Week of January 30th, Haven’t you always known, that all things are interconnected?
Until recently, the conventional wisdom was that trees competed for light, earth, and nutrients. Not so bicentennial breath, as Johnny Carson used to say. Not since Suzanne Simard, a Professor of Forest Ecology, daughter of a horse logger in British Columbia, changed the scientific landscape. As a child, she helped to rescue her dog from a deep pit in the forest. She noticed, and I’m sure you have too, if you’ve ever gardened, that roots are covered in white stringy, spider-web like stuff. Yes, that was the initial AHA moment; she wondered what the stuff was and what purpose it served. Was it an underground web, she thought? She went on to study forestry.
Would it surprise you to know that trees communicate as a group and as a system of interconnected beings, much like people do? As a network and individually, trees: talk to each other, help each other, help their young, share nourishment, warn each other of impending dangers, and provide legacies.
In her studies, she ran across, an experiment that determined, in a laboratory setting, that pine seedlings could transmit carbon between each other: The scientists used Carbon14, a radioactive isotope, and a Geiger counter to track carbon movement between the seedlings. The question was, what happened in a real forest?
Twenty-five years and 80 seedlings latter, planted deep in the forest, consisting of paper birch, Douglas fir, and western red cedar Suzanne was ready to determine if trees talked back and forth between each other. So she used two different carbon isotopes C-13 and C-14 to determine the extent of the conversation:
“I was so excited, I ran from plot to plot and I checked all 80 replicates. The evidence was clear. The C-13 and C-14 was showing me that paper birch and Douglas fir were in a lively two-way conversation. It turns out at that time of the year, in the summer, that birch was sending more carbon to fir than fir was sending back to birch, especially when the fir was shaded. And then in later experiments, we found the opposite, that fir was sending more carbon to birch than birch was sending to fir, and this was because the fir was still growing while the birch was leafless. So it turns out the two species were interdependent, like yin and yang. … everything came into focus for me. I knew I had found something big, something that would change the way we look at how trees interact in forests….”
Remember that underground web, from an earlier paragraph? That stuff is Mycorrhiza (fungus root) it forms a mycelium which colonizes and infects the roots of trees and plants. “And not only that, that mycelium connects different individuals in the forest, individuals not only of the same species but between species, like birch and fir, and it works kind of like the Internet.” A network.
The Full Story and the science behind it can be experienced at TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design). It’s a wonderful story about a dedicated, passionate scientist. https://www.ted.com/talks/suzanne_simard_how_trees_talk_to_each_other/transcript?language=en#t-458560
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Carlos Dominguez, CFP® – Portfolio Manager
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