Think Like a Forest

By Janet Kent

chestnut stump 2

Two Yellow Birches merge over an old American Chestnut Stump.

We tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world. We do this alone, as individuals, and together as a society. The stories we tell as a society, and in turn, those we tell as individuals, reflect the values of our culture. We recognize these frameworks as stories when they take the form of myth, legend or folk tale. We are less likely to see them as stories when they take the form of religious teachings, common wisdom, history lesson or even, as science.

First off, I want to acknowledge that this may seem an inopportune time to question science as the field is currently under attack from those who do not want to take the necessary steps to mitigate the effects of climate change. I do not want to add fuel to their fire. I do, however want to look at the ways that the dominant social order and ideology affect the way science is both performed and interpreted.

A famous historical example of this influence is the use of Charles Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection by social theorists. Darwin, as many of you know, developed his theory by observing the different physical characteristics of finches on the islands of Galapagos. He observed that the individuals within a species best suited for their environment lived to reproduce, thus determining the phenotype of the species.

Almost immediately following publication of Darwin’s theory, social theorists embraced this concept to explain why some races and classes of people were able to dominate others. These theorists, called Social Darwinists by their critics, concluded that white, wealthy Europeans are genetically superior to other kinds of people. They used this theory to justify the brutality of European colonization. Interestingly, many of these theorists were creationists and did not accept Darwin’s theories as they applied to humans as animals, though they found the expansion of his theories useful for bolstering white supremacist policy.

eugenics treeDarwin himself did not agree with the application of his theory to human society. Unfortunately, the work of Social Darwinists has had as lasting an influence as that of the biologist. In fact, the term “survival of the fittest” was coined by Herbert Spencer, a sociologist and creationist, to explain why some types of people dominate others. Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, founded the Eugenics movement, the philosophy used to support such horrors as forced sterilization of poor and minority populations and residential schooling for Indigenous children here in the US as well as the policy of extermination of those deemed genetically inferior in Nazi Germany.

Not everyone in the late 1800’s agreed with the Social Darwinists or with Darwin himself. After the publication of Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection, a man named Peter Kropotkin, a Russian aristocrat and lay biologist set out to observe Darwin’s theories in action as he traveled in the wilderness across Siberia. While he did see competition at play in nature, he also saw a great deal of cooperation. In fact, Kropotkin saw that cooperation, or mutual aid as he called it, is an essential factor in the survival of both individuals and groups of animals. He observed that sociability is as much of a law of nature as mutual struggle. His book is full of examples that support his thesis and his work has been substantiated and embraced by contemporary evolutionary biologists, such as Stephen Jay Gould. Yet we continue to emphasize the role of competition within nature as we downplay the role of cooperation. Why is this?

In this country, one of our most powerful stories is that of the primacy of the individual. That cowboy-rangequintessential American image, the iconic lone cowboy, out on the range, tough and completely self-sufficient is deeply etched in our psyches. (Never mind that the existence of the cowboy depended upon government policy of Indian removal, land giveaway and railroad construction.)The American cult of the individual permeates the field of scientific inquiry, even reaching into the seemingly unconnected fields of botany and ecology. Though this is thankfully changing.

Let me tell you a familiar story. The story of a tree. This tree could be any average backyard, park or avenue shade tree. It stands, solitary; all the other trees near it have been cleared. It is able to spread out, to grow a full round crown of leafy branches. When I was growing up, and in fact, until recently, science told me this was a thriving, even happy tree. Able to dominate the space it inhabits, spreading out in root and crown to gather all the sunlight, water and nutrients it can and keeping these to itself. All trees would do this if they could, we were told. In the forest, a tree must compete with other trees for these resources. Every tree for itself. oak etchingThis framework dominated the scientific inquiry regarding trees until the last few decades. Then, as is often the case when a paradigm shift in science emerges, scientists all over the world began to look more deeply into the ways trees absorb and assimilate nutrients. Through a wide variety of experiments, researchers found the same results, trees in a mature forest, across species, share nutrients. Scientists found that trees with relatively poor locations in the forest, in rocky soil or with limited access to sunlight or nutrients, showed the same rates of photosynthesis as trees in better locations in the forest. How is this possible? Through the mycorrhizal network in the soil. A vast and intricate fungal network connects all of the trees, breaks down nutrients in the soil that the trees cannot assimilate on their own, and distributes the accumulated nutrients from soil and sky among them. Forest trees also use this network to communicate when they are threatened. If an insect attacks a tree, the individual may not be able to respond quickly enough to defend itself. However, it can send chemical messages underground via the fungal network to warn the other trees to increase the bitterness in their leaves or to send out pheromones calling in beneficial insect predators.

