Recently I played a board game called “Photosynthesis”. The idea behind the game is to plant seeds, grow trees, and eventually convert them to “victory points”. However, the twist is that the trees in the game compete for sunlight and trees can block other trees from gaining light. You have to determine the ideal placement of trees and decide which trees to grow and convert. We’ve enjoyed playing with friends and we’re still working out the best strategies to win the game.
The principle of the game is based on the idea that trees in a forest compete for resources like sunlight, water, nutrients, etc. However, as I learned from reading a December 2020 article in the New York Times called The Social Life of Forests by Ferris Jabr, there is research and growing consensus that instead of competing as individuals, trees actually cooperate as part of a larger living system. There are key organisms connecting the trees in a forest called mycorrhizas, which are threadlike fungi that join with tree roots that assist with water and nutrient extraction in exchange for carbon-rich sugars the trees produce through photosynthesis.
To quote from the article:
“An old-growth forest is neither an assemblage of stoic organisms tolerating one another’s presence nor a merciless battle royale: It’s a vast, ancient and intricate society. There is conflict in a forest, but there is also negotiation, reciprocity and perhaps even selflessness. The trees, understory plants, fungi and microbes in a forest are so thoroughly connected, communicative and codependent that some scientists have described them as superorganisms.”
After reading the article and learning more about this research, I am stunned by the amount of complexity and interconnectedness in forests. Reflecting on the cooperation of trees that goes on “behind the scene” inspires awe. On top of their intrinsic value, there is enormous scientific value from understanding more about forests and trees in how they communicate and build resilient systems.
Kudos to Suzanne Simrod and other scientists who completed this incredible research. I hope it gains more ground in the mainstream (and I encourage you to share your own learnings with others) because I think it can help us appreciate and protect forests and the natural world.