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Perhaps you saw the first episode of David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II, the documentary I mentioned in my last post, which is currently being screened in Australia on Channel 7. If you didn’t, or even if you did, please turn your mind off other things and take a few minutes to look at this promotional trailer.

Having watched the trailer and before reading on, think about some of the emotions that the scenes evoked. Did you experience awe, joy and amusement for example? Were your feelings more positive after the viewing than before? Do you think that looking at nature content like this improves your general sense of well-being?

These are the kind of questions that the BBC, the producers of Planet Earth II, also posed and sought answers to. They recruited a leading authority on human emotions and well-being, Dacher Keltner to help them.

Based at the University of California, Berkley, Professor Keltner is a social psychologist who is a leader in the study of the biological and evolutionary origins of the positive and benevolent or “prosocial” human emotions such as compassion, love, gratitude, awe, aesthetic pleasure and humour. Apart from his impressive academic publications, he is the author of the best-selling, Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. He is co-director of the Greater Good Science Centre (a visit to the Centre’s website is highly recommended).

As some of Keltner’s work has focussed on the impact of nature on our positive and benevolent emotions, he was a very appropriate person to undertake the kind of survey that the BBC required.

The way Keltner and his team went about the task was to sample adult members of TV viewing audiences in the UK, USA, Australia, India, Singapore and South Africa, 7500 people in all. The recruits were assigned randomly to view one of five short video clips: two from Planet Earth II (just like the one you may have just viewed), one showing a montage of news reports, one comprising scenes from a TV drama and the last presenting an excerpt from a DIY instructional video.

Emotional responses before and after viewing the clips were assessed using a questionnaire that measures positive emotions, a stress scale and facial mapping technology that measure a viewer’s subconscious (emotional) facial responses when viewing a video.

The producers of Planet Earth would have been very pleased with the findings of the survey. Watching content from Planet Earth II produced:

  • significant increases in feelings of awe, contentedness, joy, amusement and curiosity, but
  • reduced feelings of tiredness, anger and stress.

Some fancy statistical analyses demonstrated that these effects could indeed be traced to the kind of content viewed – natural history versus that in the control clips.

It is unlikely that Keltner and his colleague would have been surprised by their results. Evidence from 150 or so studies give scientists strong grounds for believing that exposure to nature, whether direct or via media of one kind and another, reduces stress, increases calm and improves mental efficiency and creativity.

There is also growing evidence that contact with nature produces “elevating” effects whereby our minds are expanded, our morality strengthened and our concern for others deepened. In short, “nature makes us nicer” (as well happier and smarter).

Given this scientific reality, why is it such a struggle to get people to listen to the message and to take advantage of it, especially as tapping into the reality can be done so easily? One minute of gazing at a stand of Tasmanian eucalypts in a university campus was all it took to heighten feelings of awe in young adults – feelings that were associated with a display of diminished self-centredness and heightened ethical sensitivity.

There is no suggestion here that a minute of immersion in nature is all it takes to change a person’s long term well-being and attitude to others. But the finding does demonstrate just how responsive the human brain is to the sensory richness, beauty, awesomeness, limitless diversity and, yes, humour of nature.

Keltner would agree, I am sure, that a worthwhile step towards “elevating” individual human behaviour and creating less violent and more compassionate human societies is to enhance people’s connectedness with the natural world.

And we need to be taking such steps in today’s world. Do you agree?

At-one-ment

In a scene from his latest documentary, Planet Earth 2, Sir David Attenborough is surveying a natural landscape from the basket of a floating hot-air balloon.  “It’s impossible not to be impressed by the sheer grandeur, and splendour and power of the natural world”, he remarks.

That, a cynic might say, is the kind of thing you would expect him to say, given that he has been rewarded handsomely, materially and otherwise, for spending much of his life immersed in the natural world. Surely his exceptionally privileged career as a naturalistic and documentary maker has given him a romanticised view of nature (some might say).

