“Something we’re just learning how to see”

When I take a walk in the woods, I’m entering a complex ecosystem of trees, shrubs, ferns, insects, birds, in other words a dynamic community of a variety of life forms. Like the research participants walking through green spaces in the study described in my previous post, I feel meditative and more open to observing the life around me. But I wonder: Am I also really tuning into the communal activity that surrounds me? I suspect that I’m missing an amazing level of relationship among flora and fauna that escapes my usual means of perception. Here’s an excerpt from a recent novel, The Overstory by Richard Powers (highly recommended), that describes the activity beneath my feet as I move among the trees and shrubs:

Something marvelous is happening underground, something we’re just learning how to see. Mats of mycorrhizal cabling link trees into gigantic, smart communities spread across hundreds of acres. Together, they form vast trading networks of goods, services, and information. . . .

There are no individuals in a forest, no separable events. The bird and the branch it sits on are a joint thing. A third or more of the food a big tree makes may go to feed other organisms. Even different kinds of trees form partnerships. Cut down a birch, and a nearby Douglas-fir may suffer. . . .

In the great forests of the East, oaks and hickories synchronize their nut production to baffle the animals that feed on them. Word goes out, and the trees of a given species – whether they stand in sun or shade, wet or dry – bear heavily or not at all, together as a community. . . .

Forests mend and shape themselves through subterranean synapses. And in shaping themselves, they shape, too, the tens of thousands of other, linked creatures that form it from within. Maybe it’s useful to think of forests as enormous spreading, branching, underground super-trees. (TO, 218)

This two minute video from the BBC provides similar information:


Thomas Berry wants us to see this “Wood Wide Web” as a community based on relationships between living beings, not a random tangle of things:

In the emerging Ecozoic era, we experience the universe as a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects. We hear the voices of all the living creatures. We recognize, understand, and respond to the voices of the crickets in the fields, the flowers in the meadows, the trees in the woodlands, and the birds all around us; all of these voices resound within us in a universal chorus of delight in existence. (TB, 76)

Patricia Westerford, Powers’ fictional botantist in The Overstory (quoted above), is passionate about introducing people to the “something marvelous” that “is happening underground.”  In future posts, I’ll explore what scientists are eager to tell us about the natural world: all those “somethings” in this “universal chorus of delight in existence” we’re just learning how to see.

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