Last week it was my brother the National Park Service naturalist who guided me to a better understanding of the way nature works. Whereas I thought groundwater under the Russian River was an endless supply of fresh water for us who live in western Sonoma County, he pointed out that it’s more complicated than that. In fact it’s likely that for decades we’ve been pumping out our groundwater faster than is being replaced.
This week it’s my son-in-law Rich Brodsky, a musician and computer whiz who creates CDs of computerized music that both calms the soul and focuses the mind. The sounds he brings together are amazing, I have to say.
Rich also stays up on stuff, and he sent me an article from the Smithsonian Magazine entitled “Do Trees Talk to Each Other” about a forester in Germany who says they do. Peter Wohlleben manages a forest of beech trees near Hummel, a village where he and his wife live in a rustic cabin. From long observance of these trees, Wohlleben came to suspect that trees can be characterized as alert, socially aware, sophisticated, and intelligent in their leafy way. German and international universities have studied the matter and many scholars confirm Wohlleben’s observations.
Pointing to two huge beech trees, Wohlleben says they are old friends sharing the sunlight above them and an entwined root system under the ground. The tiny root tips of the trees join together in microscopic molds that form a mutually dependent relationship by which nutrients are absorbed and shared, he says. And, by means of root born chemicals, hormones and low-level electricity, signals are passed from tree to tree throughout the forest that can warn of approaching distress.
We’re also told that trees communicate through the air by means of scent signals. For instance, it is pointed out that when a giraffe chomps on an acacia leaf, the tree emits ethylene gas. Other trees pick up the signal and pump tannins into their leaves, sometimes enough to sicken or kill a hungry leaf-eating forager.
The upshot of it all seems to be that trees in a forest form networks of cooperative living. They watch out for each other, take care of each other, nurture each other, and try to protect each other. And they do this not only for their own species, but for the various other trees around them.
It might be said that trees have a sense of compassion and a mutual belief in the common good. A healthy forest, trees seem to know, comes about by trees helping each other to be strong and healthy. So it is In Armstrong Woods we see redwoods leaning against each other for support and protection from the wind.
To be sure, the article lets us know there are esteemed scholars in several universities who strongly object to ascribing human feelings and capacities to trees. They urge us to realize that trees don’t really think or feel or hold commitments to a benevolent social contract. But these scholars also recognize that molds unify trees at the roots and life-preserving signals pass from tree to tree through the air.
It’s all right with me if we don’t think trees are like humans, but, from what this article tells us, it would be a good thing if we humans could think of ourselves more like the trees of the forest, all of us breathing the same air, all of us joined at the root.