Even a less cynical person might be tempted to think that Sir David’s enthusiasm is a unique product of the extraordinary opportunities he has had to revel in the “grandeur”, “splendour” and “power” of the natural world.

There is undoubtedly some truth in this view, but it is far from the full picture.

The biological foundations of Sir David’s passion for nature are shared by everyone. We all come into the world with a brain that has an inherent disposition to seek and to enjoy nature. This disposition, known scientifically as biophilia, contains the potential for a profoundly enriching relationship with nature. We have to accept, however, that biophilia is thought to be a “weak” biological tendency, meaning that regular and positive interactions with the natural world are necessary if it to flourish in the human psyche and behaviour.

Fortunately, it does not necessarily have to be the world of wild nature that Sir David has experienced so extensively. Biophilia can be nurtured in all sorts of “green spaces”, including gardens, parks and other forms of domesticated nature. Even representations of nature in photos and paintings are able to provide some of the emotional building blocks of biophilia.

The building process works like this:

 

  • we have an encounter with nature in some form (flower, native animal, sunset, panorama, seascape, for example);
  • in response, brain chemicals, notably dopamine, trigger positive or “feel-good” emotions such as pleasure, joy, tranquillity, calmness and wonder; and
  • these pleasant and rewarding feelings motivate us to repeat the experience.

 

It is true to say that the process cultivates a form of subtle addiction. It tends to make our contacts with nature “self-multiplying” – the more contacts we have, the more we seek. That is why people who have gardens, compared with those without, are more likely to visit parks and other green spaces, and to take their children with them. And the children who are exposed to green spaces in this and other ways are more likely to become nature seeking and nature valuing adults.

A great thing about the process is that it requires little conscious management by us, apart from putting ourselves in touch with nature is some appropriate way to begin with. Once we have initiated a nature experience, our senses, emotions and unconscious cognitive processes take over – often in ways that range well beyond simply being “impressed”.

The “grandeur” of nature, for example, can

 

  • provide a profound sense of satisfaction and joy
  • transport us from the here-and-now to places beyond ourselves
  • make us kinder and more sociable
  • give us a sense of unity or “at-one-ment” with nature, others and the cosmos in general.

 

The eminent Australian biologist, the late Professor Charles Birch defined “at-one-ment” as the “experience of oneness with ourselves, with others, with the world, with the universe and with God”. It is, he says, the “most ultimate encounter”, the “opposite of being adrift and separate from the rest of existence”.

Urban environments can never lead us to at-one-ment, but nature can.

Possibly (and hopefully), it is a deep, intuitive inkling of this fact that is at work motivating some city dwellers to pay more for accommodation near green spaces. In research conducted in Vienna, Dr Shanaka Herath of the University of Wollongong found that apartment prices dropped by 0.13 – 0.26 % for every 1% increase in distance from the nearest green space. Similar findings have been reported from cities in the UK, Canada and South Korea, he says. Judging by anecdotal reports from buyers agents, the same is true of Australian capital cities with some buyers prepared to pay up to 10% more for homes with greenery around them.

Maybe this is telling us that biophilia is a more robust trait than it is generally thought to be.

Even if that is the case, we still must heed the call made by Sir David in Planet Earth 2:

Now, over half of us live in an urban environment. My home, too, is here, in the city of London. Looking down on this great metropolis [as he was at the time], the ingenuity with which we continue to reshape the surface of our planet is very striking.

But it’s also sobering. It reminds me of just how easy it is for us to lose our connection with the natural world.

Yet, it’s on this connection that the future of both humanity and the natural world will depend. And surely, [it is] our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home not just for us, but for all life on Earth.

How’s this for a great idea?

As this is my first blog of 2017, let me wish you all a happy and nature-filled new year.

It is, in fact, my first blog in almost three months, breaking the pattern of fortnightly blogs very comprehensively.

hg-east-balcony-feb-2017During the gap in my blogging, my wife and I were very caught up in the business of downsizing and moving from our home of 55 years to an apartment in a retirement village. We left behind our much-loved garden and fernery, but have pleasant greenish outlooks and two balcony gardens to compensate.

