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Excerpt from The Myth of Human Supremacy

Mother Trees (p. 95)

From chapter "Value-Free Science "

It has long been clear to me that the most important elements in evolution—which really means in life—are biotic communities, who are themselves living beings. Just as your own body is made up of other living beings, some of whom share your DNA and the vast majority of whom do not, so, too, the larger living bodies of forests and grasslands and ponds and streams and rivers and oceans are made up of other smaller living beings, living beings whose lives are as precious to them as the larger being’s is to it, and as yours is to you. And these smaller beings affect the health of the larger being. And just as your body is permeable, so, too are the bodies of these others. A river flows into a forest; water enters the body of the forest. The river flows out; water leaves the body of the forest. Both the river and the forest are alive. And when salmon spawn and die in this river, this is the river, these salmon, feeding the forest. And when trees drop their leaves into the water, this is the forest, these trees, feeding the river. When the river floods, the river and the forest feed each other.

What can seem destructive may not be. Bears girdle trees, which kills them. But forests need standing dead trees as homes for some of those who live there. And dead trees can continue to feed everyone else, by slowly becoming soil as they are eaten by animals, fungi, other plants, bacteria, and so on, and in other ways as well.

Have you ever heard of what are called “Mother Trees”? These are big old trees who are connected to swaths of forest through the mycelial networks, and who help to feed and maintain the other trees—especially the younger ones—in that part of the forest. Even after the trunks die, the mother trees continue to feed these others as long as they can. As one enthusiastic description has it: “Counter to Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ theory, Mother Trees do not compete for resources; rather, their presence ensures the healthy survival and diversity of younger, newer trees [and other plants], as they actively transfer vital nutrients and forest wisdom via an overlapping, interconnected, fungi-rich web of shared roots. If a Mother Tree is to die, she will consciously transfer her resources to her interlinked community of living trees before she fully collapses, knowingly ‘passing her wand’ to the next generation.”

If all the talk of “wisdom” and “consciously” and “passing her wand” freaks you out, we can instead speak the language of forestry: “Forest ecologist Suzanne Simard and her colleagues at the University of British Columbia have made a major discovery: trees and plants really do communicate and interact with each other. They discovered an underground web of fungi connecting the trees and plants of an ecosystem. This symbiotic web enables the purposeful sharing of resources, that consequently helps the whole system of trees and plants to flourish. ‘The big trees were subsidizing the young ones through the fungal networks,’ Simard says. ‘Without this helping hand, most of the seedlings wouldn’t make it.’ Dr. Simard was led to the discovery by the observation of webs of bright white and yellow fungal threads in the forest floor. Many of these fungi were mycorrhizal, meaning they have a beneficial, symbiotic relationship with a host plant, in this case tree roots. Microscopic experimentation revealed that the fungi actually move carbon, water and nutrients between trees, depending upon their needs. At the hub of a forest’s mycorrhizal network stand the ‘Mother Trees’—large, older trees that rise above the forest, a concept illustrated in the movie Avatar. These ‘Mother Trees’ are connected to all the other trees in the forest by this network of fungal threads, and may manage the resources of the whole plant community. Simard’s latest research reveals that when a Mother Tree is cut down, the survival rate of the younger members of the forest is substantially diminished.”

Forests, and the trees who live in them and are parts of them, know how absurd it is to ask, “Why should one plant waste energy clueing in its competitors about a danger?”

Who are the intelligent ones?