How Trees Talk And Why We Should Listen
Trees are intelligent organisms that use an underground network to communicate. Learning to understand their language could help protect trees, benefit our ecology and improve our health.
Do you ever think about that tree you planted in grade school? Probably not, but take yourself back in time for a minute …
It’s Arbor Day. Every student and teacher is standing outside your school, holding small potted plants in hand. Amidst the chaos and excitement, you can vaguely remember a lesson going along with the day’s activities. If you were anything like me, you tuned most of it out, because hey, it was springtime and you were outside. These kinds of school days are what you live for at 8 years old.
So, you planted your tree, got the warm fuzzies for doing your part and never thought about it again.
Fast forward 20 years. Since that day in 2nd grade, over 300 billion trees have been harvested. The one tree you planted, while helpful, is just a splinter in the effort to combat climate change and the destruction of our delicate ecosystem.
Why Planting One Tree Is Important
Since the dawn of agriculture, our planet’s tree population has been cut by almost half. It is reported that 15 billion trees per year are harvested globally, with only 5 billion per year being planted to resupply. This isn’t counting the 4-5 million acres of forest fires that consume thousands of trees annually in the U.S. alone.
The effect of deforestation is a slow process, but not as slow as you might think. At the rate we’re currently going, Earth could be completely void of trees in just a few hundred years.
Trees play an important part in the planet’s carbon cycle, and without them, the earth’s ecosystem would be destroyed. Though the one tree you planted in grade school may seem insignificant, it wasn’t in vain. Here’s why:
- Trees transform light from the sun, water from the ground and carbon dioxide from the air into food. During this process, trees also create oxygen, which gets released back into the atmosphere. Scientists believe that just one tree can provide a day’s supply of oxygen for four people.
- Trees remove harmful and even deadly pollutants from the air by breathing them in through their leaves. A single, healthy tree is believed to be able to store almost 50 pounds of carbon each year. The average American’s carbon footprint in the United States was estimated at 20 tons per year. It would take 800 trees—that’s almost two acres of trees spaced 10 feet apart—just to store one American’s yearly carbon use.
- Trees also trap airborne particles like dust, pollen, ash and smoke from the air. This type of pollution may seem more like a nuisance than an actual threat but a staggering 4.6 million people die every year from air contamination. Wildfire smoke from this season’s forest fires alone has made breathing air in Seattle equivalent to smoking 7 cigarettes. Trees are an extremely valuable weapon against diseases caused by poor air quality.
- Trees give us clean water: 97% of the world’s fresh water is stored in natural underground reservoirs called aquifers. These stores provide us with clean drinking water and irrigation water for our crops. After a tree has its fill of rain water, the excess runs past its roots and into the earth’s aquifers.
- Trees can filter soil pollutants, too. Water runoff from a farm contains up to 88% less nitrate and 76% less phosphorus after flowing through a forest. A single sugar maple tree can remove 140mg of chromium, 820mg of nickel, and 5,200mg of lead from the soil per year.
- Trees can create rain and prevent floods. One mature oak tree can transpire more than 100 gallons of water per day. Transpiration is when water is absorbed through tree roots and released through their leaves into the air as vapor. Studies have shown that significantly more rain is produced from clouds that travel over forests than clouds that do not.
- Trees are part of an important ecosystem that provides habitat and food for birds and other animals. In fact, trees are home to almost half the world’s species. Researchers have found that planting just one tree in an open pasture can increase bird biodiversity in the area from zero to 80.
- Trees help regulate temperature, and not just by providing physical shade from the sun. The evaporation from a single tree can produce the cooling effect of 10 room size air conditioners.
Trees are a vital factor in keeping our planet and its inhabitants alive and healthy. Despite human’s constant abuse of her throughout history, Mother Nature has learned to shift and heal in order to adapt to the constant changes. The good news is the U.S. has been adding to the forests steadily since the 1940’s. China, in an effort to battle overwhelming pollution, has a plan to plant 32,400 square miles of trees in 2018 alone. In fact, over 120 countries have pledged to plant more trees and restore forests in response to the devastation consumerism has wreaked on planet Earth.
