Books

Trees—They’re Just Like Us!

A recent run of bestsellers promises that plants are people too. Are they getting ahead of the science?

A person points at a mirror in which, rather than a reflection of himself, he sees a tree.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

In the penultimate episode of Ted Lassos second season, junior coach Nate is feeling shirty, complaining to his co-workers that Ted, the head coach who gave him a chance when everyone else overlooked him, is taking credit for Nate’s brilliant ideas. Coach Beard looks up from the book he’s reading and remarks, “We used to believe that trees competed with each other for light. Suzanne Simard’s fieldwork challenged that perception, and we now realize that the forest is a socialist community. Trees work in harmony to share the sunlight.” Coach Beard’s choice of reading material—Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures—is partly an in-joke. (In an earlier episode, Beard accidentally got high on mushroom tea.) But it’s also a nod to the role subterranean fungi play in linking the roots of forest trees to one another, forming what one of the first journals to print Simard’s research called the “Wood Wide Web.”

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Simard—who earlier this year published her own book, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest—helped revolutionize biologists’ understanding of how forests work. But of course, Beard isn’t bringing up Simard’s work because he thinks anyone in the locker room of AFC Richmond cares about the need to overhaul forestry methods in established woodlands. Ted Lasso is a series preoccupied with the possibility of redeeming masculinity, of creating a new vision of how to be a man that doesn’t include gratuitous aggression, selfishness, and the need to dominate others. That the show is set behind the scenes of a professional sports team ups the stakes of its central question: Do you have to be a toxic asshole to win?

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What does this have to do with trees? Not much, really. Even if it were true that trees don’t compete with one another for light—they do, just not as relentlessly as once thought—or that they live in “socialist” communities, people, to state the obvious, aren’t trees. We are animals, and they are plants. We move around from place to place, and they don’t. And above all, we have brains and central nervous systems, which trees do not. These facts are immaterial, however, to judge by some of the most successful books about trees published over the past five years, all of them indebted to Simard’s research. Most of these books—including Simard’s own—seem intent on convincing their readers that trees are people, too.

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It’s a message those readers eagerly embrace. Telling the public how much trees resemble human beings has richly rewarded Peter Wohlleben, a German forester, with an internationally bestselling book based on Simard’s findings, 2015’s The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, and an admiring documentary film about him released this year. Richard Powers based a character on Simard in his tree-besotted novel, 2018’s The Overstory, and won the Pulitzer Prize. Simard, in addition to her own book contract, has chalked up a New York Times Magazine profile, a massively popular TED Talk, and now a name check on the most Emmy-nominated new sitcom in history. And all these books are connected, not by underground fungi networks but by the “Customers who bought this item also bought” feature on Amazon, to Entangled Life and the likes of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s essay collection Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. The latter, despite the fact that it was published way back in 2013, is currently spending its 79th week on the New York Times’ bestseller list, where it currently ranks third in paperback nonfiction.

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A collage of the covers of a number of books mentioned in this article as well as green leaves.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Amazon and Getty Images Plus.
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In The Hidden Life of Trees, by far the most widely disseminated version of trees-are-people argument, Wohlleben describes them as obeying rules of “etiquette,” forming agreements, “nursing” their young, and possessing “maternal instincts,” as well as possibly possessing the ability to “appreciate beauty.” The basis for some of these assertions lies in Simard’s findings about how trees emit chemicals in response to stressors (such as a lack of water or an assault by pests) that other trees respond to by mounting defenses against those stressors. Old, towering trees that Simard describes as hubs or “mothers” also use fungal networks to pass nutrients on to their own offspring by a process that is able to distinguish them from other trees of the same species. But trees of different species are also able to form symbiotic relationships, using their root systems to swap energy resources in the form of sugar during seasons when one type of tree produces much more than the other and vice versa.

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These discoveries are no small thing. Both Simard and Wohlleben describe becoming foresters out of a youthful love of trees, only to realize that the profession was dedicated to producing a commodity: timber. In Finding the Mother Tree, Simard recounts a formative moment in her first years on the job for a forestry service in British Columbia. Loggers were clear-cutting old-growth forests, then compensating by planting seedlings. However, they were only interested in planting more of the firs that produce salable timber as quickly as possible, banishing trees like birches and alders because it was believed that such unmarketable “weeds” competed with the firs for sunlight and nutrients. The result was not new forests but monocultural plantations. (A similar dynamic is at play in the United States, where the Forest Service is part of the Department of Agriculture.) Noticing that the seedlings in such plantations looked yellow and sickly, Simard dedicated her career to finding out why, pursuing the hunch that enmeshment in a complex forest ecosystem produced healthier trees. In one example, she found that pines “got nitrogen from alder” in a manner that could not be replicated by mere fertilizers, because the essential nutrient was transmitted “not through the soil at all but thanks to mycorrhizal fungi.”

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The pushback Simard encountered when publishing these results as a young scientist in a field dominated by men daunted her. Her outdoorsy childhood equipped her to brave bear- and wolf-filled forests with aplomb but not sneering forest managers who hissed insults like, “You think you’re an expert? You have no idea how these forests work!” This is a common motif in recent popular books on nature. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer recounts her interview with the faculty adviser at a university. She wanted to study botany, she told him, “because I wanted to learn about why asters and goldenrod looked so beautiful together.”

