Trees: Lessons on Social Security
Our daughter, Eleanor, gave me a book that sang to her soul as it did to mine. The author, Peter Wohllebenz, wrote in his New York Times Bestseller, The Hidden Life of TREES, that trees ignore the Darwinian rules of survival of the fittest, by allowing all of their species to share equally in the sun’s resources, no matter what conditions their seeds were planted. How is that possible, you ask?
According to students at the Institute for Environmental Research at RWTH Aachen University in Germany, beech trees synchronize their production of photosynthesis so that the species has the greatest chance for survival. “Each beech tree grows in a unique location, and conditions can vary greatly in just a few yards. The soil can be stony or loose. It can contain a great deal of water or almost no water. It can be full of nutrients or extremely barren. Accordingly, each tree experiences different growing conditions; therefore, each tree grows more quickly or more slowly and produces more or less sugar or wood, and thus you would expect every tree to be photosynthesizing at a different rate … astounding(ly) the rate of photosynthesis is the same for all the trees.”
“The trees, it seems, are equalizing differences between the strong and the weak. Whether they are thick or thin all members of the same species are using light to produce the same amount of sugar per leaf. This equalization is taking place underground through the roots. There’s obviously a lively exchange going on down there. Whoever has an abundance of sugar hands some over; whoever is running short gets help. Once again, fungi are involved. Their enormous networks act as gigantic redistribution mechanisms.”
Hillis Howie cooking breakfast near Shiprock, New Mexico, circa 1958
When I was a middle schooler, I went to the best camp on the planet for me. It was in the wild west of New Mexico. Called the Cottonwood Gulch Expeditions, the program was full of science and hypothesis and art and wonder. Every day was a new adventure in archaeology, birdwatching, silversmithing, cooking and discovery. There I met the coolest guy, our camp counselor, Rick Madden, a student at Brown University at the time. Rick persuaded a half dozen campers in our group to help him with a tree thinning experiment.
On the camp’s property, adjacent to the Cibola National Forest, were some tens of acres of ponderosa pines, which were growing just a few feet from each other, creating what seemed to be stunted dwarf forest of pines about hat high.
The camp director, Hillis Howie, and his assistant, Monty Billings, a forestry grad from Purdue, suggested that Rick take on the tree thinning idea. Mr. Howie wanted students to do some “experiments with the distance between trees.” We were eager volunteers.
Our working hypothesis was that with greater distance between the trees would come a healthier forest. Over the course of the next few weeks we cordoned off sections of the pine forest, marked the best trees and thinned all but the chosen few.
If my memory serves me, we wanted to have a control area and plots with trees spaced with 5, 10, and 20 foot centers. Meaning that the other trees were cut at ground level and stashed in slash heaps to decay naturally over time. During each of the next few decades, we revisited those thinned areas and indeed the trees with the 20 foot separation were much taller than the trees in the control area, and the trees with 5 foot areas and 10 foot areas had thicker trunks. We measured success of the individual height and girth of the trees as proof of our approach. It certainly seemed logical to us: saving the healthiest trees and pruning and eliminating the smaller, weaker ones was the best way to save the species and help the forest to thrive.
We now know differently.
Wohlleben is one of those former foresters who has found a new religion. Perhaps the trees themselves know better than the foresters. In his third chapter on national policy making he goes on to speculate, “It’s a bit like the way social security operates to ensure individual members of society don’t fall too far behind. In such a system, it is not possible for the trees to grow too close to each other. Quite the opposite. Huddling together is desirable and the trunks are often spaced no more than 3 feet apart. Because of this, the crowns remain small and cramped and even many foresters believe that this is not good for the trees. Therefore, the trees are spaced out through felling, meaning that supposedly excess trees are removed. However, colleagues from Lubeck in northern Germany have discovered that a beech forest is more productive when the trees are packed together. A clear annual increase in biomass, above all wood, is proof of the health of a forest throng.”
Implications for Humanity
With the corona virus pandemic, we are forced to have 6 foot centers. This whole social distancing thing has made us crazy. Even though we know it is the best thing for us to do, it is hard and unwieldy. We have our masks and our internet ordering on Amazon. We have our video games and Netflix favorites, but we have not fundamentally changed. We still put the lives of people of color in harms way. They are risking their lives for us on a daily basis. They are employed in delivery, healthcare, cleaning services, and garbage disposal. They have lesser healthcare options, more food deserts, tighter living spaces, weaker immune systems, and we are all to blame. Perhaps we can learn something from the trees.
Now is the time for us to come together, get our virtual fungi systems talking. It is the right time to consider and propose radical changes so that we all thrive. The trees have it right. We have shared resources, let’s equalize the photosynthesis, let’s let all leaves, all trees, produce the same sugar per leaf.
There is a saying popularized by Audrey Hepburn and Billy Graham that emphasizes that we all have two hands: one to reach up to the things we want and need, and the other to reach back to pull up someone along with us. It is time for each of us to use both hands. We need to find out the needs, share our resources equally and get our communication networks functioning like fungi to serve us equally.
Now is the time to do it. Look for all of those hands around us needing support … and a lift.
 Wohlleben, Peter, The Hidden Life of TREES, 2015, Random House Gmbh, translated by Jane Billinghurst.
 RWTH Aachen is the acronym for Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen University. It is a research university located in Aachen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. With more than 45,000 students enrolled in 144 study programs, it is the largest technical university in Germany.