Here by the grace of trees
When you enter the woods...

The community of the forest

Beech Tree Cloister by Howard Phipps

I followed my reading of Richard Powers' The Overstory (discussed yesterday) with Robert Macfarlane's new book, Underland: A Deep Time Journey -- which proved to be a perfect pairing. Underland is an absolutely brilliant exploration of the various underworlds to be found in nature, myth, and literature;  and one section of the text is devoted to the complex understorey of forests.

In Chapter 4 of Underland (set in London's Epping Forest), Macfarlane writes:

Boxing Hares by Howard Phipps"In the early 1990s a young Canadian forest ecologist called Susan Simard, studying the understory of logged temperate forests in north-west British Columbia, observed a curious correlation. When paper birch saplings were weeded out from clear-cut and reseeded plantations, their disappearance coincided with first the deterioration and then the premature deaths of the planted Douglas fir saplings among which they grew.

"Foresters had long assumed that such weeding was necessary to prevent young birches (the 'weeds') depriving the young firs (the 'crop') of valuable soul resources. But Simard began to wonder whether this simple model of competition was correct. It seemed to her plausible that the paper birches where somehow helping rather than hindering the firs: when they were removed, the health of the firs suffered. If this interspecies aid-giving did exist between trees, though, what was its nature -- and how could individual trees extend help to one another across the spaces of the forest?

A Beech Shaded Hollow, Cranborne Chase by Howard Phipps

"Simard decided to investigate the puzzle. Her first task was to establish some kind of structural basis for possible connections between the trees. Using microscopic and genetic tools, she and her colleagues peeled back the forest floor and peered below the understory, into the 'black box' of the soil -- a notoriously challenging realm of study for biologists. What they saw down there were the pale, super-fine threads known as 'hyphae' that fungi send out through the soil. These hyphae interconnected to create a network of astonishing complexity and extent. Every cubic metre of forest soil that Simard examined held dozens of miles of hyphae.

Knowle Hill, Broadchalke by Howard Phipps

"For centuries, fungi had generally been considered harmful to plants: parasites that caused disease and dysfunction. As Simard began her research, however, it was increasingly thought that different kinds of common fungi might exist in subtle mutualism with plants. The hyphae of these so-called 'mycorrhizal' fungi were understood not only to infiltrate the soil, but to weave into the tips of plant roots at a cellular level -- thereby creating an interface through which molecular transmission might occur. By means of this weaving, too, the roots of the individual plants or trees were joined to one another by a maginificently intricate subterranean system.

"Simard's enquiries confirmed that beneath her forest floor there did indeed exist what she called an 'underground social network,' a 'bustling community of mycorrhizal fungal species' that linked sapling to sapling. She also discovered that the hyphae made connections between species: joining not only paper birch to paper birch and Douglas fir to Douglas fir, but also fir to birch and far beyond -- forming a non-hierarchical network between numerous kinds of plants.

Ox Drove by Howard Phipps

"Simard had established a structure of connection between the saplings. But the hyphae provided only the means of mutualism. Its existance did not explain why the fir saplings faltered when the birch saplings were weeded out, or details as to what -- if anything -- might be transmitted via this collaborative system. So Simard and her team devised an experiment that could let them track possible biochemical movements along this invisible buried lattice. They decided to inject fir trees with radioactive carbon isotopes. Using mass spectrometers and scintillation counters, they were then able to track the flow of carbon isotopes from tree to tree.

Chilcombe by Howard Phipps

"What this tracking revealed was astonishing. The carbon isotopes did not stay confined to the individual trees into which there were injected. Instead, they moved down the trees' vascular systems to their root tips, where they passed into the fungal hyphae that wove with those tips. Once in the hyphae they travelled along the network to the root tips of another tree, where they entered the vascular system of that new tree. Along the way, the fungi drew off and metabolized some of the photosynthesized resources that were moving along their hyphae; this was their benefit from mutualism.

