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Posts Tagged ‘Solitude’

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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This stunning photo of Barn Bluff in central Tasmania was taken by my bushwalking friend, Jodi Griffiths. The photo captures the essence of tranquillity, another of biophilia’s gifts.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The serene stillness of the scene matches perfectly the emotional colours of tranquillity. To experience tranquillity is to feel calm and peaceful and to be free of disagreeable sensations and thoughts.

A tranquil mind is not busy or idle, neither is it preoccupied nor inattentive. It is a mind that is present in the moment but free to wander into its own inner world of thoughts, memories and feelings.

Once in that world, our minds can attend to the memories, images, ideas, beliefs, assumptions, values and the like that are there. The process of thinking about such things is called reflection. Reflective thinking can be shallow, as in day-dreaming or reverie, where we are conscious only of our thoughts meandering about aimlessly. But it can also be purposeful, productive and therapeutic, especially when it follows pathways of self-reflection, self-discovery, creativity and problem solving. Often these pathways lead to new and helpful perspectives on problems, issues and possibilities in our lives.

Reflective thinking, along with an awareness of beauty and feelings of serenity, makes tranquillity the distinctive and important experience that it is. As soon as beauty and serenity are registered in one region (the temporal lobe) of our brain, reflective thinking is triggered in the region that initiates reflection (in the prefrontal lobe). It seems that the quiet, peace and solitude of tranquillity signal to the brain that it is OK to ease off monitoring the external world and to spend time paying attention to itself. Other factors, including the time available, will determine how much reflection actually gets done and how “deep and meaningful” the reflection turns out to be. But tranquil sights and sounds set the scene, so to speak, by spurring the brain’s reflective thinking centre into action.

As well as feeling good, tranquillity is good for us – by helping us to recover from mental fatigue and the effects of stress and, very importantly, by creating the physical and psychological space that supports reflective thinking. As the famous Roman statesman, Marcus Cicero, declared, “… a happy life consists in tranquillity of mind”. Cicero would have known that to expect a lifetime of unbroken tranquillity and happiness is unrealistic. But he was really making the point that seeking tranquillity needs to be part of everyone’s for happiness,  tranquillity is a state worth seeking. Lifelong serenity may be an unattainable goal, but seeking regular “doses” of tranquillity to fortify ourselves for the hurly burly of modern life is a wise thing to do.

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