The vast majority of conversations in the world, we discovered from Suzanne Simard’s brilliant Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, are silent. Intricate lines of communication between trees thrive in underground mycorrhizal fungi networks.
by David Stone
Assorted Ideas, Large & Small
Two decades ago, while researching her doctoral thesis, ecologist Suzanne Simard discovered that trees communicate their needs and send each other nutrients via a network of latticed fungi buried in the soil — in other words, she found, they “talk” to each other. – Yale Environmental 360
But it would be a mistake imagining that talking between trees is an exception. More likely, it’s the rule in circumstances as wide-ranging as you can imagine.
But there are over 3 trillion trees, more than there are stars in our galaxy and half of all the plants on Earth. So it’s not surprising that most of the conversations in the world are silent.
The wind carries the scent of pines to one another. The roots of maples touch and communicate. Seasoned foresters can tell you which trees are communicating with each other just by looking at them.
The Real Masters…
But it’s the mycorrhizal fungi that are the real masters of communication in the forest. These fungi form a network that connects the roots of most plants and trees. The mycorrhizal fungi act as an information superhighway, carrying messages back and forth between trees.
In her book, Simard describes how the mycorrhizal fungi network allows trees to share water, carbon, and nutrients. The network also helps sick or stressed trees by sending them warning signals.
The real magic, though is in discovering how they know where, when and what to do. Where are the brains?
Simard’s research has shown that these underground communication systems are vital to the health of forests. And they could hold the key to helping us manage and protect these important ecosystems in the face of climate change.
Human-centric definitions define brains, knowing, learning and consciousness in line with what people have. But there is no natural rule that all brains and associated activities must be just like ours.
The key is in understanding that there are different kinds of intelligence and that these can be distributed throughout an organism or system. This is the case with plants, trees and fungi. They don’t have our kind of brain but they do have other ways of sensing, knowing and responding to their environment.
So when we say that the mycorrhizal fungi network is the brain of the forest, we’re not using a metaphor. We’re simply recognizing that this network performs many of the functions of a brain.
The mycorrhizal fungi network is like the Internet of the natural world. It’s an information superhighway that connects the roots of most plants and trees.
But what about smaller, far less complex organisms like single-cell bacteria?
They don’t have brains but they do have ways of sensing and responding to their environment. They communicate with each other and cooperate to achieve common goals.
As we have known for the last 20 years, “Signaling in bacteria enables bacteria to monitor extracellular conditions, ensure that there are sufficient amounts of nutrients, and ensure that hazardous situations are avoided. There are circumstances, however, when bacteria communicate with each other.” – Lumen Learning, Signalling in Bacteria.
In other words, no hard and fast rule requires human-style brains for intelligence or communication at any level.
This realization has profound implications for how we think about the natural world and our place in it.
If we want to understand how the natural world works, we need to start paying attention to the silent conversations that are taking place all around us.
Are the Trees Talking to Us As Well As Each Other?
A hillside lush with the greens of summertime trees danced in the wind, branches and leaves coordinating in the sun.
One of the most exhilarating experiences in my life has stuck with me for decades. While I waited in the lobby of a motel in Vestal, New York, the dance of the trees caught my attention. The more I watched, the more attractive it became.
We know that trees silently talk with each through the air and underground, but why wouldn’t they talk to the rest of the world around them? Including me?
The idea seems crazy at first but that’s because of the unscientific misinformation we’ve been given since childhood. Remember when cats and dogs were supposed to have no feelings? No emotions or awareness?
We know that’s completely untrue now, but it held as truth for centuries. Even today, it allows for unimaginable carnage committed against other animals harvested for food and research.
But we also now know that everything is connected. That is, engaged. We can’t pretend we don’t know or close our minds to possibilities for interaction. We can, however, refuse as many do because it’s convenient and eases feelings of guilt.
We’re beginning to realize that other forms of life have a lot to teach us. If we’re open to learning, that is.
So back to the question: Are the trees talking to us as well as each other?
The answer is a resounding yes!
They’ve been trying to talk to us for a very long time. It’s just that we haven’t been listening.
And what we’re learning is fascinating, inspiring and often surprising.