Living like the trees
(nonviolent teachings of nature)
I have always loved trees. In front of my parent’s house stands a giant willow. With her beautiful branches hanging over the water of the pond next to it, to me, as a child, it was a magical world where I could step into. I climbed the tree many times as a little girl, and I remember it felt like home. The branches and leaves like walls and a roof surrounding me. A shelter, a place to hide, a place to be alone, high up in the tree. My body resting on the big branches and the trunk of the tree. And I remember a calm, grounded energy that I could almost drink. It still nourishes me to go back there in my imagination, with my eyes closed. It was and is fuel for my soul. I never felt scared. I would describe it as deep trust and companionship. I was safe there. And without words, I was feeling understood.
That connection with trees never left me, but I can definitely say that it wasn’t like the magical moments I had as a child anymore. Until about eight years ago, when I started travelling again. I reconnected to the magical experience of being with trees. I began climbing trees again, reconnected to the trust, the warm embrace of the trees and to the child inside of me. I could feel the energy of the trees nourishing me deeply and understood that there was a hunger inside of me to be amongst trees and the forest.
Meanwhile, my spiritual exploration taught me more about shamanism, ancient rituals and the tree as a spiritual symbol for life. I started to understand more about the interconnectedness of all trees, animals, humans, the water, the sun and the earth. And I was learning about and starting to practice nonviolence.
Two years ago, when I was visiting the Buddhist Documentary Festival in Amsterdam, I saw a film called “Intelligent Trees”. In this documentary, Peter Wohlleben (a German forester) and Suzanne Simard (scientist from Canada) shared their findings after observing and investigating the communication between trees over decades. I was blown away by what I saw and heard. And at the same time, it was a confirmation of what I have always intuitively felt. It stayed with me. And while the depth of what I heard was sinking in, questions arose. How much do we have in common with trees? What can we learn from the forest? Are we perhaps the same? I watched the film again, read other pieces about trees' intelligence, and started to write about what I discovered. In this piece, I will share with you my reflections.
- The root systems of trees that grow in community are connected and form a Mycorrhizal Fungal Association. Mycorrhizal Fungi are a type of fungi that can relate to all tree species worldwide. The fungus grows in the roots and provides the root with nutrients and water that it collects from the soil. This way, the Mycorrhizal Fungi create a mutualistic relationship. -
As human beings, our roots are interconnected. We all belong to the human species, no matter what colour, cultural background, values, or beliefs we have. We are all Homo Sapiens. We need the ground we live on to provide us with food and water, and the earth needs us to do that sustainably to continue providing that food for us. We have a mutualistic relationship with the earth. The earth gives us the nutrients and water we need to grow and live and take care of the earth so that it has time to renew and sustain itself. The difference that I see here between the relationship is that the earth doesn’t need us to sustain itself. Yet, we do need the earth to survive. That idea makes me even more humble towards nature, which gives us unconditionally.
- The network of Fungi can spread over several big pieces of land or complete forest.s A hand full of soil can contain several kilometres of hyphae, which are the branches of the fungi. Those hyphae form the internet of the forest. For their services, to sustain the network between the trees, the fungi charge sugar and other products of tree photosynthesis. The tree shares up to a third of its total production with the fungi. In this way, all of the trees are linked together in a single massive network. Through this network, all sorts of molecules are moving from one tree to another: carbon molecules, nitrogen, phosphorus and deuterated water. -
When I look at the connection between us as human beings through the intentions of trees and their contribution of products to the network of fungi, I understand that it is essential that we contribute to that human connection and take care of it. We are not able to sustain ourselves individually. We are interconnected, and we need each other to survive. If I only think about everything that I use on a daily basis. Someone else produced the bike that brings me to marketplaces, the lake and a doctor. Someone created the pipes that carry water to my house, and someone has invented the machine that can filter that water so that it’s safe to drink. When I eat, I use a fork and cook my food on a stove, both produced by someone else. And that’s just examples of material resources. On a body level, I think of my child and how I see that my touch and embrace relaxes him and contributes to his recovery when he is sick. On an emotional level, I think of moments where I felt lonely or lost and the nourishing experience of someone sitting next to me and listen. The instant healing experience of a hug of a close friend. We need each others touch. We need the presence of each other. Our connective network can bring each of us what we need when we share our resources.
- The roots of different species of trees, when they grow together, are intertwined and linked together. When the forests are being clear cut, they are often planted back with one species. Which means the community is not intact anymore. And what is then happening is that the trees don’t grow very well. They were sick, not that healthy, more at risk of insect attack. -
When we separate ourselves from others and separate ourselves as groups, we don’t have access to collective wisdom. We lack information that supports us to survive, to stay healthy. In most of the world, this doesn’t happen directly on a physical health level. Yet indirectly results in stress, burnout, and depression, which directly impact our physical well-being. When we are under stress and don’t receive support from our surroundings, we are more at risk of becoming sick. We have less capacity. We are less resourced.
