My terrace overlooks a small pocket of a once large forest. This is the best part of my day, sitting on the terrace, with the early sun breaking the cool of the night and staring at the green. With the COVID-19 lockdown in full force, what used to be a 15 minute ritual has now extended itself into an hour long introspection. As I stare at the forest, I begin to acknowledge and appreciate the drama unfolding ever so slowly. The trees become alive and vibrant. They are communicating with each other. They are involved in a struggle for survival and a death defying drama begins to unfold. I notice the Anjan Tree, standing tall above the canopy. To reach that size, he must have paid his dues, his share of hard decisions and sacrifices. Over time, a strange web of kinships and alliances have been established in this forest to maintain the peace. Mother trees feeding the young ones with sugars and other nutrients in times of need, the scouts on the periphery warning of danger when the grazers come, youngsters being youngsters, always reckless and unpredictable, quite often leading to a fatal end – it’s all happening out there. Some of them are taking extreme risks, over-shedding leaves and doing a greedy light seek leading to strange shapes. Most interesting is the next layer of the canopy, the ones just below the anjans and the teaks – they are the crown princes, waiting for the monarch to fall for them to take their rightful place under the sun. There are predators too in this drama. Strangler figs, starting as a seed on a branch, slowly engulfing the host tree and taking its place. All this, however, is unfolding in tree-time, over decades. I was witnessing it in freeze-frame, while sipping chai!
Darwin’s theory of natural selection, has long professed that the individual trees would try to outgun each other in seeking resources like the sun, water, nutrients, etc and for a long time it seemed that way too. But recent studies are unravelling a much more fascinating and complex story. The plant kingdom is as social as the animal kingdom. Just like the animal kingdom, there are families, alliances and understandings. There are also those who are loners – the cats of the tree world! We are only beginning to understand this web, and the tip of the iceberg itself is mindblowing. As a group, the trees in an area are using game theory – everyone does what is best for the group. In the long term, in general, that turns out to be best for the self as well. It is not just the relationships formed that are fascinating but also the fact that the trees are actually communicating with one another in a measurable way!
Did you ever wonder why animals always graze into the wind? We have always thought this was because the scent is carried by the wind and hence they are drawn into the wind. But recent studies show there is far more to the story. Take the acacia trees in the african savannah for eg. when a giraffe starts pulling at one tree, it immediately emits ethylene gas into the wind, signalling to the neighbours of an attack. The neighbours start pumping tanins into the leaves rapidly making them unsavoury to the giraffe. This signal and the response, has been observed upto a distance of 100 yards. This explains an old question that has perplexed the wildlife researchers. Why do these giraffes skip the trees in between. Why do they pluck at one and then walk a fair distance before plucking another? Though we cannot say for sure this is the reason, and in nature, it’s never really a single thing that explains everything but it all adds up. The giraffe also adapted to this by walking against the direction of the wind, so the neighbours in that direction are not yet aware of the attack. Even so, they still skip a few before they chose their next victim. Why would that be? Because, ethylene gas is just one signal. Most of the action is happening a few inches below the ground.
All trees in undisturbed forests are connected to each other via an underground fungal and bacterial network. Some call it the wood wide web! The trees share water, nutrients and even communicate through this network. The beech tree experiment in Germany was a pathbreaking find in this direction. It involved a beech tree stump that had been logged down and was just a stump for over a 100 years. Yet, below the bark, the stump was still green. The neighbours were keeping it alive, by pumping sugar to it helping it generate the required chlorophyl needed for survival. This is very similar to how an elephant herd never leaves a sick or injured behind. A 100 years!!! Can you believe that? I remember being completely awestruck when a friend, who is a restoration expert mentioned to me that these fungal networks might even extend a few 100 metres. A tree on this end of the farm, might be receiving assistance from the mother tree at the other end. For young ones, below the canopy, this is a lifeline. Especially in the tropics where the canopy is very thick and the ground is almost always in the dark, it is this network that nurtures the saplings. With the strongest or the fittest supporting the young ones, the natural selection theory gives way for a more evolved society or family in the forest. These old, tall giants are often referred to as the mother trees and the name is quite apt as well. They are the source trees adjusting and buffering the shortfalls, providing for the weak ones and basically playing the matriarchs. Some research has also indicated that there is an affinity to provide for the offspring. For eg, a mother tree may provide more for its own offspring than it would for others in its system. How this affinity is created or how the relationship is recognised remains a mystery today. But like they say, DNA is thicker than water!.
At our collective in Coorg, we have noticed something similar as well. In the recent coffee picking season, the pickers noticed a lot of wasp nests and expressed concerns. Our wildlife team figured out that these wasp nests were the forest’s response to a certain pest attack. Wasps are essentially predators. At the onset of an attack, the trees send out pheromones that attract the predators. This is their defense mechanism. The wasps are the army of the forest, quickly eating up the caterpillars and restoring the balance. Once we knew this, all thoughts of intervention were trashed. Wasps were suddenly our friends. Education is an eye opener!
Personally, I think the modern scientific approach has always tried to understand things in silos, picking one observation at a time and trying to find an explanation for that observation. It also believes a lot in predictability of the outcome. There is very little room for fuzzy logic. Nature unfortunately is built on fuzzy logic. Given the same situation, the forest might respond in a different way. It may emit pheromones suitable for a particular bird this time. Why? Maybe there is a hidden order here. Maybe the trees decide that if it is always the wasps, what would the birds eat? We don’t know. At beforest, we don’t think it is possible to knit-pick and understand nature in its entirety. We believe our role is to observe and adapt and at best, acknowledge.
As the mother Anjan grows older by the tree-day, It is not so hard to imagine the smaller lot, currently subservient under its canopy, waiting with bated tree-breath for the dethroning. A tree-day will come when its trunk will snap, unable to hold on to its weight, and the mighty queen will fall to the ground, and the crown princes will heave a sigh of relief. “At last!”, they would say as another power struggle began.