My relationship with trees is complicated.
Having grown up on the plains of North Dakota, I find comfort in the stark beauty of a treeless prairie affording long panoramic views of wide open land and skies. When visiting my husband’s childhood home, I tease “Tennessee could probably be pretty if it wasn’t so cluttered up with all these trees!” But, then again, there’s no place I’d rather hike than a deciduous woodland on the cusp of autumn.
My hard-working dad’s go-to “if you don’t have anything better to do…” line often ended with a strong suggestion to tend to the fledgling wind row of trees we’d planted – whose never-ending needs supplied endless hours of watering and weeding. Somehow this grew in me a fascination with trees, evidenced by countless photos of exposed root systems, lone imperfect trees, forests of colors, and individual leaves both thriving and fallen.
Passages containing tree symbolism describe the richness of the life I want (Psalms 1 and 92, Jeremiah 17, Colossians 2, Ezekiel 47, John 15). The image I most often pray for our children is rooted in Isaiah 61’s “oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of His splendor.” Simply put, although the presence of trees in my childhood landscape was lacking, the imagery of trees permeate my understanding of life.
Any study about trees, pruning, or forest ecosystems captures my attention. So, let me share the wonder of mycorrhizal networks with you. Forests were once considered a group of individual trees within the same environment, functioning independently and competing for resources. However, the fascinating reality is forests are complex interconnected communities, sharing resources and helping one another survive.
Microscopic fungi interface with tree root systems, connecting tree to tree, building a relational mycorrhizal network below the forest floor. A complex system of links and passages with the capability of moving resources from tree to tree builds resilience and health among the forest community. Carbon, nitrogen, water, defense compounds – whatever a tree might need – are shuffled from a tree with plenty to a tree with lack. An example is the transfer of carbon from trees with optimal light conditions to plants located in the shaded forest canopy where limited light availability impedes photosynthesis. In other words, trees help each other thrive by sharing what they have.
Through this network, older trees, with their many connections, breathe life into a new generation. Individuals give back to the community, transferring nourishment through bridged pathways in their root systems. The network helps seedlings overcome the harsh environmental factors which threaten their growth into mature plants. The network preserves diversity of species, building resilience and ability to withstand traumatic events. The network moves a group of trees from competition and hoarding to a place of engagement and generosity. I told you it was fascinating!
I could go on, but you see where I’m going. You and I are trees in this forest of kingdom work. Each holding a place, some resource-rich, some depleted, others planted in less favorable conditions. Velvet Ashes can be those “soil micro-organisms”, creating interconnections, helping each to survive adverse conditions and providing what’s missing in our own environments. A “guild of mutual aid”, as one researcher describes forest mycorrhizal networks.
I don’t recall ever desiring to be a microscopic fungus before, but a longing is growing to be part of that network of connection. How about you? Are you in?