- Trees of one species support each other almost unconditionally. The weak are supported by the strong. They are not competitors. Only together they can, for example, regulate the microclimate and lower the air temperature because trees love it cool and moist. Here, the individual is not as important as the community. Trees care for each other. We think of that as an interaction between trees, but they’re looking after each other. Initially, trees do grow quite fast when they grow by themselves. However, that is not what they prefer. Trees rather stand closely together and like to take things slow. Trees do not need to be separated from alleged competitors. On the contrary: we need to allow them to live in tight groups. Just as they like it. For a tree, it is a disaster when the social network collapses. Trees that are standing close to trees that are taken down might get sick or die. It misses the support network. -
As human beings, we can support each other unconditionally. When we don’t have the resources to take care of ourselves, we can be supported by others who have the capacity to do so. When we trust that there is enough for everyone, we don’t have to exchange. We can simply give unconditionally. When we care for our connection, we will be in touch with everyone's needs and limitations. There can be a natural flow of giving where there is enough for everyone, and we don’t need anything in return. When our social network collapses, we are standing alone. Having a support network is essential for us. -
- In science, the interaction between trees is called facilitation. In human relationships, we call that friendship. It’s just a matter of language. Mutualistic facilitative relationships are going on all the time. -
I’m thinking about all the relationships we have in our life. Neighbours helping out with practical stuff around the house, which brings us ease or having little chats in the street that meet needs for human connection. Family members sharing the care for our children. Friends for emotional support, fun and togetherness in our interests and love for life. Even the chat with the lady on the market, the mailman and the school teachers. A constant flow of facilitative relationships.
- Through this relationship, all trees in a forest are connected. They create a “wood wide web”. The biggest and oldest trees are the most important part of the network and the most highly linked. They are called mother trees because the younger ones are hooking into the network and growing up around these mother trees. Their roots grow together, and the mother trees feed them with a sugar solution. Seedlings that are kin seedlings are receiving more carbon from mother trees than strangers are. The mother tree is nurturing her own family, but she’s also looking out for her whole neighbourhood. So it’s not just family. It’s a whole community of trees. Each with their own role to play in the forest. -
Families that live in communities are forming a web of relationships. They are taking care of each other's children and finding togetherness in the joy and challenges that come with children's upbringing. This is an innate wisdom that we can find in the roots of our species. For example, in these different African proverbs:
“Omwana takulila nju emoi,” in Runyoro (Uganda) whose literal translation is “A child does not grow up only in a single home.”
“Omwana ni wa bhone,” in Jita (Tanzania) meaning “Regardless of a child's biological parents, its upbringing belongs to the community.”
“Asiye funzwa na mamae hufunzwa na ulimwengu” in Swahili (Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda), meaning "Whomsoever is not taught by the mother will be taught with the world."
- Trees also use the network to spread out warning signals through chemicals that warn the other trees, for example, of insect attacks. This is instant communication. A knowledge that is being passed on at the speed of light. It’s like passing on wisdom. A forest needs to sustain all of its members, including old and dying trees. Old stumps are being kept alive via root connections from other trees. Trees have memories. For example, droughts that happened a long time ago can influence the behaviour of a tree over many years. It is likely that these stories sit partially or even entirely in the roots. An ancient stump might pass on its knowledge to the neighbouring trees. -
We, human beings, pass on trauma from generation to generation. This trauma can develop programs in the body. When we transform this trauma into information about our needs, we can support each other. Trauma then can be turned into wisdom for future generations. Erasing this information damages the wholeness of our network. It creates holes in the completeness of our collective intelligence. Sharing the stories of our ancestors, like the ancient stumps, is a way to maintain the incorporation of this wisdom in our everyday life.
- Plantations are like a group of only children without parental guidance. Those trees are planted with clipped and damaged roots. Which results in disrupted communication, along with many other dysfunctions. The trees are forced to fend for themselves, which leaves them more vulnerable. If a tree suffers, it won’t receive help from its neighbours. If one thrives and could share, it would grow a little faster, which is also unhealthy. In a forest, speed is always negative. -
Human beings are interdependent on each other and on nature itself. Self-sufficient communities are rare. Most of the time, what we eat or use is made or grown by others. We depend on each other. All of us with different sets of qualities, strengths and wisdom. When we separate ourselves from others and get isolated, some of those communities probably won’t survive. Even when we are the community with the most financial resources, growing faster and faster. Without others producing what we need to live, we will not survive.
It is not surprising to me to find parallels between trees and human beings. I imagine with many organisms in this world, when taking a closer look, to find similarities. After all, we are all part of the same system. Interdependent. To survive, we need to stay connected to each other and to nature. When we isolate ourselves from nature, we won’t survive. I envision a world where we listen to nature as the system we are part of. Where we are connected to the intelligence of the organisms we are ourselves and where we acknowledge and honour that we are part of a much more extensive organic system. When we truly listen to this organic intelligence and act upon it, we might survive. Listening to the trees might actually save our lives.
Credits: the information about trees and forests in this blog post comes from the movie “Intelligent Trees”
I would love this to be a space for engagement, exploration and connection. Please practice nonviolence in your comments. If you have a request (for example, because you would like support or collaboration), you can send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org