The past year has been an exciting time for researchers, foresters, biologists, and ecologists, like Dr. Suzanne Simard and Dr. Peter Wohlleben, whose important work of the past decades is now making waves in the mainstream. Recent research has explained what has long been suggested in myths - that trees trees talk to one another, share information, care for young or sick trees, and share resources with others in need.
In the early 1990's, researchers discovered the mycelial web, a linkage of fungi that connects trees and other species to one another. This discovery was made as the result of research that sought to understand the fertility of the forests in the Pacific Northwest, and other studies that tried to explain the troubling discovery of premature tree deaths in other species. Simard noted that in her home forests of the Pacific Northwest, Douglas Fir trees seemed to be suffering and dying as a result of the loss of their Birch neighbors. On the other side of the world, Wohlleben saw the same trend in his home forests throughout Europe, and both researchers wanted to understand what factors might explain such losses.
Over the years, as their research deepened, it became clear that the synergetic relationships between the trees was the result of deeper connections that existed through the mycelial web. Mass spectrometers and scintillation counters showed that trees were communicating through the web, much like human neurotransmitters and other neurological signals fire through our neural networks. Soon, researchers like Simard and Wohlleben were developing methods to find out what exactly the trees were communicating to one another, and how.
In a nutshell, what they found was startling - the trees were communicating about dangers (such as diseases or pests), "mother" trees were sharing information with saplings and younger trees around them, and huge networks of trees worked to heal trees that were sick, or to share resources with those who were not able to get enough resources on their own. Trees are far more cooperative than competitive, and some have even termed their behavior, "tree communism." This is a stark contrast from Darwin's theory that trees compete with one another to steal the benefits of sunlight for themselves. This past year, Simard and Wohlleben's research caught the attention of the public, through Wohlleben's book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What they feel, how they communicate and Simard's TED Talk on the subject, which you can watch by clicking this link. She has a second and less well-known TED Talk on the subject that you can see below.
In reflecting on these discoveries, and hearing Simard's childhood perspective (shared in the video above) it is also worth considering tree myths and other imaginative presentations of the unconscious elements of our psyche. For over one hundred years, depth psychologists have been discussing the importance of seeing through metaphors and images to better understand what they might be communicating to the one-sided, conscious elements of our psyche. Carl Jung demonstrated through his research that often our imaginings have their own legitimacy and message to communicate. For instance, take Tolkien's depiction of the wise tree ents, who tended to the forests through their intelligence and caring nature, and compare this to Simard's childhood imaginings of forest fairies, or to indigenous myths and perspectives on trees and nature in general. As we examine recent scientific discoveries, these imaginative illustrations seem much less like pure, meaningless fantasy, and much more like metaphors that speak to scientific realities and deeper truths.
Beyond this, we might imagine into the relationship between humans and trees, and nature in general, as there is a great deal of research that shows how the wellbeing of humans can be impacted to a large degree by the presence (or lack thereof) of trees and greenspace (research shows that we are far more psychologically and physically healthy when we have plenty of trees nearby). As we consider this, we might be humbled enough to reconsider how we interact on this Earth and in relationship to the countless other species who we share this planet with.
For a deeper look at the depth psychological perspective on trees, consider reading The Power of Trees: Reforesting the Soul, by Depth Psychologist Michael Perlman. For more information about the research behind how nature and trees can improve human health, please see Your Brain on Nature, by Eva Selhub and Alan Logan.