By Roli S
Have you ever stood under a tall tree and looked up at the sky? I have done it on countless occasions and each time I felt as if the tree is in conversation with the sky and, if I hug it, it would transport me to another world, another time. I don’t know it is something in the quality of air that emanates from an old tree that renews my weary spirit. If you want to know strength and patience, welcome to the company of trees.
But here I am going to pay tribute to a very special quality of trees that many of us may have seen but never given serious thought to. We all are already aware of the benevolent attribute of a tree that it gives its whole life as a gift to us. Timber, fruits, shade, shelter, fresh air etc. But, do we know that trees are equally friendly and helpful to their counterparts? They are the best friends forever to their own tree friends as well? Otherwise, how is it even possible for some of the trees to stand strong on this planet even after hundreds of years?
Have you noticed the roadside embankments when rain often washes away the soil, leaving the underground networks of roots exposed? There you might be able to see how trees connect with each other through their root systems. I have noticed it and even stood and admired the web of roots. Later, I discovered that this really is a case of interdependence, and most individual trees of the same species growing in the same stand are connected to each other through their root systems. It appears that nutrient exchange and helping neighbours in times of need is the rule followed by trees. Is there a lesson for us humans there?
In this age of social networking, it was an obvious question to ask myself, whether these tree roots are simply wandering around aimlessly underground and connecting up when they happen to bump into roots of their own kind or are they really creating what looks like a social network? The research says that trees are perfectly capable of distinguishing their own type of roots from the roots of other species and even from the roots of related individuals so this makes trees as much social beings as us humans. Not only do they share food with their own species but sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors. Why do they do it? The reasons are the same. There are advantages to working together – another lesson deep and rooted.
Just like us humans, it is rather the degree of connection—or maybe even affection—that decides how helpful a tree’s colleagues will be. Whenever I have taken a hike in a forest looking up at the forest canopy, I am reminded of my geography lesson at which I was taught about the trees in the forest having different heights. I was told that those trees that get more sunlight grow taller and the foliage on the ground remains short because it does not receive the light of the sun. I have checked it out myself when taking a forest trail and looking up into the forest canopy. The average tree grows its branches out until it encounters the branch tips of a neighbouring tree of the same height. It doesn’t grow any wider because the air and better light in this space are already taken. However, it heavily adds to the branches it has extended, so one gets the impression that trees are fighting for space and trying to take each other’s. But I have now found out that trees like a pair of true friends are careful right from the outset not to grow overly thick branches in each other’s direction. The trees don’t want to take anything away from each other, and so they develop sturdy branches only at the outer edges of their crowns only in the direction of “perfect strangers”. This ‘live and let live’ philosophy of trees is worth mentioning I thought, especially, when we celebrate World Environment Day. Trees can teach us a lot about life, both professional and personal. After all, Mother Nature has taken about four hundred million years to perfect these incredible beings and I understand that to really feel the friendship of trees, one must use different senses, and often the most useful one is the imagination.
So, beyond poetry, photography, ecology and economy, trees have the potential to become a big idea in sociology and sustainability. For us humans I have to say that, if we do not sustain trees, as trees sustain each other, we will soon live in a world that will not sustain people.
(Roli S is an Educator, Teacher Trainer, Author and School Reviewer based in Thane.)