Ox Drove in Winter by Howard Phipps

"Here was proof that trees could move resources around between one another using the mycorrhizal network. The isotope tracking also demonstrated the unexpected intricacy of the interrelations. In a research plot thirty metres square, every single tree was connected to the fungal system, and some trees -- the oldest -- were connected to as many as forty-seven others. The results also solved the puzzle of the fir-birch mutualism: the Douglas firs were receiving more photosynthetic carbon from paper birches than they were transmitting. When paper birches were weeded out, the nutrient intake of the fir saplings was thus -- counter-intuitively -- reduced rather than increased, and so the firs weakened and died.

Ebble Valley Oak by Howard Phipps

"The fungi and the trees had 'forged their duality into oneness, thereby making a forest,' wrote Simard in a bold summary of her findings. Instead of seeing trees as individual agents competing for resources, she proposed the forest as a 'co-operative system,' in which trees 'talk' to one another, producing a collaborative intelligence described as 'forest wisdom'. Some older trees even 'nuture' smaller trees that they recognize as their 'kin,' acting as 'mothers'. Seen in the light of Simard's research, the whole vision of a forest ecology shimmered and shifted -- from a fierce free market to something more like a community within a socialist system of resource redistribition."

Win Green from Berwick Down by Howard Phipps

Noonday Shade and March Hare by Howard Phillips

A little later in the chapter, Macfarlane notes:

"Little of this thinking is new, however, when viewed from the perspective of animist traditions of indigenous peoples. The fungal forest that science had revealed...seemed merely to provide a materialist evidence-base for what the cultures of forest-dwelling peoples have known for thousands of years. Again and again within such societies, the jungle or woodland is figured as aware, conjoined and conversational. 'To dwellers in a wood almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature,' wrote Thomas Hardy in Under the Greenwood Tree. The anthropologist Richard Nelson describes how the Koyukon people of the forest interior of what we now call Alaska 'live in a world that watches, in a forest of eyes. A person moving through nature -- however wild, never truly alone. The surroundings are aware, sensate, personified. They feel.' In such a vibrant environment, loneliness is placed in solitary confinement.'

"There in the grove [of Epping Forest], I recall Kimmerer, Hardy and Nelson, and feel a sudden, angry impatience with modern science for presenting as revelation what indigenous societies take to be self-evident. I remember Ursula Le Guin's angrily political novel, set on a forest planet in which woodland beings known as the Athsheans are able to transmit messages remotely between one another, signalling through the medium of trees. On Athshe -- until the arrival of colonists committed to the planet's exploitation -- the realm of the mind is integrated into the community of trees, and 'the word for world is forest'. "

Eggardon Hillfort by Howard Phipps

I highly recommend seeking out Underland and following the author's journey into the dark of the woods, into the mysteries underground, and into the depths of the human psyche.

Lewesdon Hill Beeches by Howard Phipps

Engaver's Tools by Howard PhippsThe exquisite arboreal art today is by Howard Phipps: a painter, printmaker and illustrator who specializes in wood engravings. Phipps studied at the Cheltenham Art College and University of Sussex, worked in west Devon the late 1970s, then moved to Salisbury, Wiltshire, where he has been based ever since. A long-standing member of the Royal West of England Academy and The Society of Wood Engravers, his art is widely exhibited throughout the UK; he has also illustrated books for the Folio Society and numerous publishers. (I first came upon his work in the literary journal Slightly Foxed.)

To see more of Howard Phipp's beautiful place-based art, visit Messums Wiltshire, Bircham Gallery, The Society of Wood Engravers, or The Arborealists; or track down copies of his two books of engravings, Interiors and Further Interiors (Whittington Press, 1985 and 1992). I also recommend "A Short Walk With Howard Phipps" on the Frames of Reference blog, which examines the craft of wood engraving and the artist's process.

