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Archive for the ‘Well-being’ Category

The renowned nature photographer and author, Joel Sartore,  is on a mission. He has set out to photograph every species of animal currently housed in the world’s zoos. With portraits of over 6000 species already taken, he is halfway towards completing his project, which he calls Photo Ark. His quest is to create a photo archive of global diversity with the hope that his portraits will stir in people a deep empathy with animals and an active desire to protect them from extinction. He is undertaking the project against the background of the calamitous species loss almost everywhere on Earth. It has been estimated that unless massive remedial action is taken, half the animal species currently inhabiting the planet will be gone by the end of the century.

Sartore’s portraits are both beautiful and moving. He tries to take his shots with the animal looking

A photo from Photo Ark

directly into the lens, so creating the impression that the animal is making eye contact and forming a connection with the viewer.

While we are all genetically programmed to pay attention to animals, we are more attracted to, and more empathic with, species that share similar features and/or behaviours to ourselves. This is sometimes referred to as the “similarity principle”.

Regardless of the enormous range of size, shape and other differences that separate our species from others, the main features of the human face (especially the eyes) have their counterparts in mammals, birds and other members of the animal kingdom. By focussing on the faces of his animal subjects, Sartore is making clever (but entirely appropriate) use of the similarity principle.

There is something of a tragic irony in the fact that we humans evolved to live with other animals and to share our ancestral forest and grassland habitats with them. There was nothing in this arrangement that required the extinction of species. The web of life is intended to remain intact – not to have great holes in it.

The evidence that our brain has an “animal bias” is irrefutable. We are hard-wired to notice animals and to pay attention to them involuntarily. When people are shown pictures of animals, a specific part of the amygdala – a brain structure that is central to pleasure, pain, fear and reward – reacts almost instantly. This may explain why we very rapidly detect animals in nature scenes and why we are more sensitive to changes in the movement and positioning of animals than we are to other objects, including objects as familiar as vehicles.

In infants, the animal bias shows up in a number of ways including more animation, vocal activity and social interaction when they are engaged with animals rather than toys.

None of this should be surprising as humans have been in the company of animals for two million years or more. Instantaneously obtaining and processing information about an animal’s intent was obviously very important for not becoming prey or being bitten, scratched, thumped or trampled. Not only that, the same ability could be turned to using animals as food and as indicators of where water, edible plants and other food sources might be located. Our ancestors were well served by their genetic disposition to pay close attention to animals.

About 14,000 years ago, these same ancestors found another use for animals, particularly for dogs. Bonding with dogs proved to very beneficial. Apart from providing protection and helping with hunting and shepherding, dogs proved to be great companions and promotors of mental health. Interacting with a friendly dog increases the production of oxytocin, a powerful “feel-good” hormone. A surge of oxytocin facilitates social bonding, co-operation, caring and empathy. It also decreases stress, depresses fear and enhances a sense of security, trust and pleasure. Not surprisingly the presence of a dog has been found to improve the effectiveness of therapeutic counselling (the “dog in the room” phenomenon).

Similar benefits come from interactions with cats and indeed other pets including horses. And it is almost certain that the “oxytocin response” is triggered, to some degree at least, in most of our benign encounters with non-domestic animals.

It is also the case that dogs get something of the oxytocin lift from an engagement with humans (maybe cats and other pets do as well).

Not a great deal is known about the specific animal attributes that attract our attention and elicit the oxytocin response. Common experience suggests that beauty of form, colour and movement is an obvious candidate. Superiority to humans in size, strength and physical skill is another. One attribute that has received some research attention is the “cuteness” factor.

We tend to prefer animals that we perceive as “cute”, an attribute we usually associate with babies, infants and young children. In scientific terms, cuteness is thought to be bound up with the “baby schema”, a set of features including large head, round face, high forehead, large eyes and small nose and mouth. In combination, these features automatically trigger nurturing, care-giving and empathic behaviour in both adults and children. Animals displaying these features, can look forward to being patted and cuddled on a regular basis.

Even though I have never seen one in the wild, I have a special place in my heart for snow leopards. These magnificent animals thrive in some of the most hostile landscapes on earth. I am fascinated by their beauty and awed by their capacity to survive. Needless to say, I was delighted when a recent blog post by Josh Gosh contained this link to a stunning video that features wonderful images of snow leopards. Take time to view it; you won’t be disappointed.

 

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This weekend, in cities around the world, people are marching in support of science and evidence-based policy making. As I write this, thousands of Australians have already taken part in the global March for Science. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are expected to demonstrate in the same way, largely in response to President Trump’s proposed budget cuts to science and his scepticism about the causes and consequences of climate change.

The well-being of Australians is being jeopardised by much the same governmental devaluing of science and climate change “denialism”. Emperor Economics and his sidekicks, Prince Political Power Protection and Duke Dogmatic Ideology, are reigning supreme.

Protests against these threats to informed rationality are to be welcomed but it is staggering to think that such activity is necessary after 250 years of the so-called Age of Enlightenment.

How are Trump and countless others of influence and power able to get away with making policies and decisions based on assumptions, opinions, gut-feelings and ideological prejudices rather than scientific (or factual) evidence?

