No, it’s not a joke. Trees have much to teach us, or at least underscore, about living together. They have been doing it for many millions of years, and we are only now beginning to understand their remarkable social life. For trees are social beings. The title of the 2016 bestselling book by the life-long German forester Peter Wohlleben says it all: The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate… Discoveries from a Secret World. His book provides a powerful antidote to the flawed world view of the Ayn Rand acolytes and many modern-day libertarians.
Drawing on his own extensive experience and the ground-breaking discoveries by the forest scientist Suzanne Simard at the University of British Columbia, Wohlleben shows us that an established forest, rather than being an arena for individual self-interest and unbridled competition, is in fact a highly cooperative community. Most trees are members of a complex ecosystem, with an extensive underground network of interconnected root systems and symbiotic partnerships with various mycorrhizal fungi, along with many interactions above ground in the forest canopy.
Underground, the trees often share nutrients and water, communicate in various ways (often with fungi serving as their Internet), and synchronize their activities for their mutual benefit. Sometimes they may even assist an ailing or weak tree by providing it with nutrients and water. It’s a form of enlightened self-interest, because each tree benefits from the combined, synergistic, efforts of the other trees in creating a microclimate, resisting windstorms, preventing soil erosion, distributing and sharing water, fighting pathogens, and more.
Above ground, they find many ways to limit their competition, coordinate their growth, and cooperate. Here is one striking example. The ubiquitous acacia trees on the African savanna are frequently preyed upon by giraffes, which feed on their leaves. The trees respond to an attack by pumping toxic substances into their leaves that eventually repel the giraffes. But more remarkable, they also emit a gas (ethylene) that warns other nearby trees and signals to them to start their own defensive responses. The giraffes are soon forced to move on.
Wohlleben has many more examples in his book of how trees both contribute to and benefit from their communities. To borrow a famous line from the poet John Donne, no tree is an island, entire unto itself. When will our libertarians learn that the most fundamental human value is not freedom but reciprocity. We depend on one another. The arc of evolution bends toward synergy.
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