The Surprising Healing Benefit Of Trees
We’re at a time in history when global health is declining almost as quickly as healthcare costs are surging. The world’s population is desperate for safe and accessible ways to heal mentally, emotionally, and physically.
Trees may just be the answer we are looking for: studies have shown that spending quality time with our tree friends can lower blood pressure, decrease stress hormones, fight depression, accelerate healing, and improve immune system function. Because of this new research, many countries are putting more effort into planting trees and getting people outside.
- In South Korea, plans to open almost 40 healing forests are already in the works. These retreats are open to everyone and offer activities like forest prenatal classes, barefoot garden walks, even programs for bullies to decrease their aggression. Their mission is simple: “to realize a green welfare state, where the entire nation enjoys well-being.”
- In Japan, millions of dollars and thousands of hours have been spent studying nature’s effects on the overall health of human beings. Researchers have extensively studied a practice called “shinrin-yoku,” which is essentially spending time outside, breathing in nature. As it turns out, the smell of nature is actually a huge part of its healing benefit. Trees produce what scientists call phytoncide, which is what gives trees their “woodsy” smell. This smell—the essential oil of nature—has proven to provide impressive healing benefits. Forest therapy is considered so important in parts of Japan that it is often covered by healthcare benefits.
- In the United States, some pediatricians are prescribing nature to children as a form of preventative medicine. Ecotherapy has been implemented by doctors across the nation to help ease symptoms of anxiety and accelerate healing.
In many countries, Licensed Forest Therapy Guides will walk you through nature, like a real-time guided meditation. Why do they choose nature over neighborhoods? It’s simple: a 2011 study compared walking through the city vs. walking through the forest. Although both activities required the same amount of physical effort, the forest walks decreased stress hormones and lowered blood pressure significantly more than walks through the city. Nature walkers also showed decreased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex—a part of the brain that is responsible for depression and negativity. Whether you pay for a retreat or frolic in the trees solo, forest therapy is happening all around the world with the same positive results, proving that nature may truly be the best medicine.
Talking Tree Roots
We know that humans, animals, and all living creatures cannot live without trees. But can trees live without one another?
Scientists are now discovering that trees are much more like humans than we ever thought. No longer are trees seen with a “survival of the fittest” mentality, competing for food, water, and sunlight.
Trees are actually much like families. They are social creatures and rely heavily on one another for survival. Mature “mother trees” suckle their young. Old, weaker trees (and even ancient stumps) are kept alive by their surrounding posterity. Friends strategically point their branches during growth so as not to overcrowd each other. They can even warn one another when there is danger. “A forest has an amazing ability to communicate and behave like a single organism — an ecosystem,” says Suzanne Simard, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia and a pioneer in the language of trees.
And, as it turns out, a lot of this communication is happening just beneath the soil. Peter Wohlleben, author of “The Hidden Life Of Trees,” says that trees use an underground network to send and receive messages. This network, coined “The Wood Wide Web,” is made up of fungi that grow at root tips and connect one tree to another. With this network, trees are able to detect their surroundings and assist trees in need. If a seedling is weak or sick, the mother tree will send nutrients through her roots over to the struggling sapling. Trees that get attacked by bugs will send signals through the fungi so that neighboring trees can increase their own resistance to the threat. Wohlleben says that these family-like behaviors are so obvious to him, he can walk through a forest and tell which trees are working together. He says in his book: “[A] pair of true friends is careful right from the outset not to grow overly thick branches in each other’s direction. The trees don’t want to take anything away from each other … such partners are often so tightly connected at the roots that sometimes they even die together.”
Trees can even store memories. They are the oldest living organism on earth, and Simard believes that these memory stores could have a lot to do with that. “They’ve lived for a long time and they’ve lived through many fluctuations in climate” Simard says. “They curate that memory in the DNA. The DNA is encoded and has adapted through mutations to this environment, so that genetic code carries the code for variable climates coming up.” The older trees share this DNA memory through the underground network in order to keep themselves—and their posterity—alive.
