July 25, 2012

Cooperation In Nature: The Forest

And microscopic mushrooms help out.
 Image from Thin Air by Stuart McMillen
As one way to celebrate the United Nations International Year of Cooperatives, I have been doing the odd post about cooperation in nature. As much as we like to glorify the hunt and 'survival of the fittest', when we look closer we can see that nature is largely dominated by communities of organisms helping each other out.

One such community is the forest.

While out walking in the woods we are only seeing a small part of the total. The trees may be visually dominant, but they are but part of the larger community, 2/3 of which is unseen underfoot. Also unseen is the incredible amount of cooperative interactions that takes place in this amazing ecosystem.

There are many mutually beneficial relationships between species in this leafy setting, creating a web of support that is sneeringly labeled 'socialist' when it happens among humans.

Everything has a role to play in building and maintaining the forest - everything is an active contributor. It is ultimately sustainable and would continue in perpetuity if it weren't for our intervention. A forest is the ultimate sustainable, cooperative community.

Instead of wiping trees and forests off the face of the planet, we should be studying them and learning their valuable lessons.

Lessons such as those that the lowly mushroom can teach us. They may grow on dead stuff in the dark, but they are also enlightened enablers of forest cooperation. The mushroom's fungal threads wrap around tree roots deep in the soil. The fungi brings more water and nutrients to the tree roots, and in turn receive sugars from the tree.

As the fungal threads weave through the soil they connect trees together turning individual trees into a larger network. There is not competition here - everything benefits from this mushroom/tree relationship.
Mushroom Cooperation
"In the early 1990s mycologist (the branch of botany that deals with fungi, or mushrooms) Suzanne Simard and her team at Oregon State University discovered that cobwebby networks of mycorrhiza (fungal threads) could connect not only many trees of the same species but also trees of different species.
They encountered birch connected to fir trees by up to ten different species of fungi. Moreover, birch trees growing in bright sunlight seemed to be subsidizing fir trees in the shade by sharing sugars via their mycorrhiza network."  - source: backyardnature

We are the human forest, and compassion is the fungal thread that weaves through our experience and joins us together. When we cooperate, we all benefit.

Note: To see more art, and stories about learning from nature, see Stuart McMillen's amazing work at http://www.stuartmcmillen.com/comics/.

 If you like trees, you might also like to visit our other blog at http://vancouverislandbigtrees.blogspot.ca/.

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