If the whole truth be told, the distraction of the move hg-west-balcony-feb-19coincided with a spot of “blogger’s block”. During the past three or so years, I have always been able to source inspiration for my blogs from news items, life events, people or scientific reports concerned with biophilia or related topics. By November of 2016, my sources appeared to have dried up (from my viewpoint at least).

Hopefully, 2017 will see the streams flowing again.

A recent newspaper report about how Finland intends to commemorate a significant national anniversary is a promising start. It seems that the whole of Finland is preparing to celebrate nature as a central part of the country’s Centennial Jubilee.

Since 2013, Finns have celebrated their connection with nature on a Nature Day held in the height of summer on the last Saturday in August. In the centenary year of 2017, there will be three added Nature Days: the first in February to encourage Finns to revel in winter finland-bwonderlands; the second in June when spring will be wholeheartedly embraced; and the third in June when everyone will be urged to enjoy the long summer nights – by sleeping outdoors if possible.

On the traditional Nature Day in August, the Finnish flag will be flown in “honour of the country’s natural environment”, making Finland the first country in the world to acknowledge its natural scenic and recreational finland-dresources in this way. Nine out of ten Finns support celebrating their natural heritage as part of their country’s centennial jubilee. About 50 organisations are co-operating.

One aim of the Nature Day campaign is to have the Finnish flag in as many places as possible including on nature trails and as decorations for hiking food. A host of activities is planned or being promoted, including choral concerts in all 40 national parks and “dinners under the sky” in natural settings. There is a strong push, as well, to have people organise independent events such as inviting family and friends to have a campfire meal, accompanying an elderly person on a parkland walk or arranging family reunions in natural settings.

Apart from fostering national pride and nature awareness, the Nature Day campaign also aims to promote conservation and encourage nature play in children, both areas requiring attention despite the Finns’ relatively strong physical and psychological affinity with nature as expressed in the philosophy of frlluftsliv – “free air life”.

Quite rightly, Nature Day is attracting a great deal of international interest. Finland is greatly favoured by an abundance of beautiful landscapes and the drama of radically changing seasons, but it is not unique as far as having natural assets is concerned. Even the most densely populated countries on the planet have their wild and urban green spaces.

I believe that the concept of Nature Day could be made to work almost everywhere. All that is required is the spark of enthusiastic leadership and the active support of community organisations, the media and government agencies. Look what has happened to the Clean-up Australia day movement. From small-scale beginnings, it has grown to become a model for similar campaigns in other countries.

A local council, service group such as Rotary or Lions Club, church or school could get the ball rolling. This could be even better perhaps than having the lead come from the state or national government.

I would love to receive comments about the idea. Why not suggest a Nature Day activity that could be easily undertaken a family, neighbourhood group or community.

 

In his recently published book, world renowned primatologist Frans de Waal, demolishes the idea that we humans are a special species because we possess mental abilities not present in lower animals.

The long list of these abilities includes:

  • Language

    ladder-of-nature-the-mirror-test

    Chimp recognizing itself in a mirror

  • Tool making and use
  • Self-recognition
  • Anticipating the future and planning for it
  • Empathy
  • Political awareness (of status and alliances in social groups)
  • A sense of fairness
  • Co-operative behaviour
  • Passing on useful and desirable ways of behaviour (“culture” in other words)

But de Waals shows that all of these so-called uniquely human abilities turn out to have equivalent forms or precursors in other animals!

ladder-of-nature-bA video he used in a TED talk shows a pair of capuchin monkeys in adjoining cages offering a human experimenter a token in return for a piece of fruit. One monkey gets a much desired grape in return for its “work” in earning the token in the first place; the other gets a piece of cucumber, which capuchins are not so impressed by. The monkey that gets the cucumber looks across at the other monkey and its grape, immediately displaying outrage by throwing the cucumber at the experimenter and shaking the bars of its cage with frustration.

