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  • Writer's pictureIsaac yelchin

Trees, Friends, and Fungus

Cool and rough, but gentle, is the bark of the coast live oak in the palm of my hand. A slight whistle of breeze melodically waves the crown of the oak. Light spears through for a moment and I squint. Then the breeze settles and the crown of leaves with it. At this moment a leaf is dislodged at its petiole and it flutters down, swirling in its lightness. I reach out a hand and the leaf jabs a spike into my thumb and bounces off to nestle into the bed of its fallen kin.

I love the feeling of the coast live oaks spined leaves as it reminds me of my childhood. I ran barefoot, always stopping and hopping every few steps to dislodge an oak leaf. My feet are not so strong anymore and I wear shoes outside, but every now and then I take them off to feel the earth and leaves. I pretend I can feel the world below, and wish I could hear what the trees are saying to one another. “What in the world is this fanatic hippie talking about?” You probably are thinking to yourself while reading this.

This tree communication is in fact scientifically proven, and thoroughly studied. Below the ground, among the roots, is a rich fungal network known as mycelium. It is present across the world hidden in the soil. It intertwines and connects the roots of many trees and plants. Not only does it connect these trees to one another, but acts as a conduit for the trees to communicate and interact.

Through the mycelium trees can send signals, and nutrients. If a leaf eating caterpillar begins chewing the leaves of a tree, then the tree sends out a message through its roots into the mycelia. This message is delivered to the other trees in the grove to notify them of the presence of danger. Then the other trees can begin preparing toxins or other defenses to ward off the caterpillars. The other trees can even send help back to the original tree in the form of toxins or extra nutrients to make up for the damage done by the caterpillar.

These interactions are common among forests, and the idea that trees are solitary and fighting for survival against one another has been proven wrong. Trees of different species will help each other, sending vital resources back and forth, making up for and supporting their neighbors weaknesses. Old tall trees with large crowns accessing all the sunlight can share the food they produce with younger trees in the shade of the understory. Often trees will favor their offspring and send nutrients to saplings grown from their own seeds. This communal living is common and trees work together to thrive.

If this sparks your interest, I recommend reading Peter Wohlleben’s book, The Hidden Life of Trees. It compiles his own experience studying these connections, with many of the scientific papers published on the subject. He discusses a beautiful interaction he discovered in which he found an old stump, that had been felled four to five hundred years prior, still alive. This is impossible as the stump has no leaves to create energy and sustain its life. However, he realized that the neighboring trees had been feeding the stump enough nutrients to survive for the last half millennium.

This astonishing discovery brings a fascinating question to light. Why would a tree put energy into keeping a stump alive for hundreds of years? This goes against the biological principle, as there is no direct benefit to the feeder tree from keeping the stump alive. The only benefit I can see is an emotional one, a desire to keep an old friend around for sentimental reasons. But then this complicates things further, can a tree, a being with no brain, have emotions? Friends? Be sentimental? This discovery shakes the very foundation of what we believe to be the truth about the human experience. We have taken it for granted that we are some elevated beings, the only creature on earth capable of complex emotions and feelings.

Our assistant director, Marilyn Fordney, told me her father, James Toshio Takahashi, was a landscape architect and gardener with a hobby of raising and cultivating Japanese bonsai trees. She said he would daily talk to his plants and this interaction made his plants thrive and always appear in excellent health. Maybe the expression "he or she has a green thumb" is because some individuals are close to their plants and establish a relationship.

What does it say about our self importance if a tree can treat a friend with this level of care and respect for eight times our lifespan? It clearly details that the idea of consciousness and awareness present in other lifeforms is far more advanced than we have previously thought. To me, it details that we must completely rethink how we assign consciousness or subjective experience to other organisms, and probably assume that most life is aware and functioning on a similar level to our own. As something so foreign in biology as a tree can have such a strong “human-like” friendship, it must mean that living, and sharing life, and experience with another, is not “human-like” but a commonality, and necessity, for most of the life on earth.

Shocked? Surprised? Let us know what you think in the comments below. I also recommend heading out to your closest tree and showing it a little love.

Photos are of California plants and fungi and were taken by Isaac Yelchin.

Isaac Yelchin is foremost a herpetologist. He studies lizards, frogs, newts, and the like. Specifically, he spends all day and night thinking about what it is like to be an animal. What are the animals thinking about? What is their perspective? When he should be working, he sits and stares at his pet lizard asking himself these questions.

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