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Community Voices (Helms): We should listen to the trees

The change of season always awakens the child in me.  Memories of summer’s ease when my shoes would fly off and the balls of my bare feet would mesh with the flesh of each strong arm of the apple tree; my toes gripping to the very top of its fruited crown creating a magical world of imagination and new perspective.

Lazy dreamy days captured my child-like mind creating a desire to build a treehouse; my own little queendom. Lacking the needed materials, I came closest to my dream by hanging sheets with laundry pins onto the perimeter of the lower branches; the wind dancing with the make shift walls of my self-made castle. If I had to hide out from impending dragons, I had an endless supply of tart green apples at my fingertips.

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Climbing that tree in my backyard in childhood gave me a different perspective on life. I developed a relationship of trust between me and nature. The old apple tree became a best friend. The way its branches held me taught me to be brave and daring. Smaller branches taught me my limits. The tree allowed me to ride on its back lifting me high enough to see the world from a new perspective. And on those long, lazy, summer days of outdoor play, my hunger was quenched by the gracious sharing of sour green apples that satisfied my young appetite.  My affinity for trees started early in life.

My love for trees continues and is solidified by fascinating research that has been done in the field.  According to “The Hidden Life of trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate” by Peter Wohlleben, trees have ways of breathing, talking, feeding, feeling and helping each other within a complex system. Wohlleben’s curiosity started by wanting to know how an old tree stump he had observed was still living. Working as a complex network, trees, “Like the herd ... look after their own, and they help their sick and weak back up onto their feet. They are even reluctant to abandon their dead.”

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If this is true, how were the trees communicating with each other?

Wohlleben believes trees do talk to each other; not in the conventional way that we understand language, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their ways of reaching out to each other to warn or help each other. Certain trees send chemical alerts, have fungal networks that grow around root systems and release olfactory smells through blossoms; all mechanisms in forests for the purpose to communicate. “Trees communicate by means of olfactory, visual, and electrical signals (The electrical signals travel via a form of nerve cells at the tips of the roots.)”

Another interesting observation was made by Dr. Monica Gagliano, who “discovered that their measuring apparatus was registering roots crackling quietly at a frequency of 220 hertz ... whenever seedling roots were exposed to a crackling at 220 hertz, they oriented their tips in that direction ... they ‘heard’ it.” Perhaps these kinds of observations can influence us having a deeper relationship, appreciation, connectedness and care for nature and our forests.

What we do in the name of preserving nature isn’t always what is best for the trees. Industry has tried to keep up with the stripping of forest land by replanting with saplings. The problem with this way of renewing the forest is its lack of diversity in ages and types of trees planted. We need to value what the research shows. In forests mother trees nurture their young. Also, we need to consider the natural lifespan of most trees is hundreds of years, unlike trees planted for industry that are cut down way too soon.

I always thought the practice of cutting down a tree and replacing it was a good idea. My ways of thinking have changed after the reading of this book. Loving trees is about preserving ecosystems not just single trees. The deeper issue is respecting nature’s abilities and ways of sustaining itself. Forests don’t need mankind barging in and changing the way trees have grown and reproduced for thousands of years. But of course, industry steps in and thinks it can do better and do the job more efficiently. Meanwhile, we lose forestry each year to the stripping of land for agricultural and commercial reasons.

I am moved by what trees and forests have to teach us. I think of trees as social creatures that set an example for our own humanity. As Wohlleben challenges us: “Why are trees such social beings? Why do they share food with their own species and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors? The reasons are the same as for human communities: there are advantages to working together.”

May the future show the ability for trees and people to communicate and care for one another in a symbiotic relationship that benefits both. Our survival depends on it.

Kat Helms writes from Taneytown.

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