I have always loved green growing things….although I’m fairly certain the feelings haven’t always been mutual.
Although lately, I am no longer sure that what I’ve been feeling is actually love. Reason being, love does its utmost to not cause any harm, and I haven’t always done that.
Don’t get me wrong – I haven’t gone out of my way to hurt trees or plants or other rooted living beings. Never! I just haven’t realized some of the things I’ve been doing are hurtful.
For example, let’s say I am walking along and there is a lovely tree on the path with colorful leaves. Maybe I might casually pluck one as I wander by, either to admire it with my partner as we walk or simply because I can.
Maybe after I’m done admiring it, I might keep it or let it fall from my fingers to the ground, discarded.
But never once – until now – have I thought to ask myself if this harms the tree. Did it just lose its leaf in vain? (Yes.) Did that cause pain as I ripped the leaf from the branch? (Yes.) Will not having that particular leaf make the coming years just that little bit much harder for the tree to survive? (Yes.)
Oh how contrite I feel today! And who do I have to thank for this awful feeling in the pit of my soul? His name is Peter Wohlleben; he is a German forestry expert, and he has written a book called “The Hidden Life of Trees: what they feel, how they communicate – discoveries from a secret world.”
With a title like that, of course I had to read it.
And the more I read, the more I felt like I was reading the screenplay for the movie “Avatar,” and living the nightmare of watching an entire network of thinking, feeling, living entities being uprooted in service to short-sighted human greed.
If you haven’t seen “Avatar” and you like movies more than books, you could just watch that movie and pretend like everything the scientist (Sigourney Weaver) says about trees is true….and then realize it IS true.
Personally, I used to think that trees’ inability to move was a liability, but now I feel it might be a strength. Because trees can’t run away, they have to deal with whatever life hands them on the spot, digging down deep to find strength, resources and creative ideas to repel dangers such as pests, storms, toxins and climate change (unfortunately they haven’t figured out how to repel loggers yet, but after reading Wohlleben’s book I feel it is only a matter of time).
Here is an example: trees can make their leaves, twigs and bark taste obnoxious to pests. They do this via chemical warfare, sending out foul tasting compounds through the trunk to the leaves to make their leaves turn bitter.
Trees can also warn other trees that the pests are on their way. They warn other trees by releasing airborne gaseous chemicals that waft towards vulnerable comrades with the message “danger! incoming!” so the other trees can start making their leaves bitter before the pests arrive.
Trees have blood – it is called sap – but it is filled with all the life-giving, immune system-boosting elements they need, just the same as ours.
One of the most amazing things I’ve learned about trees was that trees can reach out to feed a sick relative or neighbor, using their root system to pass along vital carbohydrates in the form of sap sugar. In some cases, surrounding trees will keep a seemingly dead tree stump alive for centuries by feeding it sugar through their roots. Upon closer examination in certain cases, scientists have discovered through testing tree DNA that the stump being fed is quite likely the mama tree to the entire forest!
Mama trees care for their babies just like other mamas care for their young. One way they protect their youngsters is by blocking much of the sunlight so the young trees don’t gobble it all up and grow too fast. When trees grow too fast, they open themselves up to so many health issues. So when trees are planted far away from their moms and have no one to shield the sun for them, these trees typically shoot up quickly and have short, difficult lives, even when they partner with local insects or friendly fungi to help them through the rough early growing years.
Some trees form symbiotic partnerships with different species tree neighbors, even providing a shoulder to lean on (literally) when strong storms blow through. Other trees compete with neighboring trees they don’t like for resources, often in the form of “who can grow the tallest the quickest” contests where the winner takes all the light and the loser…dies.
Speaking of light, trees also sleep – in fact, they sleep every night when the sun sets and they hibernate through the winter season. By studying trees kept in 24/7 light and warmth conditions, research has shown how trees suffer when they can’t get rest. It is very cruel to keep a tree in round-the-clock warm and sunny conditions. They die. They need the cold season to rest and prepare for blooming and growing in the year to come, and they need the dark to sleep.
