Now, it is time to head back to the trees.
We literally are going to talk about trees in this blog, but I mean this figuratively as well about a sense of mental escape. Thinking about “heading back to the trees” gives me a sense of calm and envelopment,
which honestly is the last thing I feel from the energy of the world right now. I also mean it as a call to arms (perhaps a “call to branches” would be the catchy phrase here). The planet is having a hard time and our behaviors toward nature is anything except for calm and enveloping. But, because of the pandemic, people have been heading back to the trees instead of their office. Will they continue when the office doors swing open? And if they do, will it be enough to slow the neglect and destruction of our forests? That sure would be beautiful, but I am thinking that the “call to branches” may still be in order.
Trees can “communicate” through electrical and chemical signals that travel through their subterranean subway system of networked roots and the fungal hyphae. Mind blowing! And they can differentiate between their own roots and those of another species. Still, it does not stop there. Dr. Massimo Maffei, a plant biologist at the University of Turin, published in 2007 that trees are able to distinguish their own roots from those of relatives of their own species (con-specifics). Trees have kin recognition, a term we use most frequently in applications with the animal kingdom. Kin recognition is the ability of an organism to tell the difference between related and unrelated members of their own species. Kin recognition is believed to have evolved through a pressure to not mate with your own family or even your own offspring. Seems easy, but in nature, many species do not have as many outwardly distinguishing characteristics as we do. And most organisms live near their relatives. Kin recognition is evolution’s gift of being able to tell a brother or daughter from another who is unrelated, and therefore more genetically diverse, and diversity in turn creates offspring with stronger immune systems.
Kin recognition also is a gift that allows us to see our family around us so that we can reach out and help them when they are in need. In fact, lending a helping hand (or branch) seems to be the norm, rather than the exception. It is a tough world out there for all of Earth’s inhabitants. Research indicates that trees show more affection to their relatives than they do to non-relatives. How?! This connection among individual trees can be observed in some tree canopies where trees grow sturdier, wider branches when encountering non-relatives in the canopy. Wider, sturdier branches are more competitive for space and light, whereas tree relatives want to allow the light to shine down on their kin. They do not want to take
anything away from their family, which also takes away from one’s self in the game of evolution. Trees also will intertwine their roots with those of family to a greater degree. Taken directly from Peter Wohlleben’s book, “Such partners are often so tightly connected at the roots that sometimes they even die together.”
It is time for me to head back to the trees. I have been without my family and close friends since the pandemic started. My roots are feeling like they need some moisture, some fungal hyphae, some intertwining. I am going to see my parents this weekend for their 50th Anniversary. If things like that still happen, we surely can still have hope for the trees. I am so proud of them for keeping their roots intertwined, weathering the wind and the rain, and for always letting the light shine down.
Please take a moment of pause and think about the trees in your life. Who makes sure the light shines down on you? And whose roots do you nourish? Now more than ever, we need nourishment, we need light, and we need to intertwine our roots. We need a call to branches. It looks like we may even need to take a new perspective on how we are defining kinship and family.
Written by Dr. Kimberly Andrews