Lay down on a forest floor and you may feel the conversation happening beneath you. Through the ‘wood wide web‘ trees are in gentle dialogue, sharing nutrients, communicating about stress and resource availability through a vast underground exchange. Fungi, microbes and insects are the primary agents in this process, trading sugar for minerals, among life’s other necessities. This dialogue occurs at local scales, between root and fungi, and larger scales, as the conversation expands from tree to tree, and across species throughout a forest.
Within the web, dying trees may purge their nutrients for the benefit of the community. Older trees supply carbon to younger trees to encourage growth. All moving through a vast underground life-supporting network.
What is present to observe in this network of relationship?
- Sharing is a natural and essential part of life. Trees offer each other life’s building blocks, through a natural ebb and flow of nutrient. What is shared is also received. As much as is needed to sustain life.
Try this: Sit or stand before a tree. Exhale, know that the tree before you is benefiting from the carbon dioxide (CO2) in your breath. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is then used by trees, through photosynthesis, to create oxygen (O2). Now, inhale, you and the tree have exchanged essential elements of life. You are connected and inter-being.
- All life is connected. When dying trees purge nutrients or older trees shuttle carbon to new life, these are examples of altruism. They also demonstrate the deep connection between all life. As climate change gradually increases temperatures, certain tree species are struggling to survive, others are migrating. Ponderosa pines, more able to survive in warmer and dryer conditions, may benefit as carbon from dying trees is shared for their survival. The connections between trees is preserving life on a grander scale.
- The forest, a community, is stronger because of this web of connection. Through this system of nutrient exchange, a forest community is able to adapt to change. When each of us shares, acts altruistically and based in connection, the community benefits. A stronger community is better able to adapt to change. And, as we know, change is constant.
The implications of these understandings in the face of climate change are transferable to human communities and ways of relating. Just as forests share, through connection and with altruism, human communities will also benefit from these exchanges as we face the stresses of a changing climate. Appreciating the inter-connections that surround and move through us, facilitates our ability to adapt to climate change. What trees teach us can be integrated for the benefit of all life.
Arwen Bird is the Principal of Woven Strategies, LLC.