Wise and Chatty Trees

“As you’re walking through the forest, under a single footprint there’s 300 miles of fungal mycellium stacked end on end. … Can you imagine the activity that’s going on there? … Can you imagine that every time you walk, you’re on this big superhighway with all this stuff moving around all over the place? It’s huge!” —The Science, Culture and Meaning of Forest Wisdom, a talk given by Dr. Suzanne Simard, Ph.D.

You might say this post is about the bio-psycho-social life of trees and people who study them, how a scientist became a forest ecologist, survived a grizzly bear multiple times trying to figure out how trees talk, and helped her Grandpa rescue their dog who had fallen into the outhouse hole.  Fun stuff!  I also want to recommend the book excerpted below.


First, a text, then choose a related video or audio track below …

Excerpt from Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World:

Dr. Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver has discovered that [trees] warn each other using chemical signals sent through the fungal networks around their root tips, which operate no matter what the weather.  Surprisingly, news bulletins are sent via the roots not only by means of chemical compounds but also by means of electrical impulses that travel at the speed of a third of an inch per second.  In comparison with our bodies, it is, admittedly, extremely slow.  However, there are species in the animal kingdom, such as jellyfish and worms, whose nervous systems conduct impulses at a similar speed.  …

Tree roots extend a long way, more than twice the spread of the crown.  So the root systems of neighboring trees inevitably intersect and grow into one another—though there are always some exceptions.  Even in a forest, there are loners, would-be hermits who want little to do with others.  Can such antisocial trees block alarm calls simply by not participating?  Luckily, they can’t.  For usually there are fungi present that act as intermediaries to guarantee quick dissemination of news.

These fungi operate like fiber-optic Internet cables.  Their thin filaments penetrate the ground, weaving through it in almost unbelievable density.  One teaspoon of forest soil contains many miles of these “hyphae.”  Over centuries, a single fungus can cover many square miles and network an entire forest.

The fungal connections transmit signals from one tree to the next, helping the trees exchange news about insects, drought, and other dangers.  Science has adopted a term first coined by the journal Nature for Dr. Simard’s discovery of the “wood wide web” pervading our forests.

What and how much information is exchanged are subjects we have only just begun to research. For instance, Simard discovered that different tree species are in contact with one another, even when they regard each other as competitors.  And the fungi are pursuing their own agendas and appear to be very much in favor of conciliation and equitable distribution of information and resources.

Now meet forest ecologist and forester Dr. Suzanne Simard, presenting broader coverage of the topic in a TED talk.  See the 18-minute TED talk video here, or listen to it in this audio track:


For an hour long talk she gave on the scientific basis for “forest wisdom” titled The Science, Culture and Meaning of Forest Wisdom (it says Art instead of Culture in this display, but that’s not what she called it in the talk):