The peeved monkey was showing the very human response to not being treated fairly. In all human societies, the fairness principle is valued and taught, even if it is not always applied. It is a key feature of human psychology and morality. What the experiment with the capuchins shows is that something like this basic feature of human psychology and morality also exists in members of a primate lineage that separated from our own more than 40 million years ago.

And the presence of “superior” human mental attributes is not confined to animals that are relatively close to us in the evolutionary scheme of things. Elephants, for example, can classify humans by age, gender and language. New Caledonian crows make elaborate tools, shaping branches into pointed, barbed termite-extraction devices. Western scrub jays hide caches of food for later use – anticipating what they will need in the future, rather than acting on what they need now. Even the seemingly lowly octopus uses coconut shells as tools.

The findings of de Waal and others have reported put paid to the age-old concept of the “ladder of ladder-of-naturenature”, which has God on the top rung, angels a step below followed in order by men, women and children. Then came animals ranked from the noble beasts to the lowliest insects.

As well as being a quasi-scientific picture, the ladder of nature was also a moral and political one. It was only natural that creatures higher up would assume dominion over those lower down.

The ladder also implies the superiority of human intelligence. But science is discovering that intelligence or cognition in the natural world is more like a bush than a ladder. There is not a single, hierarchically ordered intelligence but many different “intelligences” that are not necessarily comparable to ours and may even be superior for certain purposes. Do you think you could remember the location of hundreds of buried acorns in the way squirrels can, for example? Or can you match the perception of your surroundings with the same exquisite precision as an echo-locating bat?

De Waal opens our minds to the idea that animal minds are far more intricate and complex than we have assumed and challenges us to accept that our minds and the minds of animals have far more in common than we may realise.

The title de Waal has given his book is, Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are? Even if we are smart enough, there is another question we need to ask: Are we humble enough?

Humility is not having grovelling or debasing thoughts about oneself. Rather, it is being free of pride and inordinate self-love in its many forms – selfish ambition, conceit, intolerance and closed-mindedness, to name a few. A lack of humility is the handmaiden of arrogance and arrogance coupled with ignorance is a major stumbling block to human progress on every front.

The ideological and social divisions that are so alarmingly obvious in today’s world are all underpinned by ignorance and arrogance – the one fuelling and sustaining the other. Arrogance obstructs empathy and a desire to understand the other; the resulting ignorance then opens the way to misunderstanding, intolerance, contempt, fear and often hate.

That is why humility is so important for human well-being and survival. It is equally crucial for our relationship with the natural world.

The Ladder of nature and the arrogant perception of human superiority that it fosters have to be totally expunged from our thinking and replaced with both intellectual and moral humility. Intellectual humility opens our minds and moral humility opens our hearts.

A good starting point for this transformation is to approach nature as one might approach a great teacher. Indeed, the natural world is one of life’s greatest teachers, if we know how to learn from it.

Jane Goodall, another world-renowned primatologist, helps us to understand what that means. She Wounda farewelling Jane Goodalltestifies that her research into chimpanzees, spanning 30 years, would not have succeeded had she not abandoned the aloof posture of the dispassionate scientist in favour of drawing as close to her subjects as possible. She loved the chimps, named them, and cultivated their trust and only then, she insists, was she able to learn from them and about them. Jane Goodall succeeded because she submitted herself humbly to world she sought to understand.

Few of us are seeking to relate to the natural world as scientists. But all of us, scientists and non-scientists alike, stand to be enriched by approaching nature with humility. As Frans de Waal’s work demonstrates, such an approach keeps us alive to the possibility that our expectations about nature may be wrong and that we should look forward to being surprised.

More than this, it can also leave the way open for nature to teach us a great deal not only about itself but also about who and what we are.

