On Trees as Social Creatures and Fungi as the ‘Fabric of the Forest’

Photo by Lukas Hartmann

In Ferris Jabr’s story on the interconnectedness of trees at The New York Times Magazine, take a stroll through the old-growth forests of British Columbia with Suzanne Simard, a forest ecologist whose research has changed our understanding of trees. (Simard was the inspiration for Patricia Westerford, the dendrologist in Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory.)

Trees were once viewed as individual and solitary organisms, competing with other trees for resources. But the forest ecosystem is supported by mycorrhizal networks: an underground fungal web through which trees exchange carbon, water, and nutrients and communicate with one another. “It’s a vast, ancient and intricate society,” writes Jabr. “There is conflict in a forest, but there is also negotiation, reciprocity and perhaps even selflessness.” It’s a fascinating dive into the social life of forests, and you will never look at trees the same way again.

She handed me a thin strip of root the length of a pencil from which sprouted numerous rootlets still woolly with dirt. The rootlets branched into even thinner filaments. As I strained to see the fine details, I realized that the very tips of the smallest fibers looked as though they’d been capped with bits of wax. Those gummy white nodules, Simard explained, were mycorrhizal fungi that had colonized the pine’s roots. They were the hubs from which root and fungus cast their intertwined cables through the soil, opening channels for trade and communication, linking individual trees into federations. This was the very fabric of the forest — the foundation of some of the most populous and complex societies on Earth.

Trees have always been symbols of connection. In Mesoamerican mythology, an immense tree grows at the center of the universe, stretching its roots into the underworld and cradling earth and heaven in its trunk and branches. Norse cosmology features a similar tree called Yggdrasil. A popular Japanese Noh drama tells of wedded pines that are eternally bonded despite being separated by a great distance. Even before Darwin, naturalists used treelike diagrams to represent the lineages of different species. Yet for most of recorded history, living trees kept an astonishing secret: Their celebrated connectivity was more than metaphor — it had a material reality. As I knelt beneath that whitebark pine, staring at its root tips, it occurred to me that my whole life I had never really understood what a tree was. At best I’d been aware of just one half of a creature that appeared to be self-contained but was in fact legion — a chimera of bewildering proportions.

Read the story