photo credit, Angela Benito on Unsplash
Just look at these fine upstanding citizens in my neighborhood. I feel good when I am among them. We all intuitively know that time spent in the company of trees relaxes us and generates a feeling of well being. But it took until the early 1990s to give it a specific name when the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries coined the term Shinrin-yoku — which translates roughly as forest bathing. Could it be that forest bathing is good for us because we enter a similar environment to the 2.3 billion-year-old nexus of life's triumph over adversity? That is the time of the first mass extinction on Earth when against all odds, our ancestors and those of trees diverged. Before that we were all bacteria, feasting on nutrients and emitting oxygen as a waste product. Oxygen, in its free radical form is destructive because it robs other elements in an attempt to stabilise. The Oxygen Catastrophe en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Oxygenation_Event reduced all life on Earth to scattered remnants. But life miraculously invented the ability to breathe in one of the earliest examples of the stunning creativity of an intelligent universe. Ever since, trees and plants consume our waste, carbon dioxide, and provide us with oxygen in return. We return the favor by exhaling.
Thanks to recent groundbreaking research in both North America and Europe, we now know that when we enter a forest, we are in a community. That tree society is capable of communicating among themselves, providing help for the weak and afflicted and defence from attacks. Scientists are discovering astonishing things about the lives of trees that give us pause to reflect on the stunning similarities to life as we have come to know it.
For instance, in just the last few decades, research uncovered the wood wide web. This is an ancient (450 million-year-old) symbiotic relationship of fungi and tree roots. It is termed mycorrhiza, which like the name, reflects a growing-together of the Greek words for fungus (mykós) and root (riza). The mycorrhiza facilitates a mutually beneficial arrangement of food donations in the form of carbon or sugar that trees gain through photosynthesis to be traded for other nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, which the fungi extracts from the soil with enzymes the tree lacks. The most incredible revelation about the wood wide web is that it is not only a resource sharing mechanism among trees but also a communication superhighway. If one tree is under attack by insects, for instance, it can raise an alarm through this network to other trees. Those forewarned trees raise their defences with chemicals that taste bad to the invaders. After 30 years of research in Canadian forests, ecologist Suzanne Simard states, "Trees talk, often and over vast distances." In other words, trees have their own social network. Over the wood wide web, they use electrical signals from their root tips underground for a myriad of purposes. Admittedly, the signals travel very slowly, about a third of an inch per second, but they help trees exchange information about insects, drought and other dangers.
Peter Wohlleban, a forester from Germany, wrote an astonishing book, The Hidden Life of Trees, which became a bestseller in Germany and went on to become an International Bestseller. He says "trees are quite similar to human families, the parents live together with their children, communicate with them, support them as they grow, share nutrients with those who are sick and struggling and even warn each other of impending dangers." A mother tree recognises it's kin and selectively attends to their needs over other trees that are not related.
In addition to the mycorrhizal network, we have known for quite a while that trees have other ways of communicating, through scent. It has been conclusively shown that acacia trees emit a pheromone scent, ethylene, when being feasted upon by giraffes to signal other trees in the vicinity. The giraffes bypass the bitter leaves of the fore-warned neighbors in favour of those from trees who are upwind and unwary of the threat.
These exciting revelations raise big questions about the line we draw between ourselves and other species. We elevate ourselves above nature and view it as a vast storehouse to be utilised at our discretion. The next time we take a forest bath, let's pause and take a big breath and allow this astonishing knowledge to penetrate us. These species lives are inextricably twined together with ours -- they provide us with the raw material for our next breath! In addition, they care for their kin and their extended community and find ways to assist them. In short, we share many of the same qualities.