It is mid afternoon. Save the slight sound made by rustling leaves by a gentle breeze the forest is quiet. I’m standing near the dead center of an area of forest that covers thousands and thousands of acres and is adjacent to and south of our homestead. It’s rugged country full of high ridges and deep ravines. I am standing in one of the ravines; woods full of American beech, hophornbeam, sugar maple, black birch, red oak, sugar maple, and red maple. Striped maple and witch-hazel fill in the gaps underneath the tree branch canopy. Hugging the ground there is goldthread. Later in the year there will also be cinnamon fern and crested wood fern.
People once tried living here and failed. It was too remote. A good well was hard to come by. There was too much bedrock close to the surface and was not conducive to farming. Sunlight was limited by high ridges both north and south. It is a place best left for wildlife and poorly suited for human habitation. At least for some. I find its remoteness to be exactly what feeds my soul. The wild in the woods is holy to me. Nothing more and nothing less.
It is the quiet that catches my attention on this cool April afternoon. Even the spring birds are silent. If I didn’t know better I would think that the forest was still at rest from a long hard winter. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even though we are a month behind when it comes to spring-like conditions there is still much biological spring time activity. Much of this takes place underground. The microbes in the soil are now active. The temperature is good for natural chemical reactions in the soil. And mycorrhizal fungi are busy transforming soil and making important elements available to the forest.
It is the thought of the symbiotic relationship between the subterranean fungi and the forest that catches my attention. Although we have been aware of mycorrhizal fungi since the latter half of the 18th century we have only recently begun to understand its critical role in the natural world, particularly to plant communities. Not too long ago scientists found that there is a true symbiotic relationship between this underground fungi and the trees that inhabit forests. The fungi is comprised of huge numbers of filaments known as hyphae. The network of hyphae is often referred to as mycelium. The hyphae can process important nutrients like phosphate in a form that are significantly more easy for a plant, a tree for instance, to utilize. In turn the tree’s root provides structure for the fungal system and the fungi can utilize carbohydrates and sugars that are made by the plant. In simple terms it is the perfect relationship. Each plant is, in essence, providing necessary sustenance for the other.
But recent discoveries by scientific researchers have taken the relationship between mycorrhizal fungi and the forest to another dimension. It turns out that plants have, and have had, an effective and communicative superhighway of information that can not only be shared between like species but between different kinds of plants; a natural internet. And when you consider that 80-90 percent of all plant species have a relationship with mycorrhizal fungi and that there are thousands of different kinds of this subterranean fungi the possibilities are nearly infinite. We now know that when a plant gets a disease or is infested by a pest it relays a message through the hyphae. Many plants have defense mechanisms that can be activated which allows them to either survive the onslaught or prevent it from occurring at all. Even more interesting, at least from my point of view, is that one Canadian researcher, Suzanne Simard, has shown that a paper birch can share carbon with a douglas fir via the mycelium. Further, different plants have been shown to share phosphorous and nitrogen. This could be a miraculous advantage, say for instance, for a waterlogged hemlock in standing water to be able to get nitrogen from another nearby tree situated in well drained soils where nitrogen is readily available! Ms. Simard also has demonstrated that mature trees utilizing connected mycelium share carbon with saplings that may have a hard time extracting the element from the soil. Old trees actively taking care of young trees! How wonderful is that!
The mycorrhizal connections can span huge areas. Entire forests are connected via the mycelium network allowing plant communications to be shared amongst a variety of species. It is thought that this information is shared through the release of chemicals. Some believe the chemicals may induce an electromagnetic communication system, others believe the biological chemicals are directly responsible for the messages relayed. That plants have been communicating through a biologic broad band network is simply amazing. And while Al Gore did not say “I invented the internet”, but rather made a political gaffe when he stated in an interview that he “created the internet” through legislation, it is apparent that the original internet was not human made at all. It is pretty clear that the natural world had produced this miraculous creation for thousands and thousands of years before humans even started to use fire.
And here I stand within a forest that has already achieved a marvelous level of communication. A level of natural sophistication that humans have only recently recognized. Natural ecosystems have evolved, perhaps even learned, to have mutualistic relationships that benefit the larger natural system. They seem to recognize the necessity of life and death for preservation of the greater good. They seem to utilize cooperation to achieve goals that benefit all in the long term. Natural ecosystems seem to have a way of recognizing and responding to threats that benefits each member of the ecological community. And they seem to have a communication system that is nearly universal and can be freely utilized by all other species connected.
In retrospect I can only conclude that these natural systems are far superior to the way humans perceive and relate to their environment. We may, in fact, not be the most advanced species on the planet.
It makes one wonder.
Originally written for the Heath Herald in April of 2015.