Mother Trees and Socialist Forests: Is the ‘Wood-Wide Web’ a Fantasy?

In the past 10 years the idea that trees communicate with and look after each other has gained widespread currency. But have these claims outstripped the evidence?

Daniel Immerwahr in The Guardian: The German forester Peter Wohlleben’s surprise bestseller, The Hidden Life of Trees (published in English in 2016), has inaugurated a new tree discourse, which sees them not as inert objects but intelligent subjects. Trees have thoughts and desires, Wohlleben writes, and they converse via fungi that connect their roots “like fibre optic internet cables”. The same idea pervades The Overstory, Richard Powers’ celebrated 2018 novel, in which a forest scientist upends her field by demonstrating that fungal connections “link trees into gigantic, smart communities”.

Both books share an unlikely source. In 1997, a young Canadian forest ecologist named Suzanne Simard (the model for Powers’ character) published with five co-authors a study in Nature describing resources passing between trees, apparently via fungi. Trees don’t just supply sugars to each other, Simard has further argued; they can also transmit distress signals, and they shunt resources to neighbors in need. “We used to believe that trees competed with each other,” explains a football coach on the US hit television show Ted Lasso. But thanks to “Suzanne Simard’s fieldwork”, he continues, “we now realize that the forest is a socialist community”.

The idea of trees as intelligent and cooperative has moved swiftly from research articles to “did you know?” cocktail chatter to children’s book fare. There is more botanical revisionism to come. “We are standing at the precipice of a new understanding of plant life,” the journalist Zoë Schlanger writes. Her captivating new book, The Light Eaters, describes a set of researchers studying plant sensing and behavior, who have come to regard their subjects as conscious. Just as artificial intelligence champions note that neural networks, despite lacking actual neurons, can nevertheless perform strikingly brain-like functions, some botanists conjure notions of vegetal intelligence.

This is an age of many minds, it would seem. Oddly, it took grappling with new technology – the internet, artificial intelligence – for us to see intellectual capacities in our oldest companions, trees. In this new light, they appear much more like us, or perhaps us as we would wish to be. There is a form of redemption on offer: having for centuries treated trees as timber, we are now invited to embrace them as kin.

More here.