Astonishing! The Plant World! The truth is discovered, and there is more to come. How did we miss it? “Forest trees hold startling secrets,” writes Suzanne Simard, who explains: “. . . Linked in a system of underground channels . . . they perceive and connect and relate with an ancient intricacy and wisdom that can no longer be denied . . . The scientific evidence is impossible to ignore: the forest is wired for wisdom, sentience, and healing.” At first controversial, the science is rigorous, peer–reviewed, replicated, and now widely published. The secrets occur under the forest floor, the subterranean layer of fungi, intertwined roots, decomposers, and microscopic life.
Walk into an old growth forest and you will never forget the feel of forest duff beneath your feet; clusters of fern fronds lifting up praise; the scramble of high and low herbaceous plants surging with life; or the brush rabbit that skitters across the trail and dives into its secret tunnel beneath the vegetation. All the while evergreen fragrance permeates the senses, moist, intoxicating. The scent of green–growing life will draw you into this association of living things shaped by giant trees standing tall, branches outstretched, an inclusive gesture to all who venture close. This is the forest plant community: from the (1) canopy overhead to the (2) level of smaller trees and large shrubs, to the (3) shorter herbaceous plants (wildflowers and weeds) and (4) ground cover of tiny plants, mosses, mushrooms and the like. Beneath the ground is the supportive network—(5) fungi, roots, and underground organisms that connect, feed, water, and nurture the above–ground plant life.
Once I began to read Suzanne’s book, I could not put it down. She described familiar territory, the Pacific Northwest forest. I knew the plants. Her research plots were located in British Columbia, but the vegetation is similar to the forest communities I walked through in Oregon and Washington. The secret to abundant life in the forest turned out to be the “cryptic underground fungal network.” The entire forest floor is connected. The biggest, oldest trees are the sources of fungal connections, serving as “linchpins for a jungle of threads and synapses and nodes.” Surrounded by fungi and friends, forest life is sustainable. And beautiful.
Pause in your walk and try to take it all in. Listen. Breathe deeply. Savor the silence. Can you imagine the vegetation breathing? It’s making oxygen, storing carbon. Can you imagine the trees drawing water from the ground, sending it to the canopy where the moisture will transpire into the atmosphere? The moisture will return as rain, the water cycle at work. Patches of sunlight on green leaves trigger photosynthesis. Plants are making food—the very beginning of the food network. Everything has meaning here; each life function is necessary. I marvel at the sense of cooperation, mutual efforts that benefit all. Working in coordination with the elements of earth, air, fire (sun), water, and life, a beneficial collaboration creates this amazing, mutually sensitive plant community. It is good.
I am in awe of the wisdom found here, and humbled. Humility does not usually enter into forestry discussions. We humans think we can control nature. No more. Human arrogance and ignorance must step back. It’s time to regroup and recognize the wisdom of the forest, see the plants and the systems for what they are—an astonishing society of plants that thrives and sustains life. Can we acknowledge and appreciate the life here? Let us be humbled before such complexity. The ramifications of the system exist far beyond what we can imagine. Humility kindles deep respect.
During our early camping years, I was thrilled to find a wild raspberry along the trail in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. This was not the deep forest mentioned above, but where it merged into open woods. The trail was steep, a somewhat rocky terrain. Of course, we sampled the fruit, sweet and warm from the sun. Delicious. The embroidered raspberry above jumped onto the page, even though I confess the plant wants more sunshine than shade. Look for it in mixed forest or in a clearing, or perhaps alongside the road. For the embroidery stitches I used the outline stitch (Enthoven, p. 83) for stems. Leaves are a variation on the wave stitch (p. 76) with anchor stitches down the middle vein of the leaf, looping the wave stitch from the left edge of leaf, threading under a low middle stitch, then back up the right side to mimic leaf veins. An outline stitch at the edge starts the next wave while giving shape to the toothed edge of the leaf. The berries are French knots (p.114), at last a success with my childhood nemesis. I followed the directions this time.
In my previous Blogs I mentioned the problem we face: loss of plant cover. My thesis: if we restore plant communities in our gardens, parks, city streets, waste places, and bare ground, as well as wild areas, we will help alleviate the problem. What are we talking about? Such a concept is seemingly not in our current culture. Our gardens are full of cultivars—varieties of plants hybridized to suit our climate. We plant what we like. We often space them far apart. We gardeners are in charge, not to worry about what plants want to do, or put another way, what plants are programmed to do. Or perhaps the cultivars are so hybridized they have lost the code. If something won’t grow where we plant it, we blame the nursery, bad bugs, or a weak specimen. Does that matter? Yes. Where are the beneficial partner plants? Where are the missing fungi? That trophy plant from Madagascar will not sustain itself after you are gone. Or if it does live on, it may become invasive and destroy more native habitat. We are surrounded with those problem plants. Some areas are fighting horrendous battles with invasives. Hurray for the workers who persist in those battles.
Ordinary people are needed in this work. Ordinary people can make a huge difference over time. Working together in families, work teams, and action groups, we can make progress literally from the ground up by restoring native plants, the core of abundant life systems.
Ordinary people also need to ensure fair–minded governance, laws, and regulations for the environment. Have you heard of the Public Trust Doctrine? In the 6th century, Emperor Justinian declared, “. . . These things are by natural law common to all mankind—the air, running water, the sea, and consequently, the shores of the sea.” Government should hold in trust for all its citizens the resources they need to survive. Government can be held accountable if it fails to protect those resources for future generations. Can we embed that doctrine into our own thinking? into our culture? Can we change the way our officials, politicians, and rule makers think? The way they govern? Can we work together to build community for all life?
Find more plant community news in my next Blog. We will ponder the question, what made certain plants gather together in the first place? How did they find each other?
Nature notes: Plant a pollinator garden. First, research plants for your area, those that like being together. Use your personal observations from nature walks. Find Native Plant Nurseries in your area to purchase plants. Planning, purchasing, planting is the beginning. Then water, water, water, especially the first year. I had to fence out the rabbits, but have been rewarded with other wildlife that stops in my yard. I have more birds this year, and at last, the Monarch butterflies!
Gospel lifestyle: How then shall we live? Get to know the plants that live among you — recognize them for what they are, acknowledge and appreciate and respect them all. Thanks be to God for the gift of green plants. (Gen 1:29-30 NIV)
 Simard, Suzanne. 2021. Finding the Mother Tree, Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, p. 4-6.