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:
"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?
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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."
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, remote...is 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'. "
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.
The 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.
"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)
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.