Sydney takes ~ Lonely Trees

Sydney takes ~ Lonely Trees

We were once intimate with trees, we lived in trees and on trees and among trees, we ate the fruit of trees. And now we are busy destroying their communities.

Suzanne Simard’s first job was with a logging company. She saw that logging competition, removing other trees and the understory, did not promote growth as foresters predicted. ‘I knew that without birch, fir was not very healthy.’ She is now professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia. Kate Kellaway states, ‘Simard made discovery trees communicate and cooperate through subterranean networks of fungi.’[1]

Big old trees – dubbed ‘mother trees’ – are hubs in this mycorrhizal fungal network, playing a key role in supporting other trees in the forest, especially their offspring.[2] We will fail old trees if we don’t look after mycorrhizal fungi. Tree health can depend on the micro-organisms. Fine tree roots are covered by fungi which get water and phosphorous convert nitrogen into a form tree roots can use, etc. food, can spread outside roots for many metres – the plants in turn gives carbon and sugars. We have such little knowledge of soils, some are depleted by mycorrhizals, most seem to be enriched.

Eucalypt forests have mycorrhizal fungal networks. Fungal networks don’t just operate between related trees, but also between trees of different species in the same native community.  ‘In a landmark experiment, published in a 1997 issue of Nature, Simard used radioisotopes to trace carbon, nitrogen and water moving between a Douglas fir and a paper birch tree, which are both native to the inland forests of British Colombia. When she shaded one tree, carbon-based sugars would flow into it from the other tree. So rather than competing for resources, these two trees were using fungal networks to share them.’ [3]

In another study, Simard and her graduate student showed every tree in a 30 by 30-metre forest stand was connected to every other tree, with an estimated 250 to 300 trees being connected together in this single forest stand.

Not all forests rely on mycorrhizal fungi. The Western Australian ecosystems are dominated by banksias, grevilleas and hakeas that on don’t rely on mycorrhizal fungi.[4]

Richard Grant comments on Peter Wohlleben’s work: ‘The latest scientific studies, conducted at well-respected universities in Germany and around the world, confirm what he has long suspected from close observation in this forest: Trees are far more alert, social, sophisticated—and even intelligent—than we thought.’ [5]

‘Some are calling it the ‘wood-wide web’. All the trees here, and in every forest that is not too damaged, are connected to each other through underground fungal networks. Trees share water and nutrients through the networks, and also use them to communicate. They send distress signals about drought and disease, for example, or insect attacks, and other trees alter their behaviour when they receive these messages.’ Peter Wohlleben[6]

Trees sense through their underground network, trees send chemical, hormonal and slow-pulsing electrical signals, they also use have a sense of smell using pheromones in the air. Plants attacked by pests release volatile chemicals which are picked up by neighbouring plants warning them of the pests. Trees also have a sense of taste. Peter Wohlleben notes that, ‘When a deer is biting a branch, the tree brings defending chemicals to make the leaves taste bad. When a human breaks the branch with his hands, the tree knows the difference, and brings in substances to heal the wound.’ [7]

‘The root tips feel, taste, test and decide where and how far the roots will travel. If there is a stone in the way, the sensitive tips notice and choose a different route. The sensitivity to touch that tree lovers are seeking is therefore to be found not in the trunk but underground.’ Peter Wohlleben[8]

‘Researchers are only beginning to understand the complexities of the microbes in the earth’s soil and the role they play in fostering healthy ecosystems. Now, climate change is threatening to disrupt these microbes and the key functions they provide.’ Suzanne Simard[9]

Around 80% of the world’s forests have been destroyed or badly degraded.[10] ‘Each year, the world’s forests capture more than 24 percent of global carbon emissions, but deforestation — by destroying and removing trees that would otherwise continue storing carbon — can substantially diminish that effect. When a mature forest is burned or clear-cut, the planet loses an invaluable ecosystem and one of its most effective systems of climate regulation. The razing of an old-growth forest is not just the destruction of magnificent individual trees — it’s the collapse of an ancient republic whose interspecies covenant of reciprocation and compromise is essential for the survival of Earth as we’ve known it.’ Ferris Jabr [11]

‘All humans do is talk. Talk talk talk and out come the sounds and like poetry they change nothing but we talk talk talk anyway and we mistake the sounds for meaning or action, and the trees stand there silently and we just talk.’ Paul Kingsnorth [12]

But we don’t just talk, we drive, walk, plant, bury, excavate, build, demolish, manufacture, and the trees are not silent.

Sydney is a city, and not just trees are lonely here.

‘You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people. What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.’

‘Loneliness is personal, and it is also political . . . We are in this together, this accumulation of scars, this world of objects, this physical and temporary heaven that so often takes on the countenance of hell. What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity. What matters is staying alert, staying open, because if we know anything from what has gone before us, it is that the time for feeling will not last.’ Olivia Laing[13]


[1] Kate Kellaway, ‘Secrets of a tree whisperer: ‘They get along, they listen – they’re attuned’,’ Observer, 25 Apr 2021.

[2] Suzanne Simard, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, Penguin Random House, 2021

[3] Anna Salleh, ‘Do trees communicate with each other?’ Ask an Expert, ABC Science, 20 May 2015

[4] Plant physiologist Professor Hans Lambers. See Anna Salleh, ‘Do trees communicate with each other?’ Ask an Expert, ABC Science, 20 May 2015.

[5] Richard Grant, ‘Do Trees Talk to Each Other? A controversial German forester says yes, and his ideas are shaking up the scientific world’, Smithsonian, March 2018. ‘Wohlleben’s strongest critics are German commercial foresters: ‘They call me a ‘tree-hugger,’ which is not true. I don’t believe that trees respond to hugs.’ Richard Grant

[6] Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries From a Secret World, Black Inc. 2016.

[7] Richard Grant, 2018.

[8] Peter Wohlleben, The Heartbeat of Trees: Embracing Our Ancient Bond with Forests and Nature, Greystone, 2021.

[9] Diane Toomey, ‘Exploring How and Why Trees Talk to Each’ with Suzanne Simard, Yale Environment 360, Sept 1, 2016.


[11] Ferris Jabr, ‘The Social Life of Forests’. The New York Times, 2 Dec 2020.

[12] Paul Kingsnorth, Savage Gods, Two Dollar Radio, 2019.

[13] Olivia Laing, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, Picador, 2016.


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