“For 400 million years, forests have been the primary centers of biological diversity on land, home today to 80 percent of terrestrial biodiversity. They are the great mediators of global cycles of water, carbon and oxygen. Human life would be impossible without forests. They give us breath and send clean water to rivers and fields. Forests have, since the origin of humanity, fed, warmed and sheltered us.”
– David George Haskell writing in the New York Times
“All trees all over the world, including paper birch and Douglas fir, form a symbiotic association with below-ground fungi. These are fungi that are beneficial to the plants and through this association the fungus, which can’t photosynthesize, explores the soil. Basically, it sends mycelium, or threads, all through the soil, picks up nutrients and water, especially phosphorus and nitrogen, brings it back to the plant, and exchanges those nutrients and water for photosynthate [a sugar or other substance made by photosynthesis] from the plant. The plant is fixing carbon and then trading it for the nutrients that it needs for its metabolism. It works out for both of them.”
– Suzanne Simmard, Forester, Professor of Forest Ecology, Researcher and Author
We are only beginning to understand the seemingly magical workings of a forest, wherever it might be located. Globally, there are over 800 definitions of what a forest is, and forests make up around 80% of the world’s biomass, although that figure is falling on a monthly basis. If we think of the last Suffragette pine tree standing in the back garden of a house in Batheaston it’s astonishing to consider that it will produce at least enough oxygen daily for three people.
In the forest, individual trees live in a community, connected via the superfine fungal mycelial networks running underground. Under just one single footstep in a forest there can be hundreds of kilometres of Mycorrhizae . This is the name for the symbiotic relationship between a fungus and a root system. In a healthy forest there are more established Mother Trees who act as hubs for the information network as well as nurturing other trees or younger saplings and Nurse Logs which are fallen trees that provide ideal conditions for tree seeds to germinate alongside providing food for the fungi and the mycelial web.
While not all fungi are of benefit to the trees and the underground networks can also transfer poisons, hormones and genetic material which may be harmful these networks reveal the hidden existence of a vast, unseen ‘complex adaptive system‘ which is fluid, uncertain and hugely important as the foundation of forest ecosystems and more than 90% of plant life.
Forester Suzanne Simmard helped shift our Western-based upward looking gaze to engage with what was out of sight, under the forest floor and therefore out of mind. After doing a three-way experiment using three different trees, blocking out the sunlight and seeing what happened, she discovered that the forest can behave like a single organism, working across some species and connecting via the underground network of mycelium. Her curiosity led to further widespread public interest in how a forest works. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=breDQqrkikM
Merlin Sheldrake asks: How different would our societies and institutions look if we thought of fungi, rather than animals or plants, as ‘typical’ life forms?
Magpie Mycelium with thanks to Alan Rayner *
Mycorrhizae show us the interdependency of all life, making clear the essential connections that make up a healthy natural system. They also show us that mutualism, i.e. a positive beneficial relationship between different species, is an integral and underappreciated side to the natural world.
As Suzanne Simmard explained, the forest becomes a single organism with an emergent intelligence.
When this network is damaged by extensive logging, deforestation or changes in climate then the whole forest ecosystem can be hugely impacted. This is particularly evident when Mother Trees are removed and in old growth forests or ancient woodlands where these networks are well established. By studying mycelium and the forest as a whole, we can begin to understand more about what has brought us to this place of ecological and climate emergency, and what is needed to remediate, restore and repair these essential-to-life networks. How we work with this ‘critical zone’ of the soil, rock, water and organisms is key to ongoing life on Earth.
Our journey with trees, woods and mycelium has led us into woodlands, to meetings with mycologists (fungi experts) such as Christian Taylor, Alan Rayner and Mark Ramsdale, academics such as Dr.Tom Powell and inspirational writers such as Merlin Sheldrake. We are constantly returning to the forest as a place of inspiration and learning. Drawing parallels in its underground workings to shared networks of practice in light of global ecocide and the hidden, grassroots and local work of activists (often women) working to preserve life. This provides a rich humus for collaboration, reflection and enquiry. The story is not about individuals, but about a functioning web of relationships.
* Magpie Mycelium – https://medium.com/@admrayner/beyond-interconnectedness-d8c9f90483cd
More on Mycelium
- Entangled Life – How fungi make our worlds, change our minds and shape our futures – Merlin Sheldrake