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Learning from the ‘Wood Wide Web’

Written by MJ Ryan, SheEO Development Guide

Image source: Macrina Busato // Lotus Fruit

I always pay attention when I hear something three times.  Especially in one week. That’s what happened to me recently when three people spoke to me about the work of Suzanne Simard on tree communication. Then an email blog from “On Being” written by Pádraig Ó Tuama dropped into my inbox on the very same topic. This work, as Ó Tuama points out has profound lessons “for any group of people who are seeking to find ways of vitality together, away from an imagination that only sees progress as a competitive process.” 

Simard’s research, writes Ó Tuama “has shown how trees communicate with and nurture each other, supported by the fungal network below ground. She sees that a forest, rather than being a gathering of individual trees in competition with each other, is a single organism wherein support – nutrients, the stuff of life – is shared in a system of benefit rather than competed for in a system of dominance. 

“Her initial research on what became known as the `Wood Wide Web’ was rejected for publication initially; modern western scientific ecology had heavily invested in the understanding that trees compete. Her findings around collaboration — shared regeneration networks, elder trees providing benefit for saplings, `Mother Trees’ acting as caregivers for the network, and a vast underground system of fungal mycelium — first received skepticism in the scientific community. But eventually — through painstaking perseverance and the overwhelming evidence she and her colleagues presented — it transformed her field. 

“Suzanne Simard is keen to point out that what is being validated now through scientific research is not a `new’ understanding. Aboriginal communities have long held understandings that humans are part of ecosystems, connected together, that `the world is an entwined place,’ as her colleague Dr. Teresa Ryan says. Dr. Ryan introduced Simard to the work of Gerald Bruce (subiyay) Miller of the Skokomish Nation, who wrote about how his people knew of the networks in the soil that nurtured the forest for millennia. “Western science is really just the little sister to Aboriginal science,” she says. 

“If this practice of communal interdependence sounds like a beneficial way of learning for human communities, it’s because it is. `These patterns exist throughout nature because they’re efficient at moving stuff around, at communication, and they’re resilient. And they’re meant to help us be reproductive societies,’ Suzanne says, commenting on what scientists are now calling `complex adaptive systems’ — systems like forests, systems like communities of people. …

“Such reciprocity, such balance, such generous giving of self into a complex system of support and flourishing can seem like an idealized imagination of how human communities should mirror the system evidenced in forests. Suzanne Simard points out that in networks of trees, the old do help the young, and the wonder, vitality, and health evidenced comes about through mutuality rather than competition; yet these systems involve death and decay, too, as all systems do, and that it’s through the humus of such decay that new life can also be nurtured.”

To hear Krista Tippet’s full interview with Simard, here is the link. I am still mulling over the message for me in the Wood Wide Web.

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