Take a walk into the forest and close your eyes. Do you hear something? Anything? Wind rustling through the fallen leaves, maybe a bird overhead, a deer trotting nearby, but do you hear the trees? They’re talking to one another: communicating their needs with their mother, sharing resources with a sibling and perhaps sending a warning out to a distant cousin. It’s all happening right before your ears and eyes my friend, right below your feet! The trees are talking!
This communication system has been around longer than we could even imagine. Paintings, stories and other folklore regarding talking trees date back to ancient times. If you think back to most of the stories from your childhood, I would bet there is some reference to talking trees or even trees in general. Alexander the Great was said to have visited a talking tree that told him how he would die. Willow trees played a large part in English folklore and in Ireland the trees were said to help one find a leprechaun’s gold (although usually to no avail). Forests themselves provide a certain aesthetic of wander and enchantment, making a great setting for a nursery rhyme or folktale. The Japanese have always had a deep appreciation for nature, including trees in particular, and often wrote of them with great detail and appreciation in their poetry and stories. Even before official scientific research confirmed it, the Japanese believed that inside each tree was a spirit, or kodama, and that the trees (or spirits within them) would communicate with one another.
A great communication system exists right below our feet that is even more widely used than the World Wide Web and perhaps even more important. It is sometimes referred to as the wood wide web. A network of thousands, if not millions of root systems connected via fungi, that transmits resources and information to different trees throughout the forest thriving beneath our feet. This is called a mycorrhizal network.
Each tree has its own root system that works to transfer minerals and moisture to the tree. Within the root system of a tree, two types of roots exist: woody and non-woody. The woody roots provide overall structural support for the tree as well as the transportation of minerals and water and the storage of carbohydrates. The non-woody roots are found closer to the ground’s surface. These non-woody roots absorb the minerals and moisture and are also where one might find mycorrhizal fungi. These are a special fungi found on the smaller, non-woody roots and whose body resembles tiny threads. These threads reach out even beyond the root system of the tree and stretch out across the forest floor. These threads are called mycelium. Mycelium “infects” other trees’ root systems, connecting one tree to another, creating a network of connected trees. This is the mycorrhizal network and it can span thousands of acres and connect entire forests.
Because of this connection to one another, roots can share resources such as carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus. This network is very similar to a computer network as it consists of hubs, or mother trees, and nodes, which are younger trees. Mother trees will share nutrients with the younger trees to help them grow. Ecologist Suzanne Simard discovered the interworking of this system of the Wood Wide Web two decades ago and through field experiments, was able to prove that the trees are indeed sharing information in the form of different nutrients and that when trees were not a part of a mycorrhizal network they tended to not do as well as those that were.
Mycorrhizal fungi trade their host tree minerals for glucose as well as connect them to other trees, thus assisting them even further in their growing process. Hyphae, or tiny thread like fibers, extend from the mycelium and “dig” holes into surrounding rocks which release extra nutrients that help the tree grow. If you’ve ever been digging around in the dirt in or a near a forest, you may have noticed the dirt being stuck together by a web like system of roots. This is the hyphae and it usually exists throughout the forest floor. In fact, just a pinch of dirt can contain over thirty thousand feet of hyphae!
Along with allowing trees to share resources that help them to flourish, the mycorrhizal network also provides the connected trees with a defense system. Through this wood wide web, trees within the network are able to warn each other of pending danger. For example, a tree that is bitten by an insect can release a chemical signal out to other trees in its network enabling them to prepare themselves by releasing a bitter tasting compound that make the leaves taste less appealing to the insects. This is pretty amazing!
Did you know that trees can be social? Well, they don't meet at coffee shops for a chat but what happens to one tree in a network can affect those that are around it. For instance, if a tree within a network dies, others around it may suffer. If a few trees in a network die, this may cause the surviving trees to experience hardship and those trees may also die if they are not able to establish a connection with other healthy trees. Trees that are close to one another can be quite friendly and will even grow branches away from each other, allowing all of their “friends” to thrive.
Complicated. Simple. Amazing whichever way you see it. I suppose there was more truth to James Cameron’s 2009 film, Avatar. Those who have seen the movie may remember that on planet Panodra the roots of the trees are all interconnected. The trees communicate with one another and the people of planet Pandora, known as Na’vi, are able to communicate with the trees as well. The trees on Pandora are vitally important to the Na’vi people. They provide them with homes, a means of communication and a religious connection to the Eywa (the Na’vi people’s deity). The Na’vi people worship the trees and treat them with the utmost respect because they understand that these trees are vital for their survival. The people on planet Pandora can even communicate with the trees by plugging in their tails.