On a field trip surveying gorges in the Northern Flinders ranges of South Australia, consultant what-is-it-about-caves-a-warratji-cavearchaeologist, Giles Hamm, wandered up a creek bed seeking a private spot for a “comfort stop”. He noticed an “amazing spring” surrounded by rock art and then 20 metres above the creek bed a rock shelter (now with the name of Warratyi Rock Shelter).

The smoke-blackened roof of the shelter indicated to him that it had once been used by Aboriginal people. Subsequent investigation of the shelter has produced bone tools and other cultural artefacts from 49,000 years ago. These finds put the Aboriginal presence in the area 10,000 years further back in time than had previously been thought.

Even without the evidence of cooking fires, the shelter would have sparked Giles’ professional interest. He would no doubt be aware that rock shelters and caves have been magnets for human beings for almost as long as our species has been around.

The Warratyi shelter combines two key features that humans find attractive – prospect, a partially framed view or outlook and refuge, protection from attack (especially from behind) and from the elements.

In 1975, the English geographer, Jay Appleton, advanced the theory that prospect and refuge satisfy two desires that shape what we find attractive and interesting in both art and the landscape. The first of these is the desire to know what is present and what is happening in our surrounding environment. The second is the desire for physical security. According to the theory, both desires are inborn legacies of survival needs that shaped the genome of our species.

The theory says basically that we humans are attracted to situations and art that present to us vistas and places, such as copses of trees and caves as well as rock shelters, where refuge could be found.

prospect-and-refuge-vista-imageprospect-and-refuge-art-image

The scientific testing of Appleton’s theory is incomplete but it is easy to find “everyday evidence” of the pull of prospect and refuge on our minds, even in infancy and childhood. Witness the delight of children in cubbies and treehouses, for example. And what about the millions of dollars people are prepared to pay to own a house in an elevated position that commands a panoramic view of some kind? Think too of the many tourist meccas whose appeal lies in the spectacular views they offer. Talk to people like me who love walking in nature and you will soon learn that high on our list of favourite places will be vantage points and caves or rock shelters suitable for resting and camping. whitecollarwalker

More enclosed places seem to add further dimensions to the prospect-refuge experience – especially feelings of awe and a sense of mystery.

For many years, I took people regularly to Spider Canyon in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. Though short in length, this canyon has several very confined, cave-like what-is-it-about-caves-spider-canyonstretches that are easily walked through. I always liked to reach the deepest and darkest of these sections moments ahead of the rest of my party just to watch and hear people’s reactions to the place.

I expected to hear and see expressions of delight, wonder and excitement, and I was never disappointed. As you can see from the photo, there is an “other world” look about the depths of Spider Canyon, an impression that is much stronger when you are actually in it.

It is a place that fosters an understanding of why caves have the power to capture the human imagination, being as they often are places of weirdness, wonder, gloominess, mystery and fear.

It is not accidental that dark zones of caves have so often been important sacred or mythological spaces in the ritual, artistic and ideological lives of humans. Traditions of ritual cave use have originated at different times in widely separated geographic areas and may be traced back to the earliest of our ancestors.

In my bushwalking, I have visited several caves, mostly of the rock shelter variety, where Aboriginal people have left their mark in the form of hand stencils and animal paintings. I also know of at least three caves where white Australians chose to live for weeks at a time. One was the retreat of Dr Eric Dark and his wife, the renowned author Eleanor Dark. The photos shows the kitchen section of their cave along with utensils, some of which they may have used during their stays there in the 1930s.

There is certainly something about caves.

what-is-it-about-caves-kitchen-in-darks-cavekitchen-in-darks-cave

Memories are made of this

I am discovering that one of the necessary pains of downsizing a home is parting with old friends in the forms of books and magazines. I collected most of the editions of Geo: Australasia’s Geographical Magazine until publication ceased 20 or so years ago. I kept them because of the quality and interest of their stories and pictures and because they featured content about nature.geo-a-cropped

Just when I was resigning myself to sending my collection for re-cycling, I showed some copies to a pastoral care worker caring for patients suffering from advanced dementia. To my delight, she offered to take some copies in order to trial their use with her clients.

