There is no denying that we have a habit of regularly picking fights with nature. Our hubris combined with ignorance emboldens us to challenge the laws of nature. We obtusely cross the Rubicon inviting the unforgiving forces of nature to unleash their power to re-establish the equilibrium once again. In the last hundred years, we have become more parasitic and more careless about our ecosystem. The unabated pace of deforestation globally should be worrying. Alas, we seem to be unconcerned about the consequences as if we are ignorant and blind to the destruction of our planet and our future.
Then again, we are not as intelligent as we like to think we are. The proof is that most of the discoveries and inventions we so cherish have been the result of serendipity and not necessarily the result of our higher intellect. Recently, in a moment of serendipity, I came across a fabulous book about trees. The author, Peter Wohlleben, has presented a fascinating description of The Hidden Life of Trees (William Collins, 2017). For someone, like me, who likes and enjoys nature but has no understanding of botany, this book is an ideal starting point.
Prior to reading this book I too thought of trees in terms of their usefulness, such as; to provide shade in the summer heat, and wood for furniture as well as burning fire. I never considered trees to actually have families and communicate with each other. I mean who has ever heard of trees sharing food with their neighbours. This is something, we humans do or used to do; now we have culturally evolved and apathy is replacing our generous human nature. Our values have changed, but in the forest “nutrient exchange and helping neighbours in times of need is the rule, and this leads to the conclusion that forests are superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies.”
Peter Wohlleben ponders; “why are trees such social beings? Why do they share food with their own species and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors? The reasons are the same as for human communities: there are advantages to working together. A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old. To get to this point, the community must remain intact no matter what.” This illustrates perfectly why religions place so much emphasis on maintaining and nourishing family ties.
A tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it.
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
A community can be only as strong as its weakest members.
Perhaps, this is why, in Islam, it is mandatory for every Muslim to pay 2½% charity (Zakat) on the total wealth, to help the weaker members. It seems these principles are universal; what is good for nature is good for people. Helping each other is a way of life. Peter Wohlleben professes that every tree is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover. Even strong trees get sick a lot over the course of their lives. When this happens, they depend on their weaker neighbours for support. It is the law of nature that each tree, big or small, contributes towards the welfare of the forest.
The trees provide nutrients to other trees either through fungal networks around the root tips or the roots themselves may be interconnected. The roots extend a long way, and in some cases more than twice the spread of the crown, says Peter Wohlleben. The roots seem to play a vital role in numerous tasks and the scientists are discovering more and more new information each year. The book is about the life of trees and trees only; but, I could see similarities with human life.
If and when the trees are under attack from certain species of insects or herbivores, they fend off the predators by releasing a scent and thus alert neighbouring trees of impending danger. However, animals have adapted to this smell and they quickly move about two or three trees further away and start feeding again.
Scent plays an important part in human life too. Scientists believe pheromones in sweat are a decisive factor when we choose our partners—in other words, those with whom we wish to procreate.
Pursuit of Equality
The rate of photosynthesis is the same for all the trees, however, it seems, the trees are equalizing differences between the strong and the weak. Whether they are thick or thin, all members of the same species are using light to produce the same amount of sugar per leaf. This equalization is taking place underground through the roots. The trees are known for sharing not only sugar but also water.
For people, sadly, some are more equal than the others. Corruption and greed of the ruling global elite prohibit real democracy, real justice and social welfare; otherwise, eliminating poverty globally is not as difficult.
Cruelty by Humans
Peter Wohlleben confesses that as a forester he had young trees girdled. This means a strip of bark 3 feet wide is removed all around the trunk to kill the tree. Basically, this is a method of thinning, where trees are not cut down, but desiccated trunks remain as standing deadwood in the forest. Thus, without bark, the tree cannot transport sugar from its leaves to its roots. As the roots starve, they shut down their pumping mechanisms, and because water no longer flows through the trunk up to the crown, the whole tree dries out.
This reminded of the way how settlers in America almost exterminated the Bison. The mass killing of buffalos was part of the genocidal policy. The intention was ethnic cleansing of the native Indians.
We can see the same happening again in Gaza. Ninety-seven percent of drinking water in Gaza is contaminated by sewage. This has become the leading cause of child mortality in Gaza. Has the blind, deaf and mute world become complicit in this cruelty against Gazans? Why is the world silent on hundreds of Gazans becoming disabled due to snipers shooting at unarmed protestors? If tactics being applied to humans are the same as in the forest, what does that say about humanity?
Protecting the Roots
I was amazed to learn that scientists are debating now whether plants can think. Are they intelligent? Peter Wohlleben confirms that “trees can learn. This means they must store experiences somewhere, and therefore, there must be some kind of a storage mechanism inside the organism. Just where it is, no one knows, but the roots are the part of the tree best suited to the task.”
Having strong roots essentially means a strong future and a less troublesome life. In the west, however, there has been a relentless war on the family. One has to wonder, why are single-parent families on the rise? Some theorists argue that the western wars in the Middle East are a war on tribal societies. Are all these wars intended to weaken the roots?
Yes, weakening the roots is a bad idea.
I am really startled by our hubris. We know very little about the life in the soil. “There are more life forms in a handful of forest soil than there are people on the planet. A mere teaspoonful contains many miles of fungal filaments. All these work the soil, transform it, and make it so valuable for the trees.” Yes, I definitely agree with you, ignorance is one of the biggest sins. We are so ignorant.
I confess this book brought to my attention a lot of new information that I was unaware of about trees and forests. For someone with no knowledge whatsoever about trees, it is difficult to verify all the information the book offers. Regardless, Peter Wohlleben has written a compelling and enlightening book in a highly engaging story format. The book is very easy to read and understand. If you are looking for a beginners guide to the life of trees then this is a perfect book for you.
There is so much to learn by observing nature. The book made me appreciate that the reasons humanity finds itself in a mess are because we do not realise that we are working against ourselves when we are disobeying the laws of nature. I was left wondering whether there is more cooperation in nature or amongst people. It is clear that there is cooperation in nature. Nature is focused on creating equilibrium and harmony rather than competition and purging each other. Trees of all sizes help keep the surface of the forest moist and this helps feed the smaller plants whose roots do not reach deep underground. Undoubtedly, nourishing the roots is essential for good health, and good health is important for Restoring the Mind.