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Why Each Tree Needs a Forest, and Why Each Person Needs a Community

Welcome back to the Voices of Nature blog series! It has been a month since I blogged, and how the world has changed! Or I wonder if it is not the world that has changed, but perhaps it is our perspectives that have changed. We are forced (abruptly) to realize the vulnerability we each hold as individuals, and that our very own health is not just a matter of personal choice, but that our health is impacted directly by the actions and well-being of those around us. Our current presence is dominated by how we, as
individuals, can impacted negatively by those around us, if we get sick or if we might pass on from this life, or if a loved one may pass on. Sadly, many people world-wide have experienced heart-breaking losses. Naturally, we fear the worst, but we can always hope for the better. The decision of how we live with that inevitable fear and what we become in the meantime, for worse or for better, is a personal choice.

I scribbled out my most recent blog with full intentions to be on schedule with a posting on March 4. I was traveling in VA that week to work with my colleague and our wonderful Foundation Director, Dr. Susanna Calvert to work on our Brown Thumbs Turn Green, a gardening adventure into the story of how Susanna and I would learn to feed ourselves, returning to our roots and decreasing a reliance on grocery stores providing our food. After all, what if something happened and the grocery stores could not reliably support us?! The Earth can support us! It has for eons and will willing continue to do so, if we practice reciprocal care and nurturing. Little did we know that a new day was dawning where that reality was going to be felt by many of us around the world. That is an aside…but a relevant one for the story…

Ironically, I was writing my blog about how trees who are cut off from their forest community suffer and struggle to be healthy or to live as long. When a tree’s roots are damaged by local development, or with trees that are transplanted into stands or landscaped yards, they cannot communicate with the surrounding trees. They are isolated. They are not able to tap into the essential, underlying fungal system that provides the network and connectivity among trees. They do not receive messages carried through the fungal hyphae from the neighboring trees that an herbivore is attacking them and they need to increase their foliage or chemical defenses. When they are attacked, they are not supplemented with nutrients by their mates to help them rebuild and make it through another day (or decade or century in the tree world…). Research tells the story time and time again – lone trees are more susceptible to attack, disease, and environmental stressors.

As my last month has been consumed by adapting and re-adapting, isolating and further isolating, in response to Covid-19, the story of the trees has not escaped me. I believe some of my current anxiety is because I feel isolated, like my roots have been disentwined from my network. I have always recognized that I was a social being, but my appreciation is enhanced through feeling the imposed disconnect, the need to receive the positive chemicals and energy from my neighbors and loved ones, the flow of which builds me up, and I truly believe will make me live a longer life.

We all have our tricks to maintain our mental well-being and sanity amidst these strange, novel realizations. I share mine with you – I think of the trees. Even from a social distance, trees can share nutrients, energy, and healing; they can rebuild each other without even making physical contact. Their extensive network is supported by fungal hyphae that are connected throughout the soil, the soil from which they grow and feed. In primary forests that have not been harvested, these fungal hyphae extend over miles and miles and are centuries old. Don’t we as people have an underlying support system, a bond as a human species that reaches back into the ages when we came into being? Even if we have disconnected from that network, we can grow back into it.

Right now, I sit here alone, typing this blog, wishing for connection, wishing for a hug that feels so far away in the future and already so far in the past. I need to grow back into my community network. The family and friends that I must now reach on the phone are still my network. My Costa Rican partner who is a small screen on my Whats App video call is still my network, even while separated indefinitely by closed borders and grounded planes. The neighbor who left an acorn squash on my porch for my garden is my network. The other neighbor next to me whose name I do not yet know should be my network (though I do wish she would train her dogs not to bark at 5 am…). You are my network too, and I can be yours.

The irony is that this very virus that now separates us can unite us if we choose that perspective. The necessary physical distancing does not have to translate to emotional distancing and it definitely does not have to unroot us from our forest community.

There are some things that this pandemic virus cannot take from us. It cannot take our innate desire to survive and thrive as a community. It cannot take the connectedness that we feel across the globe that we are all experiencing this same pain and concern for our loved ones, a connectedness that none of us on this Earth has ever experienced.

Let’s use this tragedy to connect, to care for each other in our physical, emotional, and spiritual health.

Let’s think of the trees. Let’s be a forest.