Recently I learned about German forester, Peter Wohlleben, who wrote,“The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries From a Secret World”. As a forester, fresh out of school he was required to fell trees and spray them with insecticides. Something in him resisted. Doing his own research, he found that “in nature, trees operate less like individuals and more as communal beings. Working together in networks and sharing resources, they increase their resistance.”
Mr. Wohlleben has delighted readers and talk-show audiences alike with the news — long known to biologists — that trees in the forest are social beings. They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the “Wood Wide Web”; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots. (1/29/16 NYT)
Peter ended up quitting his job for the state forestry administration in Rhineland-Palatinate, to try his hand at a more care-ful way of working with trees. He was going to move his family to Sweden to begin his own tree practice, but he had won over the forest’s municipal owners. They quit their contract with the state forestry and hired him back to care for trees in a more conscious manner.
He brought in horses, eliminated insecticides and began experimenting with letting the woods grow wilder. Within two years, the forest went from loss to profit, in part by eliminating expensive machinery and chemicals.(1/29/16 NYT)
Human communities would do well to think like a tree. Or a bee.
Honeybees are inherently communal— each solitary bee doing its duty is important for the whole. The brain of the hive is all of them working together. 10,000 to 80,000 or more honeybees in a hive. They all have their own social roles to contribute, but the “hive mind” works together to create an incredibly intricate social network of communication and decision making about where they will glean and source their food throughout the neighborhood.
Honeybees live sentient lives. They grieve their queens and lost sisters. I’ve seen them act as pallbearers to carry their dead queen carefully out the door. They dance for one another to convey information, they become irate with beekeepers who are not careful— killing their hive mates through careless habits in the hive.
Bees see the need for food to be shared. Recently, an 102 year old woman, recounting her life, told me of how her family would open the back kitchen door to feed the hungry, poor workers coming into Philadelphia after the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression. Her father and mother were clear. We feed each other. We take care of each other. Bees do that too.
Honeybees are also equal opportunity lenders of their free pollinator services. They do not hoard their gifts but bring them freely to the neighborhood. Their legendary honey is also gratis, though I’m not so sure they give that so freely. We take it from them, usually without too much gnashing of teeth on my end, but usually some death on theirs, as they defend their pride stock fiercely.
As humans on this glorious planet, we are slowly awakening from our trance. We have colonized and dominated the spaces and places of almost every living and wild thing.
Only now, some humans are willing to listen and learn that all living beings have secret or hidden lives that we are only beginning to understand. As we move away from consuming, consuming, consuming to conserving what is left, may we listen closely for the wisdom and beauty awaiting us.