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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

294 “Love is a tree with branches in forever with roots in eternity and a trunk nowhere at all”

Day 294: January 4th 2021:

“Love is a tree with branches in forever with roots in eternity and a trunk nowhere at all”

- Richard PowersThe Overstory

Reflection by ecologist and professor Suzanne Simard:

My first big "aha" moment was at the outhouse by our lake. Our poor dog Jigs had slipped and fallen into the pit. My grandpa ran up with his shovel to rescue the poor dog. He was down there, swimming in the muck.

But as grandpa dug into the forest floor, I became fascinated with the roots, and under that, what I learned later was the white mycelium and under that the red and yellow mineral horizons. Eventually, grandpa and I rescued the poor dog, but it was at that moment that I realized that that palette of roots and soil was really the foundation of the forest.

You see, underground there is this other world, a world of infinite biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate and allow the forest to behave as though it's a single organism. Most of the forest lives in the shadow of the giants that make up the highest canopy. These are the oldest trees, with hundreds of children and thousands of grandchildren. They check in with their neighbors, sharing food, supplies, and wisdom gained over their long lives.

They do all this rooted in place, unable to speak, reach out, or move around. The secret to their success lies under the forest floor, where vast root systems support the towering trunks above. Partnering with these roots are symbiotic fungi called mycorrhizae.

I studied this “other world.” You see, scientists had just discovered in the laboratory in vitro that one pine seedling root could transmit carbon to another pine seedling root. But this was in the laboratory, and I wondered, could this happen in real forests? I thought yes. Trees in real forests might also share information below ground.

Enter the experiment in which I traced the movement of carbon from unlike trees. With a Geiger counter I “heard” the sound of Birch trees talking to Fir trees, and birch was saying, "Hey, can I help you?" And fir was saying, "Yeah, can you." The Paper Birch and Douglas fir were in a lively two-way conversation. It turns out at that time of the year, in the summer, that birch was sending more carbon to fir than fir was sending back to birch. In later experiments, we found the opposite, that fir was sending more carbon to birch than birch was sending to fir, and this was because the fir was still growing while the birch was leafless. So it turns out the two species were interdependent, like yin and yang.

And at that moment, everything came into focus for me. I knew I had found something big, something that would change the way we look at how trees interact in forests, from not just competitors but to cooperators. And I had found solid evidence of this massive belowground communications network, the other world.

How were Paper Birch and Douglas fir communicating? Well, it turns out they were conversing through a network of fungal threads that form a mycelium, and that mycelium colonizes the roots of all the trees and plants.

The web is so dense that there can be hundreds of kilometers of mycelium under a single footstep. And not only that, that mycelium connects different individuals in the forest, individuals not only of the same species but between species, like birch and fir, and it works kind of like the Internet.

We have found that large “mother trees” send their excess carbon through the network to the understory seedlings, and we've associated this with increased seedling health. Healthy mothers, healthy babies.

Mother trees nurture their young by reducing their own root competition to make elbow room for their kids. When mother trees are injured or dying, they also send messages of wisdom on to the next generation of seedlings. Trees talk.

Through back and forth conversations, they increase the resilience of the whole community. It probably reminds you of our own social communities, and our families, well, at least some families.

A forest knows things. They wire themselves up underground. There are brains down there, ones our own brains aren’t shaped to see. Root plasticity, solving problems and making decisions. Fungal synapses. What else do you want to call it? Link enough trees together, and a forest grows aware.”

― Richard Powers, The Overstory

Forests aren't simply collections of trees, they're complex systems with hubs and networks that overlap and connect trees and allow them to communicate, and they provide avenues for feedbacks and adaptation, and this makes the forest resilient. That's because there are many hub trees and many overlapping networks. But they're also vulnerable, vulnerable not only to natural disturbances like bark beetles that preferentially attack big old trees but high-grade logging and clear-cut logging. You see, you can take out one or two hub trees, but there comes a tipping point, because hub trees are not unlike rivets in an airplane. You can take out one or two and the plane still flies, but you take out one too many, or maybe that one holding on the wings, and the whole system collapses.

The great thing about forests as complex systems is they have enormous capacity to self-heal.

First, we all need to get out in the forest. We need to reestablish local involvement in our own forests. You see, most of our forests now are managed using a one-size-fits-all approach, but good forest stewardship requires knowledge of local conditions.

Second, we need to save our old-growth forests. These are the repositories of genes and mother trees and mycorrhizal networks. So this means less cutting. The forest’s health relies on these intricate communications and exchanges. With everything so deeply interconnected, what impacts one species is bound to impact others.

And third, when we do cut, we need to save the legacies, the mother trees and networks, and the wood, the genes, so they can pass their wisdom onto the next generation of trees so they can withstand the future stresses coming down the road. We need to be conservationists.

Finally, we need to regenerate our forests with a diversity of species and genotypes and structures by planting and allowing natural regeneration. We have to give Mother Nature the tools she needs to use her intelligence to self-heal. And we need to remember that forests aren't just a bunch of trees competing with each other, they're supercooperators.


A woman is a tree of life; the heavens know her grace. In her is found an essence that eclipses time and space. She reaches heavenward, her fingers branching toward the sun and winds her roots through rocks and dirt to bless the work she’s done… to feed and anchor tender shoots by her good seed begun.

©2010 Susan Noyes Anderson


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