Walking through a forest is enough to evoke a sense of calm in most people. It’s a primitive feeling, one that has evolved over thousands of years and been handed down from gene pool to gene pool. That calmness, or de-stressing that we feel is the culmination of the scents from the plants, rustling of leaves, the softly crunch underfoot and the towering heights of hundred year old trees. It’s difficult to replicate the ‘forest effect’ in any other setting.
We have assumed for thousands of years that all this ‘just is’. But what if its more? Science is slowly beginning to prove what hippies, new-agers and outcasts have been saying for years -that we are all one. That the emotion we feel going through a forest is not just some random feeling that happens to most people – but is a deliberate connection to (and partly created by) trees and plants which communicate with us and each other so that we may all mutually survive. At this time, when more and more people are becoming aware of something non-physical in our nature and that they aren’t half mad, it isn’t a crazy jump of intellect to think that perhaps we are connected to nearly everything around us.
From school, we are taught that trees compete with other for vital resources like light, nutrients and water. ‘Some trees grow their canopy so tall to block the light from smaller trees thus ensuring their survival’ we are told. The forest then, is a mass gladiatorial arena in which only the fittest survive. Something like the Royal Rumble from the WWE played out excruciating slow over hundreds of years as trees mature.
New research is continually throwing the assumptions of old into the bin. More and more studies are instead saying that forests are a mass of connected trees and plants, communicating with each other over vast distances. Instead of trying to commit mass murder and bumping each other off, plants and trees are instead co-operating and communicating to ensure their mutual survival – with trees understanding that the survival of others is necessary for their own survival.
Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology who teaches at the University of British Columbia carried out research that shows trees share carbon, even with other species. Simard discovered ‘hub trees’ i.e. mother trees, communicated over vast mycorrhizal networks. These are underground fungal networks that transfer carbon, water and other nutrients between trees. The mother tree would feed ‘child’ trees over this network. In the course of her experiments, she found that there was more carbon sent by Douglas Firs (the mother trees) to baby firs that came from that mother tree than other baby firs not related to that specific mother tree. She also found that mother trees change their root system to make way for baby trees. And this communication extended to trees of different species – fir trees were also exchanging nutrients with beech trees over the course of the season. The networking between trees and plants is so extensive, the term ‘Wood Wide Web’ is gaining traction.
A former state forester in Germany, Peter Wohlleben, claimed trees were social creatures that had sex, talk to each other and look after their young (not necessarily in that order I think!). His claims let to his book becoming a best seller in Germany and petitions by scientists against the book calling for facts, not fiction.
Even over forty years ago, scientists figured out that acacia trees produced a chemical when under attack – in this case by hungry giraffes chewing on the leaves. Within three minutes, these trees had pumped a noxious chemical into their leaves which turned the giraffes right off. They also released another chemical, ethylene, that drifted to neighbouring trees warning them of imminent danger. Any tree picking up the danger signal also released chemicals into their leaves – to the extent that giraffes would wander off about one hundred meters before chowing down on some tree leaves again.
What does all this prove? Language as we understand it is something verbal. We make sounds to communicate but a broader understanding of language could encompass non verbal cues. How do we describe trees that communicate with each other signaling the need for carbon, water or nutrients and also warn each other of approaching danger? And even more so, if trees are capable of thinking in this manner are they conscious in even a primitive sense?
We tend to associate consciousness with the brain, that piece of us that ‘thinks’ when we are ‘awake’. We then look at another species, see no brain and so assume that they are not ‘conscious’. Yet this simplistic thinking explains nothing of how plants have survived longer than any other life form on earth. We have yet to pinpoint the source of our consciousness, other than a general description that somehow, it ‘resides’ in the brain (a description that is very much a Western understanding. Shamans and eastern traditions describe consciousness as stemming from the heart area – or the emotive areas of our bodies). These new discoveries showing trees and plants communicating with each suggest something more – that consciousness is not just something special to humans but permeates all of life – brain or no brain.
Consciousness is that aspect of us that is responsible for all our bodily functions while we drift off every night into a deep sleep – our consciousness keeps us alive until we wake in the morning. It is our consciousness that produces our dreams and nightmares, when we are pretty much incapacitated and incapable of rational thought.
Part of what we can call our rational consciousness is influenced by our hormones – chemicals within our bodies that signal different things to our brains. Scientists now believe that our gut is responsible for so much more than just digestion with more foreign bacteria living within us than the number of cells in our bodies – we are outnumbered at least three to one by alien life in our own bodies. It’s questionable who is in the driving seat – us or the alien bacteria? Part of this mutual relationship is the hormones these bacteria release, signaling to our brains that we are happy or sad, heartbroken, joyful or stressed. There is a whole load of truth to be found in the ‘happy gut, happy brain’ movement.
Part of these hormones and chemicals can also be picked up by others around us in the form of pheromones – chemical scents that are released externally (hormones are internal) and which we have subconsciously learned to recognise over thousands of years. For a long while, some dubious websites have been selling pheromones that promise effortless sexual domination for the wearer. Research has also shown that even our scent (and the stage of the menstrual cycle) can provoke a response in the opposite sex.
Even though the scientific jury is still out on all of this and even if humans don’t produce pheromones in the way animals do, there is little doubt that the scents we pick up on every day affect the way way we feel and act. The very act of lighting incense or filling the home with fresh flowers, the aroma of brewing coffee, the smell of a new batch of bread or even the fumes from a revving engine are all testament to the power of smell.
What then, if plants and trees have learned to release scents just as they have with the hungry giraffes. That they have a conscious ability to communicate with each other and with different species is no different to saying that they have learned to ‘communicate’ with us albeit in a language we have so far been unconsciously picking up on.
Their releasing chemicals that affect our behaviour is no different to them releasing chemicals to ward off a hangry giraffe. Or a flower releasing chemicals to attract a bee. What if forests are releasing chemicals in an effort to please us so that we might spare them, or at least take stuff from the forest that helps it survive
That their actions would produce a sense of calm with us might be no accident but a deliberate attempt at survival.We are fast approaching an understanding of our living planet like something out of Avatar, that blue tinged world where the indigenous people have an evolutionary connection with their earth, plants, animals and trees.