The Social Lives of Trees: Science Reveals How Trees Mysteriously Talk to Each Other, Work Together & Form Nurturing Families

In addi­tion to its ham-hand­ed exe­cu­tion, maybe one of the rea­sons M. Night Shyamalan’s The Hap­pen­ing failed with crit­ics is that its premise seemed inher­ent­ly pre­pos­ter­ous. Who could sus­pend dis­be­lief? Trees don’t talk to each oth­er, act in groups, make cal­cu­la­tions, how fool­ish! But they do, forester Suzanne Simard aims to con­vince us in the TED video above.

Trees aren’t just trees. They are the vis­i­ble man­i­fes­ta­tions of “this oth­er world” under­ground, “a world of infi­nite bio­log­i­cal path­ways that con­nect trees and allow them to com­mu­ni­cate, and allow the for­est to behave as if it’s a sin­gle organ­ism. It might remind you of a sort of intel­li­gence.” One shared not only by trees but by all of the beings that live in and among them. Forests are alive, though per­haps they are not plot­ting their revenge on us, even if we’ve earned it.

Simard tells the sto­ry of grow­ing up in British Colum­bia among the inland rain­forests. Old wet tem­per­ate forests crawl­ing with ancient ferns like giant green hands; cities of mush­rooms grow­ing around cen­turies-old fall­en trees; whole planes of bird and insect exis­tence in the canopies, Amer­i­can megafau­na, the elk, the bear…. On a recent hike deep into the Olympia Nation­al For­est in Wash­ing­ton, I found myself think­ing some sim­i­lar thoughts. It’s not that unusu­al to imag­ine, in the throes of “for­est bathing,” that “trees are nature’s inter­net,” as Simard says in a Seat­tle TED talk.

The dif­fer­ence is that Simard has had these thoughts all her life, devot­ed 30 years of research to test­ing her hypothe­ses, and used radioac­tive car­bon iso­topes to find two-way com­mu­ni­ca­tion between dif­fer­ent species of tree while being chased by angry griz­zly bears. Like­wise, most of us have not­ed the glar­ing sci­en­tif­ic absur­di­ties in the book of Gen­e­sis, but few may see the prob­lem with Noah’s Ark that Ital­ian botanist Ste­fano Man­cu­so does in his talk above. No one thought to bring any plants? God some­how neglect­ed to men­tion that all those ani­mals would need ecosys­tems, and fast? We laugh about an old man lit­er­al­ly load­ing repro­duc­ing pairs of every ani­mal on a boat… imag­ine him try­ing to fit entire forests….

Mancuso’s charm­ing accent and self-dep­re­cat­ing humor make his obser­va­tions seem light­heart­ed, but no less dev­as­tat­ing to our idea of our­selves as self-suf­fi­cient alpha crea­tures and of plants as bare­ly alive, inan­i­mate stuff scat­tered around us like nature’s fur­ni­ture, one step above the foun­da­tion­al rocks and stones. The idea is not lim­it­ed to the Bible; it has “accom­pa­nied human­i­ty” he says. Yet, just as pro­fes­sors do not belong at the top of a hier­ar­chy of life—as medieval schol­ars liked to imagine—plants do not belong at the bot­tom. Let Man­cu­so con­vince you that plants exhib­it “won­der­ful and com­plex behav­ior that can be con­sid­ered intel­li­gence.”

Isn’t this all a lit­tle pre­sump­tu­ous? Does any­one, after all, speak for the trees? Might their lan­guage be for­ev­er alien to us? Can we talk about “what plants talk about,” as ecol­o­gist J.C. Cahill asserts? Can we make soap opera spec­u­la­tions about “the hid­den life of trees,” as the title of Ger­man forester Peter Wohlleben’s book promis­es? Per­haps human lan­guage is nec­es­sar­i­ly anthropomorphic—we insist on see­ing our­selves at the cen­ter of every­thing. Maybe we need to think of trees as peo­ple to con­nect to them—as near­ly every ancient human civ­i­liza­tion has talked to nature through the inter­me­di­aries of spir­its, gods, devas, sprites, nymphs, ances­tors, etc.

As a forester with a lum­ber com­pa­ny, Wohlleben says, he “knew about as much about the hid­den life of trees as a butch­er knows about the emo­tion­al life of ani­mals.” They were already dead to him. Until he began to wake up to the silent com­mu­ni­ca­tion all around him. Trees can count, can learn, can remem­ber, he found. Trees have fam­i­lies. They nurse their chil­dren. As he says in the inter­view above, “I don’t claim this, that is actu­al research. But the sci­en­tists nor­mal­ly use lan­guage than can­not be under­stood. So I trans­lat­ed this, and sur­prise, sur­prise! Trees are liv­ing beings, trees are social, trees have feel­ings.” For most peo­ple, says Wohh­leben, this real­ly does come as a sur­prise.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

This 392-Year-Old Bon­sai Tree Sur­vived the Hiroshi­ma Atom­ic Blast & Still Flour­ish­es Today: The Pow­er of Resilience

Graph­ic Shows the House Plants That Nat­u­ral­ly Clean the Air in Your Home, Accord­ing to a NASA Study

Shel Silverstein’s The Giv­ing Tree: The Ani­mat­ed Film Nar­rat­ed by Shel Him­self (1973)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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