The Hidden Life of Trees
Updated: Jul 10, 2019
We think we're pretty fancy for inventing the internet but what about the Wood Wide Web? Trees have a complex form of communication through their root system that isn’t so dissimilar to what we do on the interwebs. It’s all helped out and supported through the fungus that live below the earth. Occasionally they pop up as mushrooms but even when we can’t see them they are still there.
I learned all this in the book The Hidden Life of Trees. I’ll never look at the woods the same. Did you know that there are more life forms in a handful of forest soil than there are people on the planet? Or that trees can count? And have families? And send electrical impulses to each other? And know how long the day is so their leaves can change colors? I didn’t know all of this. It’s been such a mystery unfolding to look at this process of tree growth which we really only see a small fraction of in our 100 year cycle. Trees are barely teenagers at that point if they are able to grow in the right conditions. I now look at the branches and see which ones are struggling for light. All the little trees below whom might not get a chance to grow up. To understand just how staggering the odds are read below:
“Every five years, a beech tree produces at least thirty thousand beechnuts. It is sexually mature at about 80 to 150 years of age, depending on how much light it gets where it’s growing. Assuming it grows to be 400 years old, it can fruit at least sixty times and produce a total of about 1.8 million beechnuts. From these, exactly one will develop into a full-grown-tree - and in forest terms, that is a high rate of success, similar to winning the lottery. All the other hopeful embryos are either eaten by animals or broken down into humus by fungi or bacteria.”
That is crazy! With those odds it seems to me to be a miracle every time a tree grows. And look at how many of them there are. Forests full. We almost take them for granted there are so many. And yet, when you live in a city, a tree is a beautiful thing. You notice more deeply the fresh oxygen rich air in your lungs when you visit Central Park in NYC. The trees really do help us breathe easy. But it’s not easier on the trees. These are the “street kids” that have no mothers. They are isolated along the sidewalks, no roots to connect with other trees far away. Hopefully they are some of the same trees on the block so they can chat at least to a friend or two. If they are different species, they are not always able to communicate. And rarely are they different ages so there is no mentorship. Yup, trees need to learn how to be trees. When to bloom, when something is attaching and which way to grow. It’s almost as if they have personalities. They certainly are alive. So next time you consider carving a name in a tree or carelessly cutting off a branch, that little nick could be enough for a fungus to get in. 1 inch cuts are about the threshold a tree can heal from. If that tree isn’t strong enough, eventually it could be the death of it, just a couple decades down the road. We humans usually don’t live with that kind of foresight in mind.
Which makes it even more scary to think about Climate Change and how it affects the trees. There were lots of comments throughout the book about how things could be getting harder for some trees, or easier for others causing migration patterns. Yes, trees migrate too but on very slow time schedules. There were also comments about how storm systems could come through more often ripping up trees by their roots. Not to mention drought and flood events. It didn’t paint a pretty picture.
The most interesting fact that I came across was around page 223. It recalls a story, backed up by studies, about how a woman walked through a forest. Surrounded by certain trees, she was happier. And her blood pressure was lower. It seems in a setting of healthy trees, humans are aware of this on a biological level. For in unstable forests, the trees are sending out ‘alarm signals’ that our bodies are able to pick up. We can resonate with particular trees and their emotions. I read about this after having a very unmotivated run, so of course I figured that I was running among the wrong trees that day.
There was a chapter called Why is the Forest Green? It made me think of my physics class where I take everyone outside on a sunny day and lay in the grass, talking about colors. Why is the sky blue? Why is the grass green? Little do my students know I’m actually teaching them things, ha! But what a better way to learn about color while absorbing the energy from the sun itself. Trees, just like grass, get their color based on what wavelength of the electromagnetic spectrum they reflect. Exactly as stated in the book:
“Chlorophyll, however, has one disadvantage. It has a so-called green gap, and because it cannot use this part of the color spectrum, it has to reflect it back unused. This weak spot means that we can see this photosynthetic leftover, and that's why almost all plants look deep green to us.”
Lately, the trees around me have not been green but look as if they are on fire. Reds, oranges, yellows. Its fall, so the trees know they need to lose their leaves and get ready for the long winter. Unless they are evergreens, then they stick out like sore thumbs with their full jackets on. It’s great that all the leaf peepers come out to admire the trees this time of year. For me, I think I’ll pay a little extra attention to the trees, all year round after reading this book. I’d love to discuss with anyone who has read it. Better yet, take a walk in the woods, among some happy healthy trees and notice the dynamic conversations going on in the forest if you just stop and listen.