I’ve always been a tree hugger. There’s something comforting about the solid feel of a big tree, like an old friend who will always be there. Many of my most memorable childhood hours — and not a few of my adult ones — have been spent perched high in the arms of a tree, with the whisper of the leaves singing softly and the soft chatter of birds. I could put my ear against the bark, and if I listened carefully, the tree would talk to me, carrying on a conversation about its day. Sound carries very well through wood (as anyone who has ever listened at a door knows), and I could hear the rasping of insects chewing inside the bark, the patter of tiny avian feet on the branches, the rat-a-tat of a nuthatch or woodpecker after a beetle or grub, the swishing of branches in the breeze, many mysterious creaks and groans, and sometimes, when it was very still, I could hear a faint, almost melodic humming coming from beneath the bark to my ear.
I now realize the sound was probably the movement of sap and water through its veins, its hydraulics pulsing ever so gently, as if the tree actually had a heart. And who is to say a tree doesn’t? The more we learn about how stuff really works, the more we realize we humans aren’t the only sentient beings on the planet. We are surrounded by them, and none of them act by instinct alone; they all think, in some manner, using life experiences, from the biggest mammals to the lowliest microbe. Most actually use logic, once thought to be a solely human trait — I recently saw a video of a bee that learned to roll a ball for a sugary treat — and they engage in analytical thinking. Anyone who ever doubts creatures’ analytic abilities has never observed a squirrel working out how to get into a bird feeder while getting the cooperation of another squirrel. The fact of our opposable thumbs and ability to operate a can opener keeps us from being the pets — wait, maybe we are. Our dogs and cats do have us trained well. We can use tools, which makes us superior. Or does it? (I do worry sometimes about raccoons with their crafty five fingers — and crows. Crows are way too smart and use tools. If they ever get together, humanity may be doomed.)
It’s been long established that plants are sentient and can communicate; the question has been, how? And now, how well? I’ve long held that they have some kind of extrasensory way of mind control to get us to love them, plant, feed and nurture them to ensure their continued lives. Though I joke about it, I’m not all too certain it isn’t true; we do know from experiments carried out in the 1960s that a plant senses danger when another is placed in peril. In recent experiments, plants showered with love and kindness responded with healthy growth; others showered with feelings of hate did poorly and sometimes died.
So do trees have a language we can learn to understand? Research has confirmed they do talk to each other through underground networks of fungus partnered with root hairs. The resulting mycelium transmits information like an internet superhighway from trees to trees over vast distances (lending whole new meaning to the phrase, “world-wide web” — Bill Gates, eat your heart out), while trees furnish the fungi with sugars needed to fuel their existence, the “power” for their internet, so to speak.
Professor of forest ecology Suzanne Simard at the University of British Columbia postulates that trees once thought to be competing for root room, nutrients and sunlight are actually cooperating with one other, with individual trees having feelings, family, friendships and common language, sharing needed elements from tree to tree. If one needs more carbon or another needs more nitrogen, hormonal signals via the fungal web are sent in some mysterious language; if one is being attacked by disease or insects, alerts are send to neighbors to protect themselves by producing chemical resistance. She discovered that the forest behaves as a single organism through billions of miles of mycelium connecting its inhabitants, including shrubs and other plants. (Do trees have pets, such as ferns and trilliums, I wonder?)
“Mother trees,” she says, “in a natural forest, communicate with their offspring,” sending nutrients and information via the fungal web, “feeding” their young and other sapling trees in the vicinity, even reducing their own root room to make space. If the old mother tree is dying, she can pass on her storehouse of knowledge gained by interactions from her surroundings — experiences with weather, climate change, disease and insect attack — and relationships to other trees and the ecology to her offspring and neighbors, enabling them to better evolve and adapt to their surroundings.
But all is not always sweetness and light in a forest. As in human life, there are thugs and criminals. Many non-native, introduced and invasive species appear to speak a different language to soil microbes than native trees. Bullying their way into the fungal network, they re-engineer the soil community, eliminating connections and creating others to better facilitate their own needs, diverting and stealing nitrogen to fertilize themselves and shade out competition and replacing natives with their Mongol hordes, to use a human analogy.
Where is this going? Back into the woods to find a mother tree, hug her, sit on her root-lap and rest against her strength. Put a cheek against her bark and an ear to her pulse, listen to her voice. We may learn her language through our own neural connections. Let her talk to us with her quiet wisdom. She has been here lifetimes longer than we have and can teach us much about our world.
To begin learning the language of trees:
• Stop clear cutting
• Save heritage trees
• Plant native diversity in the forest
• Eliminate invasive species
• Spend a lot of time in the woods and listen.
Sandy and Jim Parrill garden at Chaos, their acre of the Ozarks in Joplin. Sandy is a lifelong gardener andMissouri master gardener. Jim is a former garden center owner and landscaper; both are past members of the Missouri Landscape and Nursery Association. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow their Facebook page, A Parrillel Universe of Wonderful Things.