The Importance Of Mindful Planting And Harvesting To Ecology
Trees aren’t selfish creatures. The Wood Wide Web connects over 80% of the planet’s land plants to one another, which allows for communication and the transfer of nutrients such as water, carbon and nitrogen between species. Deforestation is a devastation to this ecosystem.
While the U.S. forestry and forest products sector make up one of the most significant employers in U.S. manufacturing, some big steps are being made to make the industry more environmentally friendly. Paper mills aim to use every bit of the tree, even burning wood chips and bark to make renewable energy. The logging industry is being directed towards selectively thinning trees, rather than wiping out complete forests. And more recently, the White House has made plans for selective logging in order to keep catastrophic wildfires to a minimum.
Both Wohlleben and Simard believe that trees go far beyond the basic characteristics of life; they are living, breathing organisms with behaviors much like ours. While Simard knows that trees will likely be harvested and used for as long as human beings are on this planet, she urges us to practice compassion and consciousness when dealing with our ancient friends. “We’ve got to reimagine ourselves as part of this network,” Simard says, “imagine yourself listening to all the other creatures … tap into that below ground network and become part of the conversation.” Simard points out that mindful harvesting is the key to keeping our forests and the ecological habitat it creates healthy and thriving for years to come. “When we do cut, we need to save the legacies, the mother trees,” she proposes, “so they can pass their wisdom on to the next generation of trees, so they can withstand the future stresses coming down the road.” She advocates for planting and allowing natural forest regeneration: “let Mother Nature have the tools she needs in order to heal herself,” she says.
Despite the global net loss of 10 billion trees per year, the growth of U.S. forests currently exceeds the amount harvested by more than 33%. This is a great start, but we all have a part to play in conservation. Here are some ways you can help protect our trees and the ecosystem they create:
- Get involved: Organize a tree planting project in your community or volunteer at one.
- Be mindful: When you’re out for your daily (or weekly) dose of nature therapy, do not travel off trails and try not to disrupt the forest’s delicate ecosystem. That means no stomping around like Godzilla and certainly no carving your name into tree trunks (I’m looking at you, Carl + Kate forever).
- Don’t litter: Pack out what you pack in. This includes seemingly harmless things, such as orange peels and sunflower seed shells. They can take months to decompose and can attract wildlife and other critters towards trails.
- Camp smart: Always make sure your campfires are completely put out.
- Educate yourself: develop a relationship with the trees in your own backyard. Learn how to care for and fertilize them. Tend to sick trees and practice proper maintenance techniques.
- Go paperless: About 39% of the fibers used for making paper come from recycled materials, but we can still do more. Request that bills be sent electronically, print less when possible and opt for online magazine subscriptions.
- Reuse and recycle: many items made from tree matter can be reused, recycled, or repurposed. Reuse gift bags, repurpose old furniture or use old newspapers as gift wrap. The options are endless!
- Take it to your garden: Wood chips and sawdust from tree trimmings make excellent fertilizer when left to decompose in your garden. Contact your local arborist or landscaping company. Many times they will let home gardeners haul chips away for free. Chips hold 70% their volume in water, making them ideal for fruit-bearing trees. In the right climate, a tree can go without being watered for multiple years when it is fertilized with wood chips. They also give back to the ecosystem by providing food and nutrients for worms and microorganisms needed for optimum gardening.
- Get outside: Take some time to appreciate the part trees play in the delicate balance of nature. The more time we spend with Mother Nature, the more we will understand what we can do to help her, and in turn, help ourselves.
You may not often think of that tree you planted all those years ago, but Mother Earth does. She thanks you for it by using it as a tool to provide clean water, soil, oxygen and habitat for hundreds of living things. Because of your tree and the billions of trees being planted annually, we are quite literally sowing a better future for ourselves and generations to come. As the Chinese Proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”
So go ahead, hug a tree today! And better yet: plant one.