I, and my words, have wintered and now it’s almost spring. What of play, now, after these months of thinking, reading, always either being in with empathy, reflecting on or observing around this most ineffable of sustenances? I recently came across an article that seemed to link with my previous recent writings embracing mutual aid, collaboration and connectivity. The article (Let’s do branch: how trees socialise and help their neighbours by Amy-Jane Beer, 2019) is, admittedly, published primarily as a paid-for product placement link in an online national newspaper; however, glazing over that, I was caught up by the analogy I found myself conjuring of a forest of children, en mass, at play.
Despite appearances, trees are social beings. For a start, they talk to each other. They’re also sensing, co-operating and collaborating . . .
Read as: Despite appearances, children are social beings. For a start, they talk to each other. They’re also sensing, co-operating and collaborating . . .
Well, we know that children interact, for sure, but do we know how it is they communicate, in all their various, glorious, subtle, complex, overlaid and interlaced formations? They can manifest their many complexities to one another (and to and between them and any playworking-minded adults) in such astute and beautiful, brave and careful intricacies. There are many who can’t, or won’t, see such things because maybe their focusings are fraught or frayed
. . . the phenomenon known as ‘crown shyness’, in which similarly-sized trees of the same species appear to be respecting each other’s space was recognised almost a century ago. Sometimes, instead of interlacing and jostling for light, the branches of immediate neighbours stop short of one another, leaving a polite gap.
Children move: they always