For all that trees do--provide all life on Earth with oxygen, combat climate change, generate food and shelter, clean the air and soil, foster vibrant ecosystems, etc.--they are pretty undervalued.

I mean, do you ever thank a tree for all it does?

Probably not.

From the outside, trees may seem like static objects. Big, rough trunks and leafy heads that sit there and sway in the wind. Their leaves fall and then they grow back. And that’s that, right?

Well, trees are a lot more intelligent and sociable than you might think.

In fact, researchers have demonstrated that trees have vibrant social networks that operate on one basic principle: harmony. Trees embody selflessness when it comes to providing for humans, but, it turns out, they also happen to be altruistic to one another.

In the vast network of roots that burrow through the soil, trees are talking, checking in on one another and adapting to their environments to help each other thrive.

As trees form in a forest, they grow their branches in ways that help other trees get sunlight.

If a tree gets sick, other trees help nurse that tree back to health by sending it nutrients through their underground root network. They share immunities, nutrients, water and special sugar solutions.

Trees can also warn one another of incoming danger with electrical signals across a fungal network called the “Wood Wide Web.”

This behavior can encompass an entire forest and allows trees to thrive.

But what does all this mean?

First, it means that the world is far more complex than is often realized. So much is going on outside of the immediate perception of humans. Pausing to reflect on the depth and complexity of life leads to, among other things, a better understanding of why conservation efforts are important.

When trees are just viewed as sources of wood or palm oil, or as nuisances in the way of livestock grazing, then deforestation becomes easier to justify.

When they’re viewed as complex beings that provide so much benefit to the planet--humans in particular--then their widespread destruction becomes less likely.

Second, trees hold lessons for how humans can live.

Trees, rational as they are, realize that helping one another is the best way to achieve their own health and wellbeing. By taking care of fellow trees, they ensure that they will also be taken care of.

This sort of reciprocity and cooperation must be an essential part of human life.

Only if humans work together in the years ahead will the biggest challenges of today be overcome: extreme poverty, hunger, gender equality, climate change, pollution and so on.

Trees will play an indispensable role in helping humans create a better future.

But for all the tangible benefits that trees offer us, the most useful thing they provide may be a lesson: how to work together.  


Defend the Planet

What Can We Learn From Trees? More Than You Might Think.

By Joe McCarthy