Tetsunori Koizumi, Director
Do trees celebrate Mother’s Day? The question would have been meaningless for most of us humans, even though we have been aware of the important role trees play for us as the suppliers of oxygen we breathe and logs we use for our houses and furniture. But the question is not totally meaningless for us now in view of the recent findings by biologists and forest researchers about the life of trees.
It goes without saying that the idea that trees can speak is not such an outrageous one, for it has been circulating in the world of mythology, art, and fiction. Thus, in Nihon-shoki, or Chronicles of Japan, we find the following statement: “In that land there were numerous deities (or spirits) which shone with a luster like that of fireflies, and evil deities which buzzed like flies. There were also trees and herbs which could speak.”1 Turning to Shakespeare, we find the line, “Stones have been known to move and trees to speak,” in Macbeth.2
If trees can indeed speak, to whom are they speaking? Do trees talk to each other? In other words, do trees communicate with each other? The idea that trees talk to each other and communicate, though it may sound far-fetched to the modern rational mind, is actually gaining credibility and support, thanks to a small number of pioneering researchers and scientists.
Peter Wohlleben, a German forester, is one such individual whose book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, is attracting a huge audience worldwide.3 In this fascinating book, Wohlleben expounds his idea that trees have evolved to live in cooperative and interdependent relationships with a communication network, or the “wood-wide-web,” as some prefer to call it. According to him, trees in a forest are connected to each other and communicate through underground fungal networks. A scientific term for these fungal networks is the “mycorrhizal network,” which is a network of fine, hair-like root tips of trees joined together with fine fungal filaments. Trees and fungi form a symbiotic relationship: fungi consume the sugar trees photosynthesize from sunlight, while trees absorb and consume nitrogen, phosphorus and other mineral nutrients fungi collect from the soil. To communicate through the network, trees send chemical, hormonal and slow-pushing electrical signals.
Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia is another individual, who has done an extensive research on the mycorrhizal network.4 As a matter of fact, Simard sounds a lot like Dr. Pat Westerford, one of the characters in Richard Powers’ new novel, The Overstory, who discovers that a forest’s trees are all communicating, all the time, via a nuanced chemical language transmitted from root to root.5 Be that as it may, Simard identifies hyperlinked “hub-trees,” or “mother trees” in common parlance. Mother trees are the biggest, oldest trees in the forest with the most fungal connections. With their deep roots, they draw up water and make it available to shallow-rooted seedlings. Mother trees help neighboring trees by sending them nutrients, and when the neighbors are struggling, they detect their distress signals and increase the flow of nutrients accordingly.
The conventional view of evolutionary biology would be to argue that each individual root and each fungal filament are genetically programmed by natural selection to do their job automatically. However, we cannot completely dismiss the idea as expounded by Peter Wohlleben and Suzanne Simard that trees talk to each other and communicate. While we tend to think of a transmission of information through some signal when we talk of communication, communication, according to Humberto Maturana, a Chilean biologist known for his work on the cybernetics of living systems, is not a transmission of information. Rather, it is a coordination of behavior among living organisms through mutual structural coupling.6
Whether we are ready to accept the view that trees talk to each other and communicate, we cannot dismiss the presence of the intricate web of connections and interactions among living as well as non-living things that defines the world around us. Indeed, to the extent that mother trees exist with their intricate networks of communication, we cannot totally dismiss the idea that young trees around them celebrate Mother’s Day as well, albeit in a way different from us humans. Instead of dismissing the idea that trees talk to each other and communicate as outrageous, it may be about time that we start welcoming Mother’s Day for us humans as an occasion to acknowledge the interconnectedness of our lives with the trees and all the other things in the world around us. It was St. Bernard (1091-1153) who reminded us of the importance of listening to trees and stones: “You will find something more in woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you that which you can never learn from masters.”7
- Anesaki, Masaharu, History of Japanese Religion, Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1963, p.19.
- Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act III.
- Wohlleben, Peter, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2016.
- Simard, Suzanne, “How Trees Talk to Each Other”, TED Summit, June 2016.
- Powers, Richard, The Overstory, New York: Norton, 2018.
- Maturana, Humberto, and Francisco Varela, Autopoesis and Cognition, Dordrecht: Reidel, 1980.
- St. Bernard, Epistle 106.