Salisbury from King Manor Hill by Howard Phipps

Ebbesbourne Wake, Wiltshire by Howard Phibbs

The River Ebble at Fifield Bavant and Sunlit Interior by Howard Phipps

"Owl hoot. Dog bark. Back in the clearing the fire dims, songs fall silent. The canopy of the pollards spreads above me, whispering in the night breeze. There's something you need to hear....Seeking sleep, my mind follows leaf to branch, branch to trunk, trunk to root and from there down along the hyphnae that web the earth below."  - Robert Macfarlane (from Underland)

Underland by Robert Macfarlane

Words & art: The passages above are from Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, 2019). All rights to the trext and art above reserved by the author and artist.

Related posts: The library of the forest and Knowing the world as a gift.


Thank you for bringing these beautiful works together. We all must feel anger and outrage that patriarchal science and law makers have not known of the sacredness of trees and all Natura. The Elementals are far ahead of us, waiting. I hope it isn't too late.

Timely post for me, Terri, as it relates to a project I'm working on. The information about the interweaving of the trees isn't new, but the revelations of the research is. Fascinating!

So Much

We think we know so much,
who can walk the world,
study the understory,
make fire, wheels, alcohol
cul leaves,
mix, stir.

We think we feel so much,
who can tell a story
to make others laugh, cry,
cuddle a sick child,
hold the hands of a dead man
till he is cold.

And the trees, those tall stories,
with understories to match,
who cross pollinate
whisper to the wind,
live longer than any man,
hold their own space,
offer immigrants a home,
both root and bole
without complaint.

We who know so little
about wind and sky,
water and drought,
sun and snow,
and the little natures
that play about our feet,
never seem to know enough.

But the trees are born knowing,
and they know enough about us
to fear the serrate of saw,bite of axe,
the fire that makes only ashes.
To fear the push of bulldozer,
pull of tractor,tremble of earth,
spin of wind.

Who knows the most does not
necessarily win in the short,
but in the long.
Think redwood, eucalyptus,
think well-seeded pine.
Their lives still growing
while ours grovel in the politics
of life, of death.

©2019 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

Hi Jane

This is an exceptionally beautiful and revealing poem -- in the way if elucidates the truth about nature ( her enduring wisdom/power) compared to (sometimes) the limited perspective and imagination of our own temperament, humanness. I love the way you characterize the trees, the guardians, the wise beings that process life and cultivate a definition of "True living". We , indeed, are saved by the grace/presence of trees and have much too learn. The language and content in the lines of this poem are perfectly phrased and sum your theme so powerfully in the last stanza -

Who knows the most does not
necessarily win in the short,
but in the long.
Think redwood, eucalyptus,
think well-seeded pine.
Their lives still growing
while ours grovel in the politics
of life, of death.

Your Insight here is both moving and inspirational. Thank you for sharing this. It should be read and internalized by not only us, lovers of poetry and your fine work, but those who seek to ignore even abuse the environment -- From those governments in Brazil to our own reckless and indifferent secretary of environment in The White House. Again thank you for sharing this!!

Loved it!!

Thanks, Wendy:

Just trying to make sense of it all before the planet itself kicks us all off.


Not to be disruptive but am I the only one bothered by the ease with which Simard decided to inject radioactive materials into the forest floor? As she tells it in the TED talk (in very macho science fashion) she herself had to wear a hazmat suit to do so. Why is it so easy for scientists to poison or otherwise destroy their objects of study? And then seek applause? Something very wrong here. Or am I the one who’s wrong? Any clarification is appreciated.

That gave me pause too, but, respectfully, this blog is not the place for an argument with Ms. Simard and her team as they can't put their case here. I'm uncomforable with making assumptions about Ms. Simard's motives and character without knowing her personally, as well as with sweeping statements that don't apply to all scientists.

Your question about the use of radioactive materials is a reasonable one, and I suggest finding a forum with those who study trees if you are genuinely looking for an answer to it.

I wish my friend Tom Harlan Sr. was still alive. He was a tree scientist at the University of Arizona, an expert in trees and their habitats, and a very good and wise man. I wish I could send you to him for this discussion. He died just a few years ago and we all miss him very much.

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