This is an article I had written months ago for a magazine that just didn’t quite make it to publication. But, I feel as if it is incredibly important nonetheless.
People only care about things that they can personally relate to. That’s why the forests are having such a hard time. How can we tell one person how important it is to have a diverse system of trees in forest ecosystems when their only relationship with trees is in the coffee table in their living room? The book, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben has more or less changed this dynamic, however. It’s started this discussion about trees and painted them in a new, more personal light. It shows the mothering tree caring for its baby or spreading nutrients to plants in need.
The book delves into the interconnectedness of these underground systems. A realm we usually don’t think about as it remains unseen, just below our feet. It discusses tree roots and their relationship with fungi. Not the fungi we eat, as those are just the reproducing parts grown to release spores, but the part that makes up the fungi’s mass, the mycorrhizae.
Mycorrhizae are made up of many individual strands, each called a hypha, and these hyphal tips enter the tree roots and they have a symbiotic relationship this way. Mycorrhizae can grow insanely long, spreading for miles. Actually, the largest living organism resides within this group. The Humongous Fungus as its affectionately called is a single organism that covers almost 4 square miles of the Malheur National Forest in Oregon. So since a single fungal organism can reach a further distance than a tree’s roots, they can provide the tree with nutrients such as water and mineral nutrients (phosphorus, nitrogen, etc.) from a distance away. The tree in return, gives the mycorrhizae the sugars it creates from photosynthesis to use as food.
There are shortcomings to this relationship however, as a single fungal organism can form these symbiotic relationships with many different trees. This means that the trees become connected too and can transport nutrients and hormones among each other, through the fungi. Although the book wants it to seem like this is always a good thing as a tree can send a warning signal to another trees when it’s sick or can donate nutrients to younger saplings, it’s still survival of the fittest within these forests systems. There are no fully selfless behaviors; trees steal from other trees and they use them to determine when they should up their own defenses.
But is this a bad thing? Is it bad to only discuss only the positive aspects of nature even when it’s intentions aren’t as selfless as one might hope? Sure, if it gets people caring and talking about trees. We should embrace this story and type of publicity. This underground network is not new research but the way that it has been shaped recently to entice the public is. People don’t generally relate to trees on a personal level and this has really improved the awareness of trees as not just sessile masses in which to build your home, but ‘parents’ and connected creatures. We can use this new awareness to address conservation issues with clear-cutting forests.
When loggers perform selective removals of trees they can destroy certain connections within these networks making the whole system smaller and less resilient to disease and further change. If one were to clear-cut a section of the forest, all of these links would become destroyed, declining forest health so dramatically that it would take years in order to recover. Understanding the importance of these underground links can be used to make loggers and other lumber consumers think twice about clear-cutting forests systems, as it isn’t very sustainable. Lumber companies cannot continue to make as much money and use the same land if they destroy all of these links. It makes the land less-productive and viable overall. This means slower growing trees and less material to harvest.
If we can continue this interest in the personal lives of trees we may just be able to help the environment simultaneously. More scientists should take this approach in reference to their research and maybe the gap between scientists and non-scientists will lessen in the future, creating an environment where we can all work together in addressing conservation. We just have to keep talking about the tree moms and how we need them and their fungal networks to have a viable and healthy ecosystem and maybe some people will listen.