The other day I took a midday break to lie down on the carpet of maple leaves colored in hues of fire. As I looked up into the colorful canopy, with its backdrop of blue sky, breezes surged and died like an autumnal tide. A sudden gust caused a flurry of dried, gilded leaves to seemingly leap from the tree hurrying towards a date with disintegration.

I wondered about the language of this maple. While it is an individual I knew that its very survival was made possible through linking with other life forms. My mind drifted back to recently experienced trees of an ancient sort.

Recently I kayaked for three weeks in the Haida Gwaii archipelago, (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands) off the coast of northern British Columbia. Many times on that trip I lay on a luxuriant bed of thick moss shaded beneath a towering canopy of giant Sitka spruce, red cedars and western hemlock.

The “Britta-Maple” in our yard is so named because I transplanted the spindly five-foot sapling in the spring following my oldest daughter’s November birth. That makes the tree between 35 and 40 years old. Not that old in the world of trees. Many of the Haida Gwaii giants that stretched over me are centuries old.

At trips end, I returned to our Minnesota basecamp with a new respect for tides, native knowledge, wind and certainly for trees.

Only days upon returning I learned that a British Columbia scientist would be presenting at this year’s Nobel Conference, held at Gustavus Adolphus College, only 120 miles from my home. She studies these giant trees but more amazingly has discovered how they communicate with each other. I quickly registered.

Dr. Suzanne Simard* is a professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia. She was born and raised in a family of several generations of British Columbia loggers. She could hardly help but study trees. And to study trees more thoroughly she has embraced the old knowledge carried by the native people.

Simard, of European descent, implored, “Aboriginal people who have called this area home for nearly 14,000 years have much to teach us.” She was haunted by the refrain she heard as she interviewed elders about the forests and trees. “We are one. We are one.”

As she studied forest soils in her home province, she learned that there are thousands of species of mycorrhizal fungi that exist in this living system we call dirt.

Mycorrhizae translates to “fungus-root.” These super-tiny mycorrizae will colonize the exterior or interior of a plant root. The fungus and the host plant have a mutually beneficial relationship. The fungus facilitates the uptake of water and nutrients to the plant. The plant root provides food and nutrients made possible by photosynthesis through the plant leaves and/or stem.

Dr. Simard and her field assistant performed experiments at forest sites that involved identifying myriad of mycorrhizal species and then unsorting the complex networks between the fungi and the tree roots. Amazingly, she and other scientists have discovered that these tangled mycorrhizal networks are responsible for directing water, carbon and nitrogen to other plants in their local community.

More amazing is that trees can communicate though biochemical signals when an area is under threat from an herbivore or insect attack. I was astonished by her discovery that a full-grown “mother tree” can direct nutritional support to other trees that need it. Investigating further, Simard found that the mother tree will favor her own progeny by directing more nutrition their way through the plant and mycorrhizal pipeline!

When Simard shared some of her findings with First Nation elders they reminded her, “We are one and connection is important.”

As I lay on the sheet of party-colored maple leaves I pondered the connections directly beneath my lawn. If only I could hear the gossip of trees. Are they expressing concern? Sending a sort of mycorrhizal SOS out to each other? Do they mock us two-leggeds for our continual abuse of the soil and the land?

I want to believe they are tirelessly reminding us “We are one.”


*Simard delivered a popular TED talk and appeared in the documentary Intelligent Trees.