I recently stumbled across this TEDtalk by ecologist Suzanne Simard, ‘How Trees Talk To Each Other’. It was such an eye opener, not just in relation to a deeper understanding of the effects of logging and deforestation, but also to the remarkable parallels between some of their behaviours and ours.
Simard discovered that trees in a forest act as a community, sharing their resources not just within their own species, but with the wider community, through an underground system called a micorrhizal network, assisted by fungal threads called mycelium. She explains how the older ‘Hub’ trees, otherwise known as ‘Mother’ trees can identify their own seedlings and direct resources specifically to them and that they can also warn their community of danger, giving them time to adapt and protect themselves. Rather than focussing on growing taller themselves, they will also reduce their root systems to give room to younger trees in the understory. In Simard’s words,’forests aren’t just a bunch of trees competing with each other, they’re supercooperators.’
I got to thinking about the way the social behavior of trees echoes that of humanity, and given the current socio/political climate it was a refreshing reminder that these behaviours are rooted (pardon the pun) within us. Mother trees that are injured or dying for example, will pass on information to their seedlings so that they can increase their resistance to future stressors…sound familiar?
The forest’s resilience comes from the interconnections between species and sharing of both information and resources for the good of the community. The forest, to borrow a familiar Hillary Clinton campaign slogan, is literally ‘stronger together’.
Through logging and deforestation, much like in a business, family or community – when you take away enough Hub trees – the older, wiser, experienced individuals – the group as a whole becomes compromised.
Many of us work in industries where efficiency and profits have become more important than people and quality – a story echoed even more alarmingly in public services. It appears easy to think staff can ‘work smarter’ or that workforces can be continually paired back to the very minimum, but eventually those resources are spread too thin. Just like with the Hub trees, knowledge and experience has been traditionally passed on through the generations, making the next stronger, able to adapt and more resilient. But what happens when that cycle is broken? Who would you prefer to lead you through the next GFC? People who learnt from their experiences of the last one, or those who read about it in their history books in their last year of college? I’d like a combination of both to be honest. Those who know what it feels like to be in the box and those who are thinking outside of it. This requires communication, the sharing of information and a back and forth dialogue starting from the ground up – instead of just from the top down.
Simard explains that simplifying the forest, by narrowing down the species and thus reducing its complexity, makes it more vulnerable. The same could be applied to cultural shifts – Trump, I’m looking at you. A president so afraid of diversity he is literally banning entire ethnic groups from entering the country. He is fueling the fire of extremists through this exclusion and by ‘simplifying’ the population, he will ultimately make them more vulnerable to attack, with his perilous ‘us versus them’ rhetoric. I don’t pretend to be politically intelligent, I realise this is a basic comparison, but I will leave it to those wiser than me to extrapolate on this. And of course there are a number of comparisons we can draw of groups being excluded, not just in America but globally.
But is it just me, or does it feel like we need to gather our ‘Hub trees’ now more than ever and ask for their wisdom? As Tony Robbins remarked in an interview, through reading we can learn from someone’s years of experience, in the course of a weekend. I’ve been devouring biographies since that little ‘aha’ moment…Gloria Steinem, Maya Angelou, Hillary Rodham Clinton to name a few. The women’s movement of course didn’t begin when Hillary lost, this is a campaign fought for generations, but the more informed we can be, by learning from those who went before us and those leading the charge now, the more resilient we and our children will be. These feel to me like exciting times (as well as scary AF, thanks to Trump and the recent appropriation of hire vans as weapons etc), but one thing is certain, while they are not all good, shifts are happening and while we are waking up and showing up, we are also making room for our children, demonstrating to them how to use their voices, that they deserve to be heard and feeding them intellectually in ways that will, I hope, build their resilience, tolerance and compassion. I used Simard’s talk as a dinnertime conversation topic with the small human, discussing the parallels between the forest and our own communities; at school, at home and further afield. It was a great reminder of just how symbiotically connected to the earth we are too.
As Simard closes her talk she makes a call to action that I feel is relevant not just to nature but to us as well, ‘We have to give Mother Nature the tools she needs to use her intelligence to self-heal.’ She explains that trees, ‘through back and forth conversations…increase the resilience of the whole community.’ While we will at times agree and disagree, what surely matters is being open to the dialogue, to the importance of celebrating diversity and to teaching our ‘seedlings’ that for humankind to thrive, we need to take a leaf out of the forest’s book, and be ‘supercooperators’ not competitors.