Written by Dr. Sarah Dooling
The Enlightenment Period, that began in the late 17the century in Europe. was a cultural movement that emphasized a belief in science. This movement rejected the collective adherence to religious and feudal traditions rooted violence and embraced the ability of individuals to make rational decisions. They believed that the natural world needed to be demystified, described and organized into rational, coherent relationships based on scientific elegance. The Enlightenment promoted science as a secular and legitimate approach to understanding peoples’ role in the wider universe, and criticized how social and religious institutions exploited people’s lives. People are rational, able to make decisions based on evidence that we can see and measure. Faith is rooted in mystery; science is rooted in analyzing the visible world. Faith finds little purchase in a world dominated by evidence.
Speed up to today, to a world dominated by invisible forms of infrastructure upon which our daily lives, even the entire planetary economic systems, depend. The underground optic fibers that connect people across the globe find an uncanny parallel with underground fungal connections that support communities of trees. The relationships of tree root systems and the fungal networks that transport nutrients among trees in a forest community is the topic of the popular book, The Hidden Life of Trees, written by a German forester Peter Wohlleben.
Trees as a subject of scientific investigation have long been studied as biological organisms. A biological approach focuses on tree morphology, leaf shape, and nutrient transport systems in order to create a generalizable description of tree species. An ecological approach studies trees in the context of where they are found, and pays particular attention to the relationships trees have with their environment and with each other. This more ecological approach is the foundation of Wohlleben’s book.
Wohlleben has worked for more than 20 years in the beech forests in the Rhineland municipality of Hummel in central Germany. He used to be a state forester, growing and valuing trees for timber. Now, he manages the forest for the local community, selling burials plots and banning machinery in order to preserve connectivity among trees.
The woodwide web is the focus of Wohlleben’s book. Trees, he discovered, communicate their distress by sending electric signals that are transmitted through their roots and across networks of fungi. Trees feed each other and nurture saplings along these same pathways. Wohlleben writes:
“The thing that surprised me most is how social trees are. I stumbled over an old stump one day and saw that it was still living although it was 400 or 500 years old, without any green leaf. Every living being needs nutrition. 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 vice versa. Trees are very interested in keeping every member of this community alive.”
Documenting the social lives of trees disturbs the foundations of the Enlightenment. From a rational, scientific approach, trees are not considered living in the same way people are. Trees respond to light, water, toxins, humidity, and fungus. Trees don’t talk; they transmit electrical impulses. In our modern life, so often we value the environment for how it serves human interests and needs. The idea of the Anthropocene is about acknowledging the planet has been radically, and perhaps irrevocably, altered by humans. The secret lives of trees have no place in this rational, reductive, utilitarian universe.
However, the Enlightenment also values the measurable, the visible and the clearly testable dynamics of the world. What Wohlleben and other researchers have demonstrated are that electrical impulses transmitted between trees have measurable consequences for tree growth, survivorship, and competition. These researchers have established projects that track tree communities for decades, which allow them to make connections between soil and tree life that require a long time to see. In focusing his gaze downward beneath the soil, and upwards to the canopies, Wohlleben marries his ecological approach with the Enlightenment’s desire to seek an explanation for things we don’t understand. Trees exist in a community, trees have a social life! They can help and harm each other.
Claiming trees have a social life sounds like anthropomorphizing to those who assume a utilitarian, human-dominated view of the world. However, for those who value the mysteries of life and the multiplicities of living, the hidden life of trees is a reminder that the world is so much larger and complex than we know.
These are interesting times we are living in, where the boundaries between human life and natural life are more porous and wonderful that people thought possible in the 1700s. So go out, plant a tree, watch it grow, then plant another and begin to track your own tree conversations.