Throughout time, we’ve turned to nature to understand and define the human experience.
We reap what we sow, we turn over new leaves, we put down deep roots, and so on and so forth. Perhaps because we are inextricably part of nature or perhaps because the same rules that describe the earth describe all things, nature has so much to teach us.
Specifically, we can learn important life lessons and qualities from trees.
Last June, I spent time in New Mexico alone for a sort of artistic residency, hiking all day every day for two weeks. Thus, began a fascination with the arboreal world that has endured a full year to the date.
Throughout, I’ve been constantly impressed with the number of lessons we can learn from trees: grow towards the light, grow deep before you grow tall, learn to bend with the wind, be patient… Each of those nuggets of wisdom is invaluable.
However, if there’s one thing I think we should learn from trees, it’s this life lesson. People often bother themselves about whether their trees are growing too close together. It’s a common concern among gardeners and homeowners.
The worry is that, like most life, trees that are close to each other will compete with each other for resources. And if this is the case, one of those trees will die.
This concern stems directly from the foresting industry. Foresters’ main objective is that trees grow as fast as possible. Therefore, it makes sense to increase each tree’s access to resources by thinning out the competition. And, in a way, it works. Foresters grow thick and tall trees. But at a mere 100 years old, these trees are felled.
The interesting thing is, when trees are allowed to grow older than 100 years, they grow much better when they collect thickly in a forest situation.
In fact, trees of the same species are more than just uncompetitive — they actively give resources to the trees around them. Former forester Peter Wohlleben explains how and why this happens in his book The Hidden Life of Trees.
Beneath the soil, the root system of a forest is extensive and complicated. Each tree extends nearly twice the spread of its crown. Then, each tree’s root system is inextricably connected with the trees around it, creating a complex network system cleverly coined the “wood wide web.”
Trees are literally always in physical contact with each other. But they’re also in a sort of telepathic contact with each other…insofar as plants can be. No, trees don’t have brains. But they do have an awareness, a sort of sensory understanding of the surrounding plants. This awareness is not used to take out the competition.
Instead, it’s utilized to boost the surrounding trees. Research reveals that trees communicate with each other for their own benefit.
For example, trees warn each other through chemical signals, sent through fungal networks at their roots, when insects attack. They also literally feed each other.
In a healthy forest, the rate of photosynthesis is the same for all trees in a similar area, regardless of their strength or access to the sun. This has to mean they’re equalizing the sugar — they’re sharing. If a tree recognizes a friend in need, it redistributes its sugar so the entire community grows at a similar pace.
Trees instinctively know that there are advantages to working together. A complete forest stabilizes the climate by moderating temperature, wind, etc. If a tree were to eliminate the “competition,” the whole group of trees would suffer. In fact, every tree is valuable to the community, so every tree’s distress call is heard and responded to.
As Wohlebben put it, because trees know that ‘a chain is only as strong as its weakest link,’ “…they do not hesitate to help out.”
Trees show us how to grow into our strongest selves. And, contrary to popular belief, it’s not through the individualistic competitive race we’ve been told is necessary for achieving our potential. Other’s successes only bolster ours.
When we connect with the other organisms around us and when we focus on creating an environment that benefits those around us, we’ll ultimately taste more happiness and success in our lifetime.
For more information, check out The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. Share what you’ve learned from nature with us! @gardenuity