Enormous, gnarled and old, the cedars of Lebanon lived up to their billing. They commanded my silent respect as I walked the well-worn path that wove its way through their ancient forest.
The trees spoke to me of a time gone by. The eldest is reputed to be 3,000 years old-a seedling during the reign of King David! When the Psalms were first sung, it was sending out its roots.
I found myself wondering whether these trees were communicating with each other. Were they connected, like an aspen grove in Colorado, which is actually one plant?
When I returned to my daughter’s apartment in Beirut, I started researching trees. The cedars were not connected as aspens are. But I happened across a TED talk by forest ecologist Suzanne Simard that grabbed my attention.
Simard has discovered that trees in the forest do talk to each other. Or at least they communicate using a biochemical “language” by means of networks of fungal filaments in the soil beneath them. Miles and miles of these filaments wrap around the roots of the trees like a kind of primordial internet. Through these filaments, the trees interact with each other.
Dr. Simard learned over many years of experimentation and observation that-contrary to all previous assumptions-the forest is not fundamentally a competitive environment. The trees are not combating for the sun’s rays or nutrients from the soil as we thought. They actually support each other. And they don’t just support trees of the same species. She has found evidence of cross-species support and protection.
A tree growing in the sunlight sends the benefits of those rays to a tree that finds itself in the shade. A tree attacked by a predator (a beetle, for instance) sends out a biochemical warning to the trees around it. Trees that shed their leaves in winter are sustained by evergreens that do not.
The trees, in other words, are a “caring” community. I like to call this caring, arboreal compassion.
It turns out that diverse forests are safer environments for trees than single-species forests. Their very diversity is protection. Most arboreal diseases are species-specific.
Spruce beetles attack Engelmann and blue spruce but have no taste for poplars or hickories. So if pines are under attack but have hickories adjacent, the hickories can support the pines through the underground network and enable the pines to survive the attack.
But if only pines live in the area, none of the trees are healthy enough to support any other and they may all succumb to the effects of the beetle invasion.
This means as well that the non-diverse forest, being weaker and more susceptible to disease, is also more susceptible to large-scale forest fires. Dead trees are better fuel, thereby promoting larger, more deadly fires.
We humans tend to want to congregate in non-diverse communities. We feel comfortable being with “our own.” But I believe we would do well to learn lessons from the forest.
In the same way diversity protects the forest, it can enhance our human communities too. If I only listen to people with my life experience and culture, I am susceptible to particular deceptions. My point of view is limited. As a white person in America, I gain wisdom and perception from friends who have recently immigrated here, or from friends who grew up in entirely different kinds of communities from my own. We need each other!
Recently I had the opportunity to help a friend from the inner city whose house was damaged by fire. Aiding her was not only a privilege but was deeply satisfying. Interacting with her helped me recognize some misconceptions we might have due to racial and cultural stereotyping.
Certainly, we need to send our roots deep into God. Our relationship with Him sustains us and grows us. But like the trees, we also need to send our roots into our communities.
Jesus modeled this for us throughout His life. We would do well to emulate His example and work to extend our community by including diverse peoples and cultures. Perhaps then we will grow not only older but wiser. As wise, perhaps, as the cedars of Lebanon.