Ways of seeing: Forest shows way of cooperation


Walking through the forest as these late fall days lingered with unnatural warmth, I found the woods filled with life and light. Slow-moving bees crawled upon the remaining flowers; chipmunks scurried up trees; a grouse flushed unseen, its wings thrumming the air. With lack of frost and instead the late summer’s damp, the range of fungus seemed greater than usual: one like a bit of white coral, another a moss-green saucer, and other curious shapes exuded from tree trunks and fallen logs. A mosaic of leaves covered my path, with cones scattered on top like a garnish. The deer tracks in the soft earth and the bear scat I stepped around assured me that this world was widely and wildly inhabited.

I have passed through other woods before. In the far west of my childhood, ancient cedars towered, their trunks so great that in earlier times people thought it clever to cut a tunnel wide enough to drive a car — at least a Model T — through the hole. Moss draped their branches, young trees pushed up out of the rich peat of decaying logs, and ferns almost as tall as me flourished beneath. This was the rainforest of the Pacific Northwest, and it felt somehow mysterious and sacred to me, even as a young child. Fast forward a few decades and I visited again. Driving down the highway, a thin row of trees barely screened the vast stretches of clear-cut land, while trucks passed carrying the felled logs, each with centuries of growth.

Within the National Park old growth forests remained, an echo of how vast their presence once had been. We learned — my age peers and I — about survival of the fittest, competition, and who is “on top” in this world of ours. (Answer: human beings, especially certain select human beings).

The world was our oyster if we were strong enough and clever enough and perhaps ruthless enough to pry it open. What we thought worked for us surely worked for everything else, so why not cut down all those old trees whose wood was worth vast amounts of money? Plow up the ground and pop in some seedlings and more trees would grow. Not the same trees, of course, because who wants to wait around a couple of hundred years for the next crop? No, some kind of fast-growing variety. Make sure you plow out all the riff-raff from the soil and spray herbicides around, so only the trees you want will be growing. You certainly don’t want your new “crop” to have to compete for sun, water, nutrients.

Some years later these lumber crops were not working out so well, and new foresters studied other aspects of trees and soil and began to find some surprising results. It turns out that trees are more cooperative with each other than competitive. Not simply with their own variety, but also with other kinds. For instance, firs and birches have an active symbiotic relationship. And the connections between the trees, the sharing of their resources, the aid during stressful times and fending off of diseases, is facilitated by a vast network of root-to-root fungi. Other plant life contribute to the relationships that support what we call a forest, which turns out to be a very complex community tapestry.

Who are we then, we humans, we on the top of the pyramid? These forest communities have the ability to work together for the health of the whole. They somehow know who needs what and when to share it. They support not just their own kind, but totally different species.

Meanwhile humans all too often flinch at even supporting or sharing with each other. We are all one species, but we constantly look for ways to divide ourselves apart. Our competition and exclusion, our sense that there is something God-given about our winning (or losing) makes us greedy and grabby. Along the way, we not only inadequately support each other, we actively work to plow up or poison out aspects of our environment that we later find are needed for our health and survival.

Our cleverness, our ruthlessness that we thought was putting us on top is actively carrying us to our downfall, to a world that will no longer be able to sustain us. I’m not sure exactly what we thought our model should be: the lone, male lion, king of the jungle, fiercely roaring as it tears into its vanquished prey? That is also a myth, of course, as it turns out that lions live in prides and most of the hunting is done by the females. Maybe we need to look to the forest for our model: a place of interdependency, of connections. We can reach out our tendrils, our roots, to reach and sustain each other, and together to sustain our community and our world.

Laurie Cox is a retired school counselor and longtime Ripton selectboard member. Besides occasional writing, she sings with Maiden Vermont, pursues art, takes long hikes with her dog(s) and seasonally gardens. She also is about to become more actively involved in things political, environmental and just.

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