Friday, September 23, 2016

The Wood Wide Web

If you're planning an autumn walk in the woods, may I waylay you for a moment?  The facts revealed in an intriguing new book will definitely add to your enjoyment.
Let me whet your appetite.

Called "The Hidden Life of Trees", the book's author, Peter Wohlleben, a German forester, was interviewed on the "Today" programme on Radio 4.
"For the past hundred years," he told us, "we've been looking at nature like a machine . . . " he then went on to prove just how mistaken we've been.

Trees, it seems, are tribal.  Each member of the same species is intent not on personal growth, but on the wellbeing of the family.   Each species, according to Peter Wohlleben, is "genetically as far away from each other as you and a goldfish".

He went on to tell his listeners that the trees within each tribe communicate by means of electric signals from the roots, these roots being brain-like structures which have brain-like processes.  This information can range from the whereabouts of nourishment in the soil to warnings of insect attacks.

What's more, it seems that, at the point where the web of roots cease, the information is still carried forward, this time by means of the surrounding fungal network . . . not so much an inter-net as an under-net.  In fact, this is what scientists have named the complex network, they call it The Wood Wide Web.

Just think about it for a moment, centuries before the advent of the computer, trees had an equally efficient social network by means of which they could support each other.  By this understanding, a spruce tree in Sweden, known to be well over nine thousand years old, has been 'online' for a very long time!

The information was fascinating.  Did you know, I didn't, that a mother tree can recognise its own seedling?
Not only that, it can provide the seedling with food, and nurture its growth.  It will even curb its own root growth to make more room for its progeny.

I was equally astonished to hear of the antipathy between the beech and the oak.  A hostility so strong that beech woods can intentionally weaken the growth of any oaks on their periphery.  Willows, it appears, are loners . . . poplars keep themselves to themselves.

Wohlleben's experience had taught him that trees can make decisions, have memories and even different characters.  "City trees," he declared, "are like street kids, isolated and struggling."
I'll be looking at London's trees very differently in the future.

It was an absorbing interview . . . but surely some of its conclusions were anticipated by Shakespeare?

"And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything."

Enjoy your walk!