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