Lead Article

Deep into the inner and hidden life of a natural forest 

By Allen Larocque

Trees are not different from us in their essence. We are cousins, each a representation of the same genetic song winding its way through the ages. Every branch of life is a genre; every species a theme; every individual a variation.

Like us, trees have parents, children, brothers and sisters. They have neighbours, and neighbourhoods. They have friends and enemies. They eat food, and occasionally are eaten (an experience fortunately rare for humans these days). Trees breathe in, and breathe out; they thirst, and sip water; we perspire and they transpire. Like us, they are conceived, born, and die. 

There are differences, too. Our favourite modalities of communication are sight and sound. But plants have no eyes to see with, and no ears with which to hear. They are chemical creatures, their leaves attuned to the taste of signaling molecules in the air, and their root tips to the flavours of the moist soup underground. Here it is dark and quiet. Here fungal threads carry chemicals along the miniature highways of their reticulated, networked bodies. Like nerves, action potentials ripple along the outside of their chitinous sheaths, releasing messages we are just beginning to understand. These messages seep from fungi to plant roots through mycorrhiza, structures neither plant nor fungi but somehow both, the product of an intimate mutualism between fungal thread and plant cell.

Where there are messages there is response; and where there is response there is communication. These are simply causes, and effects. These effects are physically preserved in flesh and wood and the patterns of the forest, and through this emergent encoding they become memory. They connect us in the present and through time in ways that we are aware of, and in ways that are deep and dark. It is these ‘connections between’ that separates the forest from the trees. It is the difference between a bunch of individuals, and a community.

Like our communities, forests are not so much something to be understood, as something to be in relationship with. Western science has long approached forests as something out there, something primarily to be understood and managed. We know, deep down, that this is wrong: approaching our personal relationships the same way does some kind of violence to the other. It boxes these relations in, reduces them to our idea of them rather than seeing them for what they really are.

Like a loved one, we seek to understand forests, but we never quite get there. Something always escapes us; they are always just a little bigger than our conceptions of them. They are always growing and changing, and our ideas are, at best, always a few steps behind. They are deeply weird, in the terminology of ecologist Timothy Morton. In their strangeness, they are both comfortable and mysterious, both healing and frightening, simultaneously familiarly close, and incomprehensibly distant.

The longest and most stable relationships are the ones that seek to preserve this weirdness, this wonder and mystery. When the person you wake up next to every day surprises you; when the person you see in the mirror every morning is somehow different. When the tree you walk past every day catches the light in a way you’ve never seen before; in these moments we are reminded that we are not just ourselves, but all our relations, too. The connections are us, whether we want them or not.

Dr. Allen Larocque is an ecologist and forester working in British Columbia.  He is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at The University of British Columbia, Mother Tree Network.

Photo by Chris Zielecki / Stocksy