My birthday is a quiet affair this year, coming as it does so soon after his death. We find ourselves in a halfway place, unsure quite how to go on being. The life that was is still resonant and yet we are each and altogether changed forever.
I am opening my cards and there, in among the printed pictures of flowers and cats, one card bursts through. A sheet of paper folded down the middle with a picture drawn by my son in bright felt tip pens. At the heart of the picture stands a mature tree with a wide brown trunk and thick green canopy. On either side of this tree two smaller trees are connected by a thread on which hang the letters H A P P Y in shades of pink and purple. Then in large bubble writing the word ‘Birthday’ spreads itself like a smile across the width of the grass green page. I feel a burst of joy.
They tease me, my boys, when we walk in Richmond park. In the company of ancient oak and beech I am lit up. They know this simple truth: that I am indeed ‘happy’ in the space between trees.
This happiness starts with the ever changing beauty of trees but it goes much deeper. For I sense that trees remember what we as humans have largely forgotten. Trees are indeed threaded together through a subterranean web of roots which extend their reach far and wide via a biological superhighway of fungal mycelia. Scientists have started using the term “wood wide web” to describe the communications services that fungi provide to trees and other plants. Each individual tree is integrated into a complex highly branched living system. This system relies on an intricate network of nodes or crossing points, each of which affects the functioning and wellbeing of the whole forest.
It appears that trees message their distress in electrical signals via their roots and across fungi networks which act (like our nerve system) to alert others nearby when they are under attack. We now know that mature trees are particularly important to the wellbeing of the forest. Like matriarch elephants they transfer lived experience. Through their root systems they feed stricken trees, nurture saplings and pass on critical survival information to keep the community strong. The fungal internet exemplifies one of the great lessons of ecology: seemingly separate organisms are often connected, and fundamentally depend on each other.
In his simple elegiac book The Hidden Life of Trees German forester Peter Wohlleben describes how profoundly interdependent trees are:
The thing that surprised me most is how social trees are. I stumbled over an old stump one day and saw that it was still living although it was 400 or 500 years old, without any green leaf. Every living being needs nutrition. The only explanation was that it was supported by the neighbour trees via the roots with a sugar solution. As a forester, I learned that trees are competitors that struggle against each other, for light, for space. And there I saw that it’s just vice versa. Trees are very interested in keeping every member of this community alive.”
What we are learning from trees is that an injury to a single tree is communicated and experienced by the whole system. The loss of one limb of one tree alters the dynamic whole.
So here I stand between my trees and I know this truth at my core. I know that the loss of my nephew has profoundly altered the living system in which my being is rooted. Our thread has been broken. In this knowing I come to understand his significance. One fifteen year old boy was indeed a unique crossing point in the human-wide web. Without him the system has to find a new shape. It cannot simply continue as before.
So I turn to the great old trees to make sense of my aching heart and they reach into me with their sweetness and allow me to draw comfort.