How trees are naturally networking

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Scientist have been exploring and observing the sounds, scents and movements of trees, both over and underground, and are discovering the ways they are constantly connecting and working in relationship with each other in a way that protects and support ecosystems. In a fascinating piece in Quartz a biologist, forrester and ecologist talks about their research into what they call the language of trees, how they are naturally networking and connected with everything that exists in their environment - including us! Whether you take this literally or metaphorically, there is plenty of insight on offer.

Here's an extract:

Tree language is a totally obvious concept to ecologist Suzanne Simard, who has spent 30 years studying forests. In June 2016, she gave a Ted Talk (which now has nearly 2.5 million views), called “How Trees Talk to Each Other.”

Simard grew up in the forests of British Columbia in Canada, studied forestry, and worked in the logging industry. She felt conflicted about cutting down trees, and decided to return to school to study the science of tree communication. Now, Simard teaches ecology at the University of British Columbia-Vancouver and researches “below-ground fungal networks that connect trees and facilitate underground inter-tree communication and interaction,” she says. As she explained to her Ted Talk audience:

I want to change the way you think about forests. 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. It might remind you of a sort of intelligence.

Trees exchange chemicals with fungus, and send seeds—essentially information packets—with wind, birds, bats, and other visitors for delivery around the world. Simard specializes in the underground relationships of trees. Her research shows that below the earth are vast networks of roots working with fungi to move water, carbon, and nutrients among trees of all species. These complex, symbiotic networks mimic human neural and social networks. They even have mother trees at various centers, managing information flow, and the interconnectedness helps a slew of live things fight disease and survive together.

Simard argues that this exchange is communication, albeit in a language alien to us. And there’s a lesson to be learned from how forests relate, she says. There’s a lot of cooperation, rather than just competition among and between species as was previously believed.

Peter Wohlleben came to a similar realization while working his job managing an ancient birch forest in Germany. He told the Guardian he started noticing trees had complex social lives after stumbling upon an old stump still living after about 500 years, with no leaves. “Every living being needs nutrition,” Wohlleben said. “The only explanation was that it was supported by the neighbor trees via the roots with a sugar solution. As a forester, I learned that trees are competitors that struggle against each other, for light, for space, and there I saw that it’s just [the opposite]. Trees are very interested in keeping every member of this community alive.” He believes that they, like humans, have family lives in addition to relationships with other species. The discovery led him to write a book, The Hidden Life of Trees.

By being aware of all living things’ inter-reliance, Simard argues, humans can be wiser about maintaining mother trees who pass on wisdom from one tree generation to the next. She believes it could lead to a more sustainable commercial-wood industry: in a forest, a mother tree is connected to hundreds of other trees, sending excess carbon through delicate networks to seeds below ground, ensuring much greater seedling survival rates.

Seedling survival is important to human beings because we need trees. “The contributions of forests to the well-being of humankind are extraordinarily vast and far-reaching,” according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization 2016 report on world forests (pdf).

Forests are key to combating rural poverty, ensuring food security, providing livelihoods, supplying clean air and water, maintaining biodiversity, and mitigating climate change, the FAO says. The agency reports that progress is being made toward better worldwide forest conservation but more must be done, given the importance of forests to human survival.

Most scientists—and trees—would no doubt agree that conservation is key. Biologist and author The Songs of Trees David Haskell believes that ecologically friendly policies would naturally become a priority for people if we’d recognize that trees are masters of connection and communication, managing complex networks that include us. He calls trees “biology’s philosophers,” dialoguing over the ages, and offering up a quiet wisdom. We should listen, the biologist says, because they know what they’re talking about. Haskell writes, “Because they are not mobile, to thrive they must know their particular locus on the Earth far better than any wandering animal.”

How can we, as city-dwellers, begin to tune into what Simard calls the language of trees to gain a deeper understanding of their importance to the health of life on earth and learn how we can best support their onward growth? 

Tree is a Virtual Reality experience from New Reality Company. The company works with immersive storytelling that goes beyond the visual. Tree is a haptically enhanced VR experience, transforming you into a rainforest tree, not only engaging sight and hearing but also touch and smell by the use of sent and wind. In a interview in VIVE, the two directors Milica Zec and Winslow Porter explain the intention behind the project:

Tree is a first-person VR experience where users take on the body and perspective of a seedling, which eventually grows into a majestic rainforest tree above the canopy. We take participants through the stunning Peruvian Amazon, replete with biodiversity, as their arms transform into branches and their bodies turn into a trunk. I won’t spoil the ending, but we then immerse users into what unfortunately befalls trees every day under the scope of human intervention.With this piece, we wanted to make deforestation appear as something deeply personal. In Tree, climate change happens to you. Beyond that, it’s an intimate and solitary experience that hopefully increases respect for nature – how it functions, and how much it does for us on earth. Tree feels very timely – according to NASA, at our current pace of deforestation, by 2100 all of our rainforests will be gone. Some studies estimate it will be sooner. So to show users the life of a tree in a universal way, without words or language and instead inviting them into a visceral and solitary state of being, was a powerful inspiration for us.

Watch a short teaser for Tree below: