Tree Roots and Anchoring Principles

From Peter Wohllenben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, I learned that the roots underground are more involved in a tree’s survival than anything growing above it. They withstand severe changes in climate, regrow trunks from time to time and it’s there where centuries of experience are stored. While trees don’t appear to have a central organ like a brain for storing information, it has been established that they learn.

Frantisek Baluska and his colleagues from the Institute of Cellular and Molecular Botany at the University of Bonn discovered brain-like structures at the root tips of trees. “When a root feels its way forward in the ground, it is aware of stimuli.” Measuring electrical signals, they found that when a root encounters toxic substances, impenetrable stones or saturated soil it analyzes the situation and transmits the necessary adjustments to the growing tip. It then changes direction and steers the growing root around the problem areas.

We have learned that mother trees recognize and talk with their kin, shaping future generations. In addition, injured trees pass their legacies on to their neighbors, affecting gene regulation, defense chemistry, and resilience in the forest community. These discoveries have transformed our understanding of trees from competitive crusaders of the self to members of a connected, relating, communicating system. There is a burst of careful scientific research occurring worldwide that is uncovering all manner of ways that trees communicate with each other above and below ground. 

Dr. Susan Simard (Professor of Forest Ecology, University of British Columbia

Trees feed each other at the roots in a process called “equalization.” Serving as a gigantic redistribution network, when a tree is running short on sugar, a nearby tree that has an abundance will provide it—one of the reasons why trees of the same species are packed together in a forest. Another reason for proximity is that nutrients, fungal networks and water can be easily divided among the trees so each can grow to be the best it can be. According to forester, Peter Wohllenben, “a tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it. Its well-being depends on their community, and when the supposedly feeble trees disappear, the others lose as well. When that happens, the forest is no longer a single unit. Even strong trees get sick over the course of their lives. When this happens, they depend on their weaker neighbors for support. If they are no longer there, all it takes is what once would have been a harmless insect attack to seal the fate even of the giants.” Nature favors proximity, sharing and helping.


Tree roots can extend more than twice the spread of the crown, so the roots of neighboring trees intersect and grow into one another. Again Peter Wohllenben: “Usually, there are fungi that operate like fiber-optic internet cables. Their fine filaments penetrate the ground, weaving through it in almost unbelievable density. One teaspoon of forest soil can contain many miles of these hyphea (a kind of fungus). Over centuries, a single fungus can cover many square miles and network an entire forest. The fungal connections transmit signals from one tree to the next, helping the trees exchange news about insects, drought, and other dangers. The fungi are pursuing their own agendas and appear to be very much in favor of conciliation and equitable distribution of information and resources. So trees communicate by means of olfactory, visual and electrical signals.” Nature favors symbiosis and integrated networks. 

A study found that it was the loose uncompacted soil around cracked sewer pipes that attracted tree roots in cities, not so much the water in the pipes. When the soil is hard as concrete, the roots get desperate and as a last resort, they find a way into a cracked sewer pipe or into loosely backfilled trenches. In both instances, the roots can’t get a secure footing. What’s more, roots have to deal with fertilizers, dog urine which can burn the tree’s bark and kill the roots. Similar damage is done by winter salt. The stresses are so great on urban trees, most of them die prematurely. Wohllenben offers one consolation. “Because streets and pathways are often planted with rows of the same species of trees, at least they are able to communicate with other members of their species.”  Nature favors community.

Roots serve as anchors. They grip the earth tightly, dig deep and spread out to form a symbiotic union with the earth. Drawing up nutrients and water, they keep a tree growing and stable. By analogy then, what are the things that anchor us in the ground of our being; the ground of all being? For me, they’re the invisible forces or “principles” that guide our lives as we navigate meaning, the world and other people. In particular, psychological stabilization occurs as we begin to find at least partial and satisfying answers to the perennial questions—Who am I? Why am I here? What is the nature of reality? Is there a God? Do we have free will? How should we live and treat others? Is there an afterlife? The extent of our confidence in life is in large part a function of how deeply we dig into these questions. Some of us are inclined to dig deeply, others not so much. But even the prospect of an answer can provide some stability. Whatever our approach, the principles that anchor us in everyday living are both personal and social.

The principles that apply to us personally are those that, when activated, provide confidence that we’re growing and our lives are meaningful. We find them in the Faith Traditions—the principles taught and demonstrated by the founders of religions and other holy persons. These include love, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, healing, humility, toleration, respect and kindness. 

Some find their root is Science, the process of seeking empirical knowledge of the physical world and universe through the principles of direct observation and testing, truth-seeking, curiosity, exploration, information sharing, debate and rigorous analysis. Those more inclined toward addressing the fundamental questions concerning reality, existence, knowledge, values, aesthetics and language find their footing in the process of rational argumentation.

Whatever the medium and whether the process is mental or physical, the act of creation itself can anchor a person in realities both actual and imagined. The operating principles in Creative Expression include heightened perception, aesthetic investigation, trust, connection (to the subject matter), inventiveness, divergent thinking, constructive imagination, social analysis, caring and sharing. Another anchoring endeavor is Contribution. Like the roots of trees that spread out to neighboring trees, many people find their stability in outreach and helping, providing service to others. Their  energies are grounded in principles of caring, responsibility, empathy, citizenship, cooperation, collaboration, respect, tolerance, empathy and goodwill. 

Above, I quoted Peter Wohllenben who said that a tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it. In another chapter of his book he writes that the goal of the trees is the survival of the forest, so I looked into it and identified some of the fundamental principles that anchor us in the ground of nature socially and as a species. Diversity is what gives living systems resilience to survive disasters. A forest is enriched by many species of trees. Neither they nor their roots fight for space, sunlight or nutrients. Instead, they are constructal, meaning they’re flexible—taking the easiest path to work around blocks. 

The greater the variety, the more stable the ecosystem is as a whole. Reducing variety creates instability and vulnerable situations. Elisabet Sahtouris (Biologist)

No living creature can ever be entirely independent. All living systems share the same physical roots. All are holons within larger holons. Life is Interconnected and Interdependent at all levels. Health and growth at the social level derive from the sharing of energies and information.

Were we to understand our fundamental interconnections, we would recognize that our own well-being or the development of our soul and consciousness is totally dependent on the development of every other human being on the planet. Michael Lerner (Rabbi)

In addition to being interconnected, living systems are Coherent, they integrate their diverse qualities, relationships and values. The whole is sustained in a growthful mode when the members of a living system relate to one another in ways that are nourishing and mutually supporting. 

Everything we do either promotes or counters coherence and thus our and our environment’s evolution and development; it is either healthy or unhealthy and is either constructive or destructive. Ervin Laszlo (Systems theorist) 

Living systems are autopoietic—self-making. They maintain and renew themselves by regulating their makeup and conserving boundaries. Examples of Self-Regualtion are individuals and organizations that take responsibility for themselves rather than relying on family, social pressure, peers, professionals, companies or governments. These systems also set limits on their exposure to and acceptance of products and energies that are toxic or counter to their growth.

Autopoietic structures have definite boundaries, such as a semipermeable membrane, but the boundaries are open and connect the system with almost unimaginable complexity to the world around it. John Briggs and F. David Peat (Physicists)

Trees communicate to other trees. Through Information Sharing they and we gain understanding and concern for self, others and the world. There could be no life without communication. As a principle of growth, the nature and quality of the information that’s shared are critically important. For instance, false information is destructive. And communication designed solely to persuade can be both a distraction and destructive.  

The reality of how we’ve changed as a species involves not the genetically driven evolution of our brains, but the mental evolution of how we collectively pass energy and information among each other across generations. This is the evolution of the mind, not the brain. Dan Siegel (Psychiatrist)

As noted, when a tree is lacking nutrients—for instance, sugar from photosynthesis occurrng in its leaves—other trees of the same species will come to its rescue. Wherever it occurs and whatever the system, context or level of activity, Helping is an indication of caring. Help is often provided when there’s a need for it, but it can also be given without need or expectation, as when we help another to learn, reach a goal or by the simple acknowledging their achievement.

We rise by lifting others. Robert Ingersoll (American writer and orator) 

Anchoring principles, singly or in combination, provide an individual with mental and spiritual stability. And along with it confidence. We feel teathered to someone or some ideal that’s enduring and dependable in a world of rapidly changing conditions and increasing complexity. Without an anchor or teather, we’d feel adrift with nothing to hold onto. 

Whatever the cause of despair and attempts at suicide, I think the lack of a deep connection to someone or something meaningful can be a contributing factor. When in serious trouble or when life is threatened, as happens with trees, it’s the depth and extent of our roots that can see us through.   

Newly planted,

my fingers extend and grow.

Ever so slowly searching deeper, farther,

groping in the dark below

for sustenance and water.

Where there’s a block, a wall,

I easily go around.

With the roots of other trees I entwine and share,

in appreciation of our common ground,

for the strength of the tree is the strength of the forest.

Older now by hundreds of years,

my fingers are sprawling and integrated braids.

Surviving blustry winds, lightning strikes, 

punishing rain and insect raids,

I look up and see my purpose fulfilled.

David L. Smith


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