles of networked expertise that it can take to accomplish even a single task. What about the social network that is in place to seed, grow, and harvest our food, and then to transport it to our local grocery store? In human society, even the greatest of loners survives by dependence on some form(s) of social networks. When pondering the roles that social networks play in our lives, it forces the realization of how little we actually do on our own. It is easy to take these things for granted, but it is important to take pause each and every day to recognize and give gratitude to that which sustains our life and well-being. Communication is necessary for survival for Earth’s organisms, not just for us. When we look into nature, it hard, if not impossible, to find instances
of true independence.

So, wow, these social networks are everywhere in nature too! Now, what comes to mind for you when you think of social networks in nature? As an ecologist with a specialization in wildlife biology, I immediately think of a group of gopher tortoises (also known as a creep, by the way); a mound of ants piled into a highly structured society; a pod of dolphins who teach, learn, love, and mourn for each other. I do plan on highlighting the fascinating behaviors of all these groups, but I decided early on that I wanted to start with plants.

Did you know?! Plants communicate! It is seemingly magical! However, it is not magical, it is science, and it actually makes sense. They too operate on the basic laws of nature which are repeated in function in similar ways among very different organisms. While we cannot hear plants communicate, we can see their communications, the networks and the results. Though we all may not be lucky enough to see animals communicate, we all can see trees communicate. I want to learn together how we can do that. Not only will it hopefully increase our respect for trees, but it should enhance our experience the next time we walk through the woods.

As part of my journey into the science-based mystics of tree communication, I picked up the popular book by Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees. Suffice it to say, I was hooked before I even got through the Foreword by Tim Flannery. He sets the stage for the book with reference to a “wood wide web” maintained by root connections and soil fungi that creates an “intimate network that allows the sharing of an enormous amount of information and goods.” Does that latter part sound familiar?

Trees that are more isolated do not live as long as those in communal living situations. They need each other. Everyone faces risk, everyone hits hard times, and the ability to provide an alert to pending risk or to lend a helping hand (root) when hard times hit, makes life easier, maybe even longer. Sharing resources rejuvenates, bringing an injured individual back to life. I think it is fair to say that their tree neighborhood gives them a well-being boost when the going gets tough.

Have you seen a living stump, remaining long after the tree has fallen (or been cut down)? It is not always the slow process of decay that keeps it there; it may still be alive! This fact is little known – many people understand that trees have to conduct photosynthesis, which is the conversion of light energy to chemical energy for sugars and nutrients to fuel the plant’s activities. Photosynthesis is a tree’s equivalent of harvesting the garden or going to the grocery store. The product is their food. So, if photosynthesis occurs through leaves, how does a stump stay alive? From community support, donations through an interconnected root system. A forest is a superorganism maintained by parent trees, or offspring, or sharing neighbors.

It is not just a stump, it is an injured individual that the community is trying to rehabilitate. It is not just a root, it is a communication highway, a fiber optics line that transfers information among individuals. It isn’t just a tree or a stand of trees, it is a stand together.

Like the trees, we, as people, make a stronger stand against the many, and often unexpected, challenges of life when we stand together. Like the trees, we can nourish and rejuvenate each other. Like the trees, the growth of one can support the growth of another. Those trees are not so different after all.