But most poignantly, trees feel pain just like other beings do. When a deer nips off tender young leaves or a wild pig pulls up roots while feeding, this hurts the tree. Sometimes herbivores will rip off bark to eat or while rubbing their antlers or itchy hides against the trunk of a tree. This also hurts and bleeds.
The bleeding drains away all the sugar sap the tree has been working so hard to photosynthesize and store for the winter. Without their blood, trees starve. Without their bark, trees become vulnerable to pests, including fungi, which can rot a tree trunk slowly from within.
When trees are planted in planned forest or urban settings, often they fail to thrive. Sometimes this is because the species is a poor match for the local weather, but most times it is because the soil is too dense and compacted for the roots to grow properly and because trees are heavily pruned, which is both painful and often deadly. The number of downed urban trees after seasonal storms is a testament to this, as are many of the pest and “failure to thrive” problems these trees experience.
When I read the part in the book about how there is more life contained in a single cup of forest soil than all the people on Earth, my brain cells ground to a screeching halt. The fact that all the life in the soil is microscopic didn’t help me process this any. I now understand why some monks won’t even take a walk without bringing along a broom to first sweep possible beings out of their path so they don’t inadvertently cause death.
Some trees are also much more disciplined than others. Some binge on sunlight and grow branches in all the wrong places, while others pace themselves and continue quietly to grow straight up. Some stay very alert to seasonal cues so they can respond appropriately, while others just continue to gorge until it is too late to prepare properly for the onset of winter.
But it was when I read this paragraph that I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that everything else Wohlleben has written about the hidden life of trees is true:
The forest ecosystem is held in a delicate balance. Every being has its niche and its function, which contribute to the well-being of all. Nature is often described like that, or something along those lines; however, that is, unfortunately false.
For out there under the trees, the law of the jungle rules. Every species wants to survive, and each takes from the others what it needs. All are basically ruthless, and the only reason everything doesn’t collapse is because there are safeguards against those who demand more than their due.
And one final limitation is an organism’s own genetics: an organism that is too greedy and takes too much without giving anything in return destroys what it needs for life and dies out.
It is in this last sentence that my own disconnection from my shared kinship with the green beings around me became the most clear. Homo sapiens is perhaps the only species on this planet that doesn’t perish – at least in the short term – when we take and take and don’t give back.
Trees learn to be generous – or die. Fungi, insects, herbivores, microscopic life forms, birds, carnivores must do the same, because inside of the forest, life is given and taken, and pain comes to all, but left to its own devices, an ancient forest continually balances itself out so what is needed to sustain life remains available to all.
Homo sapiens, well, we don’t really have anyone to teach us generosity. We can’t learn well by watching one another, because all too often the systems we have set up for protection don’t operate impartially and fairly, so they are more confusing than instructive.
But out in nature, it is impossible to cling to any belief that we can save every being, eradicate pain or suffering, take what we need without potentially depriving another, or take without giving something in return. Life no longer feels artificial or confusing. It is simple, straightforward, social for survival’s sake, and so very patient as it manages short-term change for long-term gain.
Nature, like the mother tree in “Avatar,” is neutral. It is there to keep the balance. It is there to make sure the heartbeat of the planet that sustains us all goes on, and to honor both the living and the dead for the part they play in that.
I will never again look at a green living being (or a brown one for that matter) the same again. And once again, I feel like nature is the wise teacher, with me as its backwards, yet contrite and willing, student.
Today’s Takeaway: Yup, this post is a little….sappy. And sanctimonious. And woefully short on any tangible “take home points” (something I am told all good blog posts should include). This post is all of those things I can’t seem to help being when I am at the very bare bones beginning of struggling to grasp just how vast and un-knowable and wise and miraculous the other life forms I share this planet with truly are. I hope you will overlook those flaws and perhaps share a story of your favorite green being – what have the plants and the trees and nature itself taught you? Do you have a green leafy mentor? I’d love to hear your thoughts!