As she explained, a big part of dementia care is helping sufferers find pleasure and meaning in reconnecting with lifetime memories. Music is very valuable in this connection, for example. Her thought was that articles and photos in Geo might trigger memories of holidays, places visited and experiences with wildlife.

A day or two after she took the copies, she reported back to me rather excitedly. She told me how browsing Geo articles together had built a conversational bridge between a son and his dementia burdened father.  Typically the son found communicating with his father about immediate day-to-day topics very difficult. But sharing the articles brought a very welcome transformation.  The articles triggered memories in the father of his trips to some of Australia’s iconic natural wonders such at Kakadu National Park. He was able to talk about these trips not only lucidly but informatively. The son was surprised to learn things he didn’t know about his dad’s earlier life. Both the memories and the conversation brought precious moments of pleasure and significance to the two men.

Happy memories – those that combine joy, satisfaction and a sense of fulfilment – are indeed precious. Like cherished books and magazines, they can be returned to again and again, evoking the same welcome feelings and thoughts over and over again. This is true for happy memories of all kinds, including, and perhaps especially, memories of nature experiences.

My brother-in-law, Robert Macarthur, reminded me of this when he shared this recollection with me:

Sixty years ago we went to Mosquito Creek and saw the most striking explosion of colour I have ever seen among eucalypts. There was this circular carpet of white bush-heather, guarded by magnificent tumble-down gums with their trunks splashed with all manner of browns and yellows, whites and greys; wattles in yellow also stood around the circle their yellow blossom threaded by a purple vine; beauty that was unforgettable.

Bob was nearing his 90th birthday when he shared these thoughts and, as he says, the experience he was recalling occurred 60 years earlier. Nevertheless, the detail and vividness of his recollections are amazing. Such is the power of images of natural beauty pleasure to endure in memory and to have a life-long impact.

And it is not only images drawn from nature that are stored in memory for a lifetime. When psychological researcher, Rachael Sebba, asked people to nominate their favourite places from childhood, almost all recalled a natural setting – very often because of the fun things they did there. The adults’ happy memories were mainly of the things that nature permitted them to do – to have “adventures”, for example, to meet challenges, and to socialise with friends. Recreational activities in nature are particularly memorable because they are enjoyable in a way that provides a deep sense of satisfaction and fulfilment.

I have to admit, that I did not let all my copies of Geo go. Those that had content relating to my owngeo-b-cropped experiences I kept – expressly to evoke memories. An article about Claustral Canyon in the Blue Mountains, for example, takes me back to one of the most exciting nature experiences – abseiling, water-jumping, swimming and wading – I have ever had.

This is one of countless memories I am able to draw from my virtually lifelong connection with nature. Not all of these memories have to do with activities and “adventures”. Many, like the one Bob recalled, are of the beauty and wonder of nature. Bringing these memories to mind is not simply a case of conjuring up dates, times and places. It is much more than that. I reconstruct the experiences in some of their sensory and emotional detail; I relive them to some degree – from the inside so to speak. I become a time traveller escaping the “now”. This sort of memory is known as “autobiographical memory” because it is about the narrative we make from the happenings in our lives.

It is important to emphasise that autobiographical memories are rarely, if ever, exact representations of these happenings. They are always mental reconstructions that are influenced not only by the “facts” of the happenings but also by a host of other factors related to our continuing efforts to make the best (for us) sense of the facts. A memory is less an accurate and permanent record and more a story that is constantly being subtly condensed and re-shaped in the telling. Nevertheless, it is entirely appropriate to cherish our happy, autobiographical memories. They help us to know, appreciate and value ourselves as persons.

My own autobiographical memories are, of course, sourced from more area of my life than my connection with nature alone. But my sense of who I am is vastly enriched by the memories I draw from that connection.

