'The Berkshire Forest,' watercolor by Carolyn Newberger

Illuminating the Hidden Forest, Chapter 51: Needing the forest for the trees

We don’t see each other much, living pretty far away. Our relationship is far from perfect, having its own burls and snarls. Yet we are a forest.

To read the previous chapters of ‘Illuminating the Hidden Forest,’ click here.

July 26, 2020

Reading about trees’ lives, I am often surprised (see “The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben). I’ve learned that a tree without a forest dies. It might live long enough to grace our front lawn, only to be cut down by the next owner who prefers an open landscape. Or it might live 200 years in a city park and then decline for want of neighbors, slowly pining away until the beetles, seizing opportunity, invade the sad and weakened tree.

You see, not only do trees communicate underground, they need each other both above and below. The big trees need the smaller trees. The small trees need the big trees. They may compete, sure, but together they breathe moisture into the air, creating an atmosphere. Their thick canopies keep the sun from drying out the earth. Their dense thickets keep the wind from penetrating. Their intertwining branches hold each other up through difficult circumstances, like windstorms. Their interconnecting roots can nourish and protect each other. If one member of a tree family is invaded by pests, it produces toxins that repel them. These toxins also send neural signals through the roots where they are picked up by their neighbors, alerting them to produce toxins of their own, preemptively, to repel the pests before they even have a chance to invade.

I think about these marvels of tree society as I walk through the woods on July days. After a midsummer thunderstorm, the forest is moist and fresh. I discover new mushrooms pushing joyously, abundantly from their decaying hosts. Their energy energizes me, pulsing through the lassitude of a summer confined to home, without the pleasures and distractions of dinners with friends and summer entertainments.

I remember a day two summers ago, in what feels like another universe, when my brother and sister-in-law visited from their home in Maine. Enthusiastic chanterelle collectors in the Maine woods, we walked our Berkshire woods together in search of oysters and chanterelles. Later we surveyed our finds, deciding together what was safe or not to eat, erring on the side of caution. After a mushroom omelet, we hugged good-bye, knowing that they would leave early the next morning for their long drive.

We don’t see each other much, living pretty far away. Our relationship is far from perfect, having its own burls and snarls. Yet we are a forest. Our roots are entwined with each other and with our other brother, with our children’s bonds of cousinship and with their children’s deepening connection.

Now in a time of forced rather than natural separation, we all check in with each other from time to time, our roots sturdy and enduring, enjoined to transmit signals to each other both of safety and of danger.