Alert. Sophisticated. Intelligent. Three adjectives you’d feel comfortable using to describe an individual or a group of people who use their wits to accomplish something we can relate to or find impressive. Now those labels are being used by some scientists when talking about the complex communication system they propose trees have developed in the name of survival.
In the case of trees, though, it’s not the usual survival of the fittest mantra that we normally associate with life in the wild. In his 2015 book “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries From a Secret World,” German forest ranger Peter Wohlleben presented anthropomorphism of trees in which he introduced terminology such as ‘talking’ into the mix, rather than the usual ‘communicating’ preferred by biologists. Wohlleben, amongst other claims, said in his book that a forest is an ecosystem not full of “organic robots” but of living, breathing individuals that will do whatever they can to ensure that every tree lives its life to the fullest.
The University of British Columbia’s Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology with 30 years of experience studying the social interconnection of trees and their surroundings, helped to get the word out on trees and their all-natural communicative skills after her 2016 TED Talk went viral. Her research is also a major influence on Wohlleben and the ideas he presents in his book. She proposed that trees in forests develop their own symbiotic social network with below-ground fungus that allows the allocation of nutrients and water to where they’re needed most. Or rather, to what specific trees need them the most. This goes against what scientists had for years labelled trees as: loners of the forest, doing whatever they can to get the sustenance and sunlight they need to grow. If trees could talk, these experts would say that ‘neighborly’ isn’t a word trees would know.
These theories are not ones that are supported by everyone in the scientific community. They are just that: theories. Nor are Simard and Wohlleben the first to suggest that trees and plants may have abilities we never considered they might have. But their ideas are opening up new discussions on how we’ve always approached the behaviour of trees in the wild, and that’s a conversation worth having.
Story by Jay Moon