By: BW Ellis

This article comes from a collection of illustrations, poetry, and prose called Tree Souls, currently under development. See sample pages here:

The next time you take a walk in the forest, and are far away from the buzz of modern living, listen to the silence and wonder at the riot happening so quietly around you.

Miles of interconnections, populations of mycelia living in productive harmony with the plants and trees around. The labyrinthian network of life transferring nutrients, relaying alerts, supporting kin, and making life possible for all the rest of us. 

You would think it would be louder, all those conversations between the life all around you. According to renowned mycologist Paul Stamets, there are miles of mycelia under your feet producing the “Earth’s natural internet”. All of that communication, not a single whisper.

The thing is, it isn’t all that different than the way humans designed the internet. The mycelia utilize multiple species to connect and transfer information, humans have hundreds of different network configurations around the world, and in some places there are overlaying networks offering us our pick of options.

Internet providers use hubs that serve as central collectives of information, in the forest those points are called Mother Trees. A social network with every plant in the area attached and a customized delivery system. The only thing missing is the app.

Bend down and touch the earth, or the exposed root of a tree, you will only feel stillness. It’s amazing to think that so much activity could happen so close at hand, and not be apparent to the touch. No feeling of vibration or disturbance in the soil, no way of sensing the hustle and the bustle below.

Through this network, a Mother Tree can feel out toward the saplings that have taken root and connect to them providing nutrients. The amazing thing is that the Mother Tree distributes greater nutrients to and shares more complex interconnections with her kin. You know it when you hug a family member, how it feels different. Seems trees have a similar sense for their offspring.

“Now, we know we all favor our own children, and I wondered, could Douglas Fir recognize its own kin, like mama grizzly and her cub? So we set about an experiment, and we grew mother trees with kin and stranger’s seedlings. And it turns out they do recognize their kin. Mother trees colonize their kin with bigger mycorrhizal networks. They send them more carbon below ground. They even reduce their own root competition to make elbow room for their kids. When mother trees are injured or dying, they also send messages of wisdom on to the next generation of seedlings. So we’ve used isotope tracing to trace carbon moving from an injured mother tree down her trunk into the mycorrhizal network and into her neighboring seedlings, not only carbon but also defense signals. And these two compounds have increased the resistance of those seedlings to future stresses. So trees talk.” – Suzanne Simard

An entire community, holding hands, passing through them the lifeblood of the other. At the root the tree opens up to a symbiotic relationship with the various forms of fungus that weave their beautiful mycelial web. The tree roots provide the sugars manufactured in its leaves, the mycelia contribute the various nutrients drawn from the soil, nutrients the roots themselves could not acquire.

When walking with friends or family, perhaps in a forest, you receive information from them in an assortment of ways, the expressions on their faces, the way they move, their body language. Even in small groups there is a sense of safety in numbers and the shared perception of the group.

The mycelial web within the ground beneath you can also transmit defense signals, alerts toward dangers and stimulation to grow stronger defense systems. They glean the benefit of being in a group, of having a shared purpose and more ways to preserve itself, a genetic advantage continuously evolving over the last billion years.

Breath deeply through your nose, the fragrances you smell are the clouds of seeds and hormones, pheromones and decay.  The subtle tones of scent going by communicate danger when needed. They attract insect activity and in some cases defensive reinforcements.

Some plants release a fragrance that attracts certain insects, an invitation that they simply can’t say no too. They do this to rid themselves of another pest that is prey to the invitees. Soon, all of the plants in the area will signal with the same response and the larvae that was eating its stems or the aphids sucking its leaves dry would be eaten by another.

We cannot see with our eyes the spectacle of life under the ground, yet it thrives beneath us. We cannot hear the gentle conversations being had between tree and plant, sampling and old growth, despite the cacophony that is occurring just outside our audible range. We cannot feel the life blood flowing through the forest with our hands or our feet, we must use our knowledge and information to fill in where our senses fall short.

We cannot know the ways the trees communicate without delving deeper into the science, into the very earth, and seeing this community for what it is. The vast and powerful cities humanity has constructed is but a pale model on the fantastic complexity of the forest and all that lives beneath it.