Networks Above and Beneath the Soil

June 29, 2018

Aspen leaves dream in the fall. Their colorful transformation is what attracts so many travelers, especially here in Flagstaff, Arizona. However, there are far more unspoken qualities that contribute to connectivity of Aspen groves all over the globe. Robert Krulwich, the host of Radiolab’s podcast “From Tree to Shining Tree” describes the curiosity of forest ecology professor, Suzanne Simard. He depicts her discoveries as a revolutionary realization on the depth of interaction between trees beneath the soil. He remarks, “She had kind of a…flashback, she knew scientists had proposed years before that maybe there’s an underground economy that exists among the tress that we can’t see” (Krulwich). The functionality of trees and their roots correspond with the similar abilities produced by human interaction. By peering deep beneath the surface of our earth, it has been found that living organisms of different species have a lot more in common with human beings than we thought.

 

The Pando Aspen grove in Fishlake National Forest in southern Utah is scientifically named Populous tremuloides, otherwise known as Quaking Aspen. This ecological community is considered a genetically identical unit, meaning these trees are one large organism. This idea displays a completely mind-warping concept; how can individual trees seen with the human eye be undeniably connected as one organism beneath the soil?

 

Although the Quaking Aspen are deemed one collective being, each tree functions individually with layers upon layers of systems that impact organisms that live on or around these trees. In comparison to the human body, the roots of these trees form a sense of communication much like our cells that perform specific duties in order to sustain a balanced system that can continue to operate properly. The way trees rely on their roots mirrors the way humans rely on other parts of their body, so they can persist in a healthy, functional, and productive manner. We depend heavily on the neurotransmitters that are sent to our brain within milliseconds-- this process enables us to do something as simple as lift a finger or solve pages’ worth of math problems. Much like the brain, Quaking Aspen also rely on their roots to replenish their leaves and branches. This is done through systematic communication between the roots and co-depending organisms surrounding these trees. Although trees and humans may communicate in completely disparaging ways, both species require a sense of attachment to one another as well as other organisms in order to continue functioning.

 

All this connectivity is much more complex--- it is so much deeper, so much more intricate. Krulwich depicts the roots being connected by a whole separate organism, creating a symbiotic relationship. This means that there is a mutually beneficial relationship between two completely different organisms. He dug through the soil of a forest and illustrates what he saw by stating, “[There was] little white threads attached to the roots. Smaller than an eyelash, maybe just a tenth of the width of your eyelash. White, translucent…and hairy…sort of” (Krulwich). The host goes on to explain what this mysterious substance is, “This is the fungus, which by the way, is definitely not a plant” (Krulwich). Through these observations, it was discovered that not only are trees like the Pando grove are considered a singular organism, but they also interact with other species, like fungi in order to be a continuously thriving ecosystem.

 

Humans strive every day to achieve balance and persistence; this is done through negative feedback loops that also tend to occur in nature. For example, when a human feels the sensation of hunger, they eat in order to negate that feeling and to be satisfyingly replenished. In a similar relationship to Aspen and fungi, humans are reliant on other living species like livestock in order to have a source of nutrients to keep them functioning. In nature, when trees need sunlight or water their roots grow with the fungi to a specific length through the soil to absorb the proper amount needed to regain this balance. It is truly a captivating concept to align the ways in which human beings exist in similar systems to trees.  

 

The connectivity between trees also display an enlightening sense of diversity. Towards the early conversations on Radiolab’s podcast, Robert Krulwich explained an interesting find by Suzanne Simard. He explains, “If she had a Birch tree next to a Fir tree and if she took out the Birch, [Simard’s voice] the Fir became diseased and died. There was some kind of benefit from the Birch to the Fir” (Krulwich). Although these are two different species of trees, they managed to depend on one another for certain resources so they could continue to flourish. In comparison, American society has blended multiple cultures, where each brings an effective ability that encourages acceptance and newfound ideologies. Different seasonings, clothing, religions, and beliefs enhance the complexity and continuity of society. Even though trees differently structured to human beings, they still offer an immensely involved system that parallels with the functions of human communities.

 

Recognizing this co-dependent reliance that exists between organisms creates an overwhelming sense of inter-connectedness. As human society influences the ever-changing conditions in our environment, it’s important to keep aware of the size of our ecological footprint on this planet. An ecological footprint is the impact of an individual or community on the land surrounding them; it also has to do with the amount of resources and space needed in order to sustain a specific population. By finding parallels between humans and other living species like Aspen groves, the idea of a biocentric mindset arises. This ideology pushes towards all-inclusive outlook on the environment that prioritizes the continuity of ALL living species. Our actions are mirrored in all sorts of life--- by peering into a forest and underneath the dirt, one could find thousands of networks that operate in manners much representative of humans.

 

 

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