Here on planet earth, most of us humans do not have tails that would work well plugged into a tree, but perhaps we can still learn from the people of Pandora. Maybe we can learn to treat our trees with more respect and be grateful for the bounteous fruits that they supply us with such as oxygen, food, shelter and medicine. We must also learn to reduce our consumption in order to preserve our natural forests. And perhaps as a society, we can even take notes from the wood wide web and learn to work better together to help each other and our beautiful planet thrive.
-Alesia Gallo, Environmental Educator
A pandemic causes all of us to look at many aspects of our lives and this COVID-19 is certainly not an exception. All of us have had our lives changed in numerous ways. As we practice social distancing and isolation from family and friends, many of us are drawn to nature to help us cope and in some cases heal. This is evidenced by the parking lots at trail heads throughout the area on every nice and sometimes not so nice day. I recently drove through PA State Forest Land in Pike County and each trail head had at least one and in many cases multiple vehicles parked there. It was a welcome sight but one in which I was not accustomed to. Does it really take a pandemic for us to realize the healing powers of nature? I hope not; people have been using the healing powers of nature as a cure for many things throughout time.
What does nature have that drugs and shots and vaccines don’t? Balance and harmony. Walk down a forested trail and you are treated to a cornucopia of sounds, smells and sights, that can overload your senses as well as ease your mind. Who cannot appreciate the call of a chickadee, the sight of a spring wildflower, or even the smell of a rotting log? There are so many things present as we walk along allowing us to take our minds off of the world around us if we chose. The walk doesn’t have to be far; in fact it doesn’t have to be a walk at all. Sit on a bench surrounded by nature or at an overlook where you can take in a broad field of view and nature’s natural healing powers will do their thing. It won’t cost you anything but time, which is something we all have a little more of in today’s world.
Nature has been healing people for thousands of years since the first indigenous people walked these lands. Don’t get me wrong; nature does go through changes some of them natural and some more recently man-made. But through it all, the natural world has maintained its balance and therefore its mind blowing calmness that cures all our ills. You may have heard of “Forest Bathing”, it’s a new term for the old principle of using nature to heal us. It can be done alone, with someone else, family, friends whomever, and there is no set time or place for benefiting from its powers. Sometimes five minutes is all anyone needs to feel the effects while at other times, several hours can be enjoyed in its surroundings. And the best thing about it is that it is guaranteed to work every time. That’s right, every time! It can be the same location each time or you can explore the many different “nature drug stores” throughout our area and beyond. Another good thing about it is it doesn’t require any special or expensive equipment. Proper clothing for the weather and comfortable shoes is all you really need. Don’t burden yourself with today’s technology, and fancy equipment for hiking, it’s not necessary; in fact it works better if you leave your phone turned off.
If you find a spot near water the benefits will be even more pronounced. There is something about the sound of moving water from either a current or the waves slapping against the shoreline that enhances the healing properties of nature. That is where I like to go to be healed, near water. I am very fortunate there is a beautiful, clear stream running near my house. It is fascinating to watch the water moving over rocks and gurgling past the shore. If I am lucky I will see a few of the residents that inhabit the area. Songbirds in the trees, amphibians along the water’s edge, fish swimming by, insects hatching over the water and on occasion a Bald Eagle, river otter, or maybe just a squirrel. They all play a role in the healing process. Nature and all its creatures require nothing from you except your presence to be healed. There are not many things in this world we can say that about.
As I have gotten a little older, my time in nature has not decreased but has taken on a slower pace. It has actually allowed me to reap more of the benefits of the process. By taking things a little slower while out in the natural world the calming effect of nature has been more pronounced. I appreciate its beauty as well as its simplicity. Everything has a place and everything has a purpose. Its sounds and smells and sensory smorgasbord are a perfect elixir for a hurried and sometime chaotic world. It asks nothing but our time and gives so much in return.
When the weather warms in a few weeks I will again get to immerse myself into my favorite healing ritual with nature, “creek sitting”. This is something I stumbled upon a few years ago as I started to slow my pace down and it is something that works wonders for everything that might ail me. All you need is a folding chair, and a stream with moving water preferably not over a foot deep. Plop the chair down in the middle of the creek facing upstream and then have a seat. Make sure you take off your shoes so you can feel the water between your toes. Put your arms out to the side and dip your hands and fingers in the water and just watch and feel the stream flow by. There is no set amount of time you need to do this you will know when it is working and you will know when you are “healed”.
In today’s world, which is very different than it was even 3 months ago, we need to remember what nature can do for us and how it can be an escape from the hectic world around us. We must also remember that everyone needs this opportunity so we must protect open spaces and public access. We know we will get through this current pandemic eventually and being able to go out in nature will certainly help the process. But please remember we should not go back to where it was before and only use nature in a time of crisis. It is always there patiently waiting to soothe our minds and feed our souls. I encourage you to get outside and feel the power of our natural world and when it gets a little warmer maybe I will see you “creek sitting” along the way.