Yesterday I listened to this TED Talk by Suzanne Simard that blew my mind. Actually first I listened to Suzanne being interviewed on the TED Radio Hour (here’s the transcript), then went across to listen to her whole talk.
It sent me reeling, and I spent the rest of the day thinking about it over and over again, and pondering the implications.
Suzanne is an ecologist, and a few years ago she made the astonishing, world-changing discovery (which anyone who has read the Narnia books already secretly suspected) that trees in a forest talk with each other – and share with each other, and nurture each other – using a massive subterranean fungal network attached to their roots.
If one tree comes under attack, from say bugs or something, it can communicate this to the other healthy trees around it and they increase their defence systems in preparation.
If a tree is in need of more carbon, nutrients or water, it can communicate this to the other trees, and trees that have excess of any of these pass them along, to help the struggling tree survive.
Bigger, older trees become “mother-trees” and they nurture their “young,” the seedlings and saplings in the under-story. They pass along nutrients, carbon and water, and even adjust their own root systems to make room for the younger ones to grow.
Suzanne did some experiments on this behaviour to find out if the mother-trees recognised their own young, by placing saplings under them that were both from the mother-tree and elsewhere. The mother-tree did recognise its own children, and passed significantly more of all that goodness onto them.
Suzanne even said that when a mother-tree is dying, it passed wisdom on to the younger trees. I wish she had elaborated on that point because I want to know what that wisdom might be. Understandings about the conditions around it, maybe? “The bugs always come in spring, grow more thorns then,” or, “Shed your leaves early this year, it’s gonna be a cold one.”
When I was growing up, digging away in the garden with my mother, we always understood that trees and plants competed for space, water, and sunlight. What Suzanne has revealed to the world is that, in the forest at least, far from competing, the trees are cooperating, and to an astonishing extent.
Image credit: photo by Will Fuller, licensed for unlimited use