What We Can Learn About Community From Trees and Mycelium

Updated: Jul 26, 2020

Trees are fascinating organisms. As we know, they provide the very air we breathe, habitats for wildlife, they reduce greenhouse heating, and so much more. However, what many people might not be aware of is the underground communication network between trees in the forests we know and love. This example of community, where all beings are interconnected and are equal, is extremely valuable for us to understand.

Dr. Suzanne Simard, a forest ecology professor at the University of British Columbia, has devoted her research to discover the deeply rooted connection that trees share with one another she calls the “wood wide web.” Where all species of trees, in fact, look after one another. There is no discrimination. You may not be able to see it on your typical walk through the woods, but deep underneath the forest floors lies their social network, the ‘wood wide web.’ Here, communities of trees’ roots are intertwined in an amazingly complex and sophisticated way. Through the roots of every tree, nutrients are transferred and messages of threats are communicated to the entire community through a network of fungi called mycelium, or best known as the mycorrhizal network.

Not long ago, humans believed that trees competed against one another, stealing nutrients and hoarding resources, but that isn’t true. Thanks to Dr. Simard’s work, we now know they share their resources and use a mycorrhizal network in a mutualistic symbiosis. If one tree gets sick, healthy individuals can use their social network, the mycelium, to send nutrients over to the sick tree to nurse itself back to health. This isn’t a completely selfless act, because to have a thriving forest all members need to be healthy and protected. If the neighboring trees do not work together to treat the infected tree, the infection will soon spread. Eventually rippling down through the whole ecosystem, creating an unhealthy forest.

Through the fungal network, trees also warn each other of threats like droughts, diseases, and invasive species. When one tree is notified of the threat, it sends the message out through their social network so the other trees can build up their defense enzymes and prepare. The mycelium makes sure to distribute equitable information about the danger or availability of resources to all neighboring trees - no matter the species, there is no hierarchy. By sending nutrients and threats of danger to their competition, they are also helping out their own network.

One tree does not make a forest. A forest thrives when every individual plays a part in the health and prosperity of the forest, therefore taking care of all the living organisms that call it home. If one member is missing from the equation, it requires the whole network to restructure. If we want to build a strong, connected community, I suggest we learn a thing or two from trees.

Humans are a lot like trees if we think about it. Especially when it comes to our communities; we share resources, we take care of each other when we are sick, and we warn each other of possible danger. But at times, we forget that we need to nourish those deep connections with each other in order to succeed. By neglecting our community and only looking out for our own self-interests, we eventually grow tired and weak like trees do. We need every member to actively play a role in building a strong and resilient society to lessen the impacts of threats like food insecurity, pollutants, diseases, and natural disasters. Is it better for us to only look after our own self-interests during times of crisis, or instead, uniting one another to build a bigger defense?

By understanding that everyone plays a valuable role in the well-being of the places we call home, it furthers the growth of our society. From the farmer to the waitress, to the banker, medical staff, mechanics, truck drivers, educators, and manufacturers; we all play a key role in helping each other survive. If one member is absent, we all suffer the consequences. You see, we all have our own role in the success of our community, yet we continually choose to emotionally distance ourselves from each other. The further we detach ourselves from our connections to each other, the more our communities fall apart.

Community involvement doesn’t just mean showing up physically. It’s using the resources right in front of us to show the people around us that we care. Picking up the phone, sending a message, writing a letter, sending a gift, letting the people you cherish know that you are there for them if they need you. Get to know your neighbors, stop by their homes, make them a meal and drop it off, send a little note. Talk to your co-workers, ask them how their day is going and actually care about the answer. If we can create a vastly complex social network like the internet, we can create a vast network of real people around us.

It’s time for us to view communities like how trees treat their community. From looking at trees and how they share resources and information, there is no discrimination amongst species. Everyone gets the same amount of information and resources, even more resources when they are struggling. Let’s do the same for humanity.

So be like a tree. Foster deeper connections and appreciation for one another. Check-in with your neighbors, offer resources if you can, share your wisdom, warn each other of threats, and offer support. Trust that your community has your best interests at heart and understand there is no hierarchy if we all work together. You never know when the day will come when you may need support from your neighbors. Pay it forward.

As Dr. Simard says, “unseen connections exist.” We just have to look for them.

- Marina M. McCoy


Drawdown edited by Paul Hawken




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