Is it because too few of their constituents have the scientific literacy to question and challenge them? If the growing concern about school students’ declining performance and participation in science is anything to go by, this could be the case.

But let’s be realistic in our expectations. The formal study of science, especially at more advanced levels, is not for everyone. Nor is such study necessary in order to be scientifically literate in a very useful and powerful way. We can all “do” science.

This little girl (Zoe) is “doing” science.

She is seeking to understand her world by investigating, observing and testing it against what she already “knows” or believes. This is exactly what genuine science is about.

 

 

 

 

If she continues to do this through the formative years of childhood and adolescence, she will assemble the basic components of scientific literacy, namely:

  • a keen desire to investigate and learn about the physical and social world she occupies
  • an authentic but growing and malleable picture of that world
  • an understanding and appreciation of the kind of evidence (anchored to observation and objectively tested) that is needed to build that picture

Of these components, the last is the most important for navigating the sea of fake news, propaganda, dogma, spin, half-truths and lies that washes our way daily. I believe that a universal commitment to the principle of living under the guidance of sound evidence would make the world a much better place. And fostering that commitment in our children has to be a priority in their upbringing.

How far little ones like Zoe will travel on the road to scientific literacy depends on many factors, how they are nurtured in science at school being a key one. But parents (and grandparents) can also contribute significantly by –

  • sharing, supporting and encouraging their children’s “science” play
  • encouraging such play by locating their children in stimulating settings especially in the natural world
  • talking to their children about what they are seeing doing and discovering
  • encouraging observation, discussion and reflection when things of interest are encountered in daily life.
  • using questions to bring out the scientist in their children, such as

What is it doing? How does it feel? How are they alike? How are they different? What if…? How could we…? Why do you think…? Can you explain that?

It is worth noting that research from the USA suggests that most children form an opinion about science by the time they are seven years old. This is surely reason enough to expose children from a very early age to the scientific playgrounds to be found everywhere in the out-of-doors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Research

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These are views of the greenspace I see from one of the balconies of my new apartment.

Having these views was a big reason for choosing the apartment in the first place. Even so, I feel very fortunate and privileged to have such greenery to look at every day.

Not all residents of medium density developments in our cities have such amenities to enjoy. After all, lawns and gardens take up space where apartments can be built. Where’s the financial sense in foregoing profits in order to provide a view of a bit of greenery?  Anyway, isn’t it the case that people don’t miss what they didn’t have to begin with. Besides, a few token plants and trees around the place will keep everyone happy.

While such cynical views may not be expressed openly, they might as well be. It is a rare apartment development these days that doesn’t occupy the entire block of land. And government regulators are doing little to curb the practice or to reserve land in areas of increasingly high population density for parks and gardens.

Evidence from the many studies of the relationship between green space and human health and well-being clearly shows how short-sighted, irresponsible and potentially damaging these policies and attitudes are.

Consider these research findings, for example:

  • People are happier and have lower mental distress when living in urban areas with more green space, especially biodiversity rich spaces.
  • Meeting one’s neighbour in a local park can help to build friendship and foster a sense of commonality, and can lay the groundwork for further socialising.
  • Green space in urban areas is associated with a long-term reduction in mortality (Proximity to green space helps people live longer).
  • People living close to (within 300 metres of) green space report better health, require fewer medications and are troubled less by anxiety and depression.
  • Green space can have beneficial therapeutic benefits for people suffering from mental illnesses and even reduce the risk of schizophrenia.
  • Access to green space can help to counter some of the risks to health associated with low socio-economic circumstances especially inadequate physical activity.
  • Access to green space can reduce childhood behavioural problems including hyperactivity disorders.
While everyone stands to benefit from having green space nearby, it is likely that children and disadvantaged people have most to gain.

I often wonder what it will take to awaken Australians and people elsewhere to the power for good that resides in urban nature (and nature in all its forms). I am not sure that writing about it achieves much, apart from warming the hearts of the converted. And I am not convinced that TV nature documentaries – even of the quality of Planet Earth II – have more than a transient impact on most people.

Certainly, there are signs of an awakening of sorts – most notably the actions being stirred by Richard Louv’s warnings about the epidemic of “nature deficit disorder” spreading through children of the First World. But even this awakening is struggling to find its way into the consciousness of society’s opinion shapers and policy makers. The movers and shakers are simply not being moved and shaken by a “nature narrative”. Even the most monumentally impacting of nature’s current narratives, climate change, is still being denied by some and heard without real understanding by many.

One major impediment, I think, is that nature has ceased to be personal for many citizens of Western societies. When something is personal it reaches beyond our minds to the depths of our emotions and values. When something is personal it is part of us, part of our sense of meaning and identity. We appropriate it to ourselves; we revel in it; we nurture it; we defend it. When it flourishes, we flourish; when it hurts we hurt.

A personal relationship is grounded in intimate experience – an “I-thou” rather than an “I-it” form of engagement. Our relationship with nature is no different – as scientific as well as anecdotal evidence clearly tells us.

What, then, has to be done to help people discover nature in a personally meaningful and significant way?  Perhaps the answer can be found by encouraging people like you (my valued readers) to tell how they (and you) formed a personal relationship with nature. There is a power in personal stories. Perhaps the way forward is to tap that power on behalf of ourselves and nature.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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