An amazing thing about these memories is the relative convenience and reliability with which I was able to collect them. I have found that nature can be relied upon to provide a never-ending flow, and remarkable variety, of enduringly memorable experiences. Believe me, nature is a truly wonderful maker of memories.

Talking and mothering trees

This intriguing poster was recently emailed to me by one of my daughters.untitled

It is telling us that, even in the absence of modern communication technology, we can be “well connected” in forests and other natural environments.

I have two thoughts about the message of the poster. The first was how true it is!

Even before I had explored the science of humanity’s relationship with nature, I was aware from experience that being in nature fostered three kinds of connection:

  • with one’s inner self
  • with others, and
  • with the cosmos.

There is a full chapter in my book about these three connections and I have also written about them in earlier posts, examples being –

Solitude is good company

Wilderness and relationships

Nature and the hero’s journey of legend

Nature and the “higher self”

Nature is a great hostess

Nature – the great leveller and bonder

The cosmic connection

The three connections are of enormous personal benefit in and of themselves. They are also essential components of wellness – the state of being healthy and living “healthily” in all areas of our lives.

The second thought I had when I saw the poster was that, even without Hi-Fi (and other electronic technology), the trees and other plants making up the forest are also connected. Indeed, every tree and plant depicted in the poster would almost certainly be communicating with members of other species as well as with members of its own.

Some of this communication would be overground, via chemicals (and for some plants, sounds). The classic example is the release of volatile chemicals by plants that are being attacked by pests. These chemicals are detected by neighbouring plants spurring them to swing into defence mode either by accumulating chemicals that are toxic or at least noxious to the pests. Alternatively, the volatile chemicals attract predators that feed on the pests.

But the main arena of plant communication is underground via an information super highway made of fungal-networksfungi.

While mushrooms and toadstools are the familiar parts of fungi, most of their bodies are made up of a mass of thin threads called mycelia. It is now known that these threads act as a kind of underground internet linking the roots of plants, unlike as well as like. If you were standing in the forest in the poster, there could be several hundreds of kilometres of fungal fibres literally under your feet. Mycelia form intricate connections with all manner of plants, some separated by distances of tens of metres.

The networks are established as fungi colonise the roots of plants in order to form beneficial relationships labelled “mycorrhiza” (literally mushroom root) by botanists. In mycorrhizal associations, plants provide fungi with carbon-based sugars produced by photosynthesis while the fungi supply the plants with water and nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen gathered via their mycelia.

The fact that around 90% of land plants are woven into mycorrhizal fungal networks has required a radical re-think of how plants behave and how forests and other plant populations function. The idea that plants are remote, silent, self-serving individuals doesn’t hold anymore. Most plants form large and complex communities in which information, warning signal and protective chemicals as well as water and nutrients are exchanged. Some plants even help boost the immune systems of other plants.

In her ground breaking studies of North American forests, Professor Suzanne Simard,has discovered that trees actually help one another in times of need. She has observed, for example, that the more a Douglas fir became shaded in the summertime, the more it received some of the excess carbon from a neighbouring birch tree. Then later in Autumn, when the birch was losing its leaves and the fir had excess carbon (because it was still photosynthesising), the flow of carbon went the other way.

Based on observations such as these, Professor Simard argues that there is genuine communication – or “talk” as she is fond of saying – among trees and indeed other plants.

She also speaks of “mother” trees. These are older and larger trees that are located at hubs of fungal networks because they are richly connected to many other trees. Professor Simard has found that these older trees can recognise their own seedling offspring as kin and can favour those seedlings by linking them into fungal networks and even by discouraging other plants encroaching on their space.

blue-gum-forest

The iconic Blue Gum Forest, Blackheath

It is highly likely that the same kind of communication and kinship relationship will be found in forests elsewhere in the world, including Australia. Because of the low nutrient level of most Australian soils, trees growing here stand to benefit a great deal from co-operating with one another. It would be extraordinary if research found that they did not.