“The boy half hears below consciousness
the sounds of the trees —
those feral, nighttime communications
of the wood makers,
the carbon eaters,
the water gulpers.”
— Blood Mountain, p. 104
There’s a short video, under two minutes, that’s been shared around the internet lately, largely because it was featured on The Kids Should See This website. Produced by BBC News, the video is titled “How trees secretly talk to each other.”
I’m glad to see this tree conversation shared in an easy-to-digest format. A quick clip we can watch and pass along to friends and family and Facebook weirdos. I’m moved by the scientific reality of an underground social network of fungi that shares and communicates and feels and interconnects.
Of course, anyone who’s read The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien was a tree man! Treebeard at Isengard!) or even watched “The Wizard of Oz” knows that artists have long imagined trees as being dynamic, living forces of nature — with more to them than meets the eye. In the past these “magical” trees have been in the domain of fantasy, so I was eager to reclaim the accuracy of that fact-based perception in a book that was realistic fiction.
The past few years I’ve increased my love affair with trees, mostly by learning more about them. Reading books, yes. And a lot of long walks: looking, noticing, seeing the details I’d missed before.
One book was particularly important, though there were others that informed and inspired my writing, too. Here’s some that fed me . . .
In The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben, I first encountered the phrase “the wood wide web.” This book, by the way, surely inspired aspects of The Overstory by Richard Powers, which stands as one of my favorite novels of the past decade. I knowingly borrowed Wohlleben’s phrase in my middle-grade adventure novel, Blood Mountain. But I hope, on a deeper level, the book expresses some of that tree-perception and otherness-appreciation throughout. Those magnificent creatures that — or who? — live amongst us.
Here’s a bit from Chapter 32, pages 103-104. To set this up: Carter is alone, lost and hungry, suffering from early stages of hypothermia, collapsed beneath a weeping willow after wandering through a lowland bog. Things are teetering on the edge . . .
That night, the trees of the forest began talking.
Carter overhears their murmuring.
Of course, he knows little of trees and nothing of their primordial tongue. To his ears it is only wind through moonlit, shimmering leaves. He doesn’t comprehend that roots intermingle, that electrical impulses pass from root tip to root tip, tree to tree, in a vast unfathomable social network of interconnected forest. How all trees of the forest are one tree continuous. A community, an underground wood-wide web. Carter hears the moan of a heavy branch, the groan of another, and the sporadic signals of tree parts dropped to the ground: sticks, stems, detritus falling all around him, delivering messages in a complex code. If these sounds were translated into words from the human world, Carter still could not grasp their meaning, as foreign to him as the tongue of a lost tribe. No boy can talk to trees.
Time is different for trees and rocks and the human species. Trees live for decades, centuries: generations pass through in a continuous ecosystem through the ages. Trees have existed on the planet since long before the first hominids walked upright, and trees will remain long after humankind is wiped off the earth’s surface. A smudge on a windowpane. The great trees persist, and wait, and watch, and whisper.
Alone and cold and closing in on hypothermia in the wild unknown, the boy half hears below consciousness the sounds of the trees — those feral, nighttime communications of the wood makers, the carbon eaters, the sunseekers, the water gulpers. From the beginning, roots have turned toward the things they desired: water, nutrient-rich soil, a firmer grip. Beneath Carter, below the understory, the roots of the forest send out messages to one another.
The trees are talking about the boy.
It is time.
Long limbs reach toward him.