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The Wood Wide Web

Back in June of this year Anatomica adopted a tree, a handsome if uncooperative Freeman Maple which quickly lost its leaves for reasons beyond human ken. Trees are mysterious this way. The adoption program, which runs across the Bloordale Village, is part of an initiative by the organization Local Enhancement & Appreciation of Forests (LEAF), thanks (in part) to whose efforts Toronto’s percentage of green space to non- is around a healthy 13% – more than Amsterdam and Tokyo, less than New York or London.

The benefits of green space to those of us who inhabit the cities are widely documented: aside from the obvious aesthetic value, one Torontonian study found that “having 10 more trees in a city block, on average, improves health perception in ways comparable to an increase in annual personal income of $10,000 and moving to a neighborhood with $10,000 higher median income or being 7 years younger.” If, like this author, you feel you could rather do with an extra ten grand a year, this is a fairly staggering statistic.

This is a matter of perception: trees make us feel better about our lives. Money may not grow on trees, but trees themselves may prove an acceptable substitute, at least insofar as one does not actually need a 65-inch TV screen, however else one may feel when in possession of an especially good remaster of Apocalypse Now. Perception, however, is only half the story: the Japanese, characteristically ahead of the curve, have been in the habit of practicing shinrin-yoku, “nature baths,” since as early as 1982. An eight-year study of the health benefits shinrin-yoku found a marked increase in the activities of those cells most responsible for immune system integrity and cancer prevention.  They also found that regular practitioners also had lower levels of stress hormones like cortisol. To fell a tree is to harsh a mellow, burn a wad, and increase one’s risk of cancer all in one go. And here I called ours “uncooperative.”

This is all more than enough to make us love our little tree, which, though bald, is virile. But the special mystery of trees runs quite a bit deeper than all that, as it turns out, and we mean this literally.

Astonishing studies conducted in forests across Europe and the United Kingdom have found that trees – especially old-growth forests – are intricately bound to one another in vast social networks facilitated by tiny, fibrous fungi that grow in the underground tangle of tree roots. This network is properly called the Mycorrhizal Network for the species of fungi that compose it, but has earned the more affectionate name of Wood Wide Web (WWW).

The trees and fungi exist in perfect symbiosis: the trees provide the fungi with sugars they process via photosynthesis, and the fungi keep the trees fed with minerals mined from the earth. More amazingly, the fungi also provide a kind communication platform through which the trees can “talk” to each other – and more. Researchers found that trees within a WWW can lend each other food they have stored; a dying tree can bequeath its surplus food to a younger sapling, or warn its neighbors about incoming aphidian invaders.

And this happens across species! Trees have been found to store extra food energy for consumption by younger, hardier trees which are more resilient to the effects of global warming, as if there exists some collective, topiary effort to preserve the forest against the threat of environmental cataclysm. The trees ought to be good at this by now: the Web is over 450 million years old.

We at Anatomica are not arborists; we can’t say that this constitutes intelligence. But it sure sounds like it does.

For all the benefits our trees give us, caring for our little maple seems a petty price; still, mutual aid is a better relationship than outright exploitation. These days we water our Freeman a little more reverently.

Who knows what it may be saying about us to the others, when our door is closed?

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