GROUNDING – Nature's Communication
Critical Analysis of Forest Communication
In her book finding the mother tree Suzanne Simard (Professor of Ecology at the university of British Columbia's Faculty of Forestry) reveals the intricacies of communication in tree connectivity. Her research into seedlings and the dense network created by mycorrhiza, tree roots, and fungal threads running deeply throughout the forest floor has been revolutionary. It drew global attention to the little we truly know of communication within the natural world. Simard reveals that ‘forest life springs from death as part of a larger cycle the building of soil, migration of species and circulation of the oceans.’ (Simard, S p3). Fascinated by tree roots and forest regeneration since childhood, digging and studying small roots of young tree saplings with conservation as her main aim, she began to discover links between the tree roots and the mychorizas growing at the base of trees to the extension of a network of tree hubs, fungal membranes and ions all transferring messages to one another throughout the entire forest floor.
Simard explains the relevance of the of the mycorrhizas to connect not only the network of signals from the trees to the roots through photosynthesis but also that communication within the forest is not only for survival but also to benefit other species. Her scientific discoveries of this network have been globally acclaimed and were named the ‘Wood Wide Web.’
It was from this terminology ‘The Wood Wide Web,’ that the concept to link the transfer of messages throughout the forest evolved to analyse this in comparison with our current network of communication, the World Wide Web. Within her book Simard talks of the difficulties in proving the traditional ways of logging in Western Canada which were not conducive to forest regeneration. From a family of loggers, she understood the difficulties she faced to convince the scientific community that ‘farming the forest's’ was not in their interest. She dedicated her life to conservation successfully proving that to retain biodiversity, carefully selecting which trees to remove within the forest was the most positive way forward. She also convinced the ecological community of the importance of the hub trees, also known as the ‘Mother trees’. Here Simard confirms the mother trees as being the central point of the network of communication:
When the mother trees - the majestic hubs at the centre of forest communication, protection and sentience – die, they pass their wisdom to their kin, generation after generation, sharing the knowledge of what helps and what harms, who is friend or foe and how to adapt and survive in an ever-changing landscape.
Simard explains the astonishing discovery that the messages relayed throughout the forest via the underground fungal network, wiring the trees to imitate the chemical signals transmitted by humans:
I will take you on a journey that revealed the most shocking aspects of this pattern- that it has similarities with our own human brains. The old and young are perceiving, communicating, and responding to one another through chemical signals, chemicals identical to our own neurotransmitters. within the human brain, Signals created by ions cascading across fungal membranes.(Simard, p5).
Simard’s lifelong commitment to the discoveries within the arboreal world inspired me to return to the research in communication I had been developing within the work for the masters with deeper investigation. It's true that without human disruption much of the forest’s biodiversity and communication would not be as challenged, they have survived for millions of years. This drew my curiosity back to the Internet, to social platforms, and to our current networking devices to question the effectiveness of how we now communicate daily.
Can I make a direct comparison between the discoveries of Simard to my own theories on our current forms of communication? How can I effectively highlight the energy transfer of signals and messages within the forest in an installation that uses scenography to bring the audience into a unique experience?
I began to question our own communication, its effectiveness and its benefits, particularly in forms of communication developed over the last 20 years. To compare these systems to the world we live in, I began to research digital forms of communication and found the book ‘Born Digital’ by Robert Wigley. In Wigley's book he examines how social media, while appearing to connect people, actually leads to less face to FaceTime and can affect mental well-being.
Can a deeper connection to our breath and ourselves be encouraged by emphasizing the distractions with aspects of our present lives and heightening the communications and sounds around us? By contrasting the scenography and soundscape from the beginning of the installation linked through a transitional ‘forest walkway’ the aim was to create a ‘tranquil, ancient atmosphere’ to stimulate a more receptive state within the audience and encourage awareness of the connections that have existed for millennia between trees via their roots systems and between other species such as birds.
When reading 'The Third Ear’ by Joachim Ernst Berendt, I was struck by this section in his research:
Hundreds of thousands of years ago, woman’s vocal and linguistic superiority was as important for the development of communication - as thus of civilisation and culture- as man’s three-dimensional ability was for opening up new living space, and thus for humanity’s spread across the earth. (Berendt, p 23)
This book led me to consider how vital our hearing is to communication. This helped me to consider ways of emphasising the importance of sound design within the final installation. Most of us now live in an era dominated by digital devices. I considered many of the performance artists using scenography.
How could I include this within the installation, to convey the message effectively by using technology, whilst also generating questions and responses around the importance of our interpersonal connection and the voice, as an instrument of communication?
Please click on the button Social Connections in the tree image to read more on communication in technology.