For this service, for the facilitation of redistribution and communication between trees, trees share as much as a third of the sugars and carbohydrates they make with the fungal network. The trade off, the strength and resilience of the forest ecosystem, is worth the shared food. It is a system of mutual aid across Kingdoms. Those lone, big shade trees in yards and parks spread out in root and crown to compensate for the absence of connection. They do what they can, but they cannot replace the sharing of nutrients and defense of the rich, complex web of the forest.


American Chestnuts, early 1900’s.

Now I want to tell you the story of another tree. This is the story of the American Chestnut. You have likely heard of the Great Chestnut Blight, perhaps the greatest ecological disaster of the 20th century. Before the blight, the American Chestnut was the dominant tree in the Eastern forest. Some estimate that one in four hardwood trees in Appalachia was a chestnut. These trees grew up to 100 feet tall and 14 feet in diameter. The blight arrived with some Chinese chestnuts planted in Central Park in the late 1800’s. During the first half of the 20th century, over 4 billion chestnut trees died from the blight. My mother was born in 1940 in Spruce Pine, NC. In her childhood, there were still enough chestnuts in the woods for her father to bring home bags of chestnuts he harvested on his hike back from working in the mica mines. By the time she reached adulthood, the chestnuts and their cousins the chinquapins were gone. The sound of these giant trees crashing in the forest was so prevalent they called it Clear Day Thunder.

The roots and root collars of these trees are resistant to the blight. Underground, all through these mountains, there are living chestnut roots. Some still send up shoots. They usually grow to about 12 or 15 feet in height, then they succumb to the blight. They rarely live long enough to bear fruit. At our place, up in Madison County, NC, there is a grove of Chestnut saplings coming up from two hundred year old underground roots. We’ve watched them grow over the years. Last fall, they reached their limit and died from the blight. We were down in the grove, clearing out some of the dead trees when we found the husk of a Chestnut seed on the ground. One of them made fruit before it died. We sat silent and teary, holding this last effort in our hands.


Husk of an American Chestnut seed from the grove of saplings above our house.

Until recently, the accepted story of these little chestnut trees emerging from old roots is that the American chestnut as individuals, are so big and strong and tough that they persist underground despite the blight. But now we know that these ancient living roots and their periodic attempts to send life above ground is not a testimony to the individual strength of the tree or even the species. It is a testimony to their level of connection. The surrounding forest is keeping these chestnuts alive. The fruit pictured above is the fruit of connection.

As we move into an increasingly uncertain future, we must remember the lesson of the the Chestnut. Remember that it is not your personal strength but the strength of your connections that will nourish you and keep you going when disaster strikes. I ask you now, to examine your stories. Who do they serve? It is time that we forsake the false narrative of the primacy of the individual. It is time to think like a forest. The web of life depends on it.

** This essay is based on a talk I gave for Rough Draught, a lecture series hosted by the Marshall Container Company in downtown Marshall, NC.


Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species

Kuhn, Thomas H. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Kropotkin, Peter. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution

Solnit, Rebecca. Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West
Wohlleben, Peter. The Hidden Life of Trees

One thought on “Think Like a Forest

  1. So very beautifully written and an exquisite message. Thanks you all so very much. Solstice Love, Kathleen
    Kathleen Maier, RH


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