Science always plays the heavy in Braiding Sweetgrass. Despite its subtitle and the author’s position as a professor of environmental and forest biology, the book is devoted to explaining the inadequacy of science compared with the Native American traditions Kimmerer is heir to as an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. The faculty adviser explained to her that “beauty is not the sort of thing with which botanists concern themselves,” a reasonable enough point, given that beauty cannot be measured, so how can you even determine how much of it is present? Nevertheless, the adviser is depicted as a stern, blinkered ogre whose rejoinder set Kimmerer on a path of alienation from her cultural roots and the “so much deeper and wider” understanding that came with them. Botany was mere “mechanics,” and the work of science a soulless process intended at best to “atomize complexity into its smallest components, to honor the chain of evidence and logic, to discern one thing from another, to savor the pleasure of precision.”

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Finding the Mother Tree does provide a counterpoint to this reductive view. As Simard describes setting about her early work designing experiments, her book resembles Hope Jahren’s exhilarating Lab Girl: a portrait of science as a practice replete with intuition, creativity, and wonder. The resistance Simard encountered had less to do with “science” than with industry, whose capitalist prerogatives shaped the thinking of the forestry agency she worked for. In The Overstory, Patricia Westerford, the character based on Simard, publishes a study of sugar maples indicating that trees under attack by insects emit chemical signals that warn nearby trees to “pump out insecticides.” She concludes that “The biochemical behavior of individual trees may make sense only when we see them as members of a community.” At first, Westerford is celebrated, then the establishment goes on the attack. She loses her lectureship and has to take odd jobs to survive. Finally, she holes up in a remote cabin, working for years as a wilderness ranger for the Bureau of Land Management, while, unbeknownst to her, other scientists gradually affirm her findings and redeem her reputation.

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Simard’s own path was less romantically desolate: She simply switched from the forestry service to academia, and her career proceeded along fairly conventional lines thereafter. She felt herself to be struggling against a paradigm, less dominant in the university than in forestry, perhaps, but misguided all the same: “the entrenched dogma that competition was the only interplant interaction that mattered in forests.” This framework, shaped by a too-narrow understanding of the workings of natural selection, kept researchers from perceiving that “collaboration” among species made the forest a complex network capable of sustaining many lives. They literally could not see the forest for the trees.

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Some might be tempted to blame this shortsightedness on a cartoon version of scientific thinking: too analytic, too focused on separation and distinction. But it was really just bad science, a fact made evident when Simard used better science to disprove it. Human beings have a habit of looking to “nature” to validate how we organize ourselves, and the old competition-obsessed view of forestry was a mirror of the social order that produced the people who upheld it. If the survival of the fittest—a pitched battle for dominance among individual organisms within and between species—is the way nature works, then what could be more natural than running our own society according to the same principles? In fact, wouldn’t it be delusional idealism to try to run things any other way? Meanwhile it apparently did not occur to anyone in Simard’s discipline that our cultural investment in a dog-eat-dog social model might bias researchers to identify competition where it did not exist.

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The currently popular, everything-is-connected school of tree love might want to take a lesson from this failing. Anthropomorphism, not so long ago regarded as an intellectual and moral sin in the natural sciences, runs amok in all of these books. A chapter from The Hidden Life of Trees describes how stands of European beeches equalize the rate of photosynthesis among their member trees, a process Wohlleben characterizes as “gigantic redistribution mechanisms” that work “a bit like the way social security systems operate to ensure individual members of society don’t fall too far behind.” This comparison is clearly meant to land as a revelation, as such statements certainly seem to with the earnest, anorak-clad Northern European crowd that raptly follows Wohlleben on a tour through the woods in the documentary that bears his book’s title. This is what Coach Beard means when he describes the forest as “a socialist community.” But while there are many arguments in favor of the social welfare state, “because trees do it” has got to be one of the silliest.

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Of course, everything is connected, and all of these books argue urgently and persuasively for the role of trees in preserving the environment and mitigating climate change. It could be that their woozy anthropomorphism is more calculated than it seems. “Plant-blind” is Patricia Westerford’s father’s verdict on most of the human race in The Overstory. “Adam’s curse. We only see things that look like us.” Wohlleben may even be tipping his hand by writing, in The Hidden Life of Trees, “When you know that trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you can no longer just chop them down and disrupt their lives with large machines.” Fair enough, if it’s working.

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At times, however, this yearning to be more treelike or to conceive of trees as more peoplelike leads to paradoxical dead ends. Are we supposed to love trees for their preferential treatment of their own young (so relatable!) or for their generous sharing of their wealth with other species? The Japanese custom of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, inspires magazine articles, and the healing potential of strolls in the woods has become the subject of medical studies. Contact with nature is touted as an antidote to the afflictions of post-industrial life. A common online retort to an antagonist who seems to be suffering from internet poisoning is “Touch grass.” Kimmerer even goes so far as to attribute a former lover’s suicide to the fact that “He never grew a relationship with the land, choosing instead the splendid isolation of technology.” Yet the headline that first made Simard’s reputation—“Wood Wide Web”—suggests that thing that trees do that makes them so much like us is the thing about ourselves we really need to get away from. The maddening aspect of the internet is not its splendid isolation, but the fact that it’s made of people, with their ceaseless yammer of confessions, accusations, pleas, warnings, and rants.

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As someone who takes a walk in the woods almost every day to get a break from all that, I’ve found that the thing I love most about trees is how different they are from human beings. They are still, slow, unfathomable, quiet. What a marvel to share the world with beings so alien, whose experience, if it can even be called that, I’ll never truly grasp. I find their otherness calming, it’s true, but I don’t expect them to teach me anything. Just getting this chance to coexist with them is a blessing worth fighting for. And besides, what’s the point of looking around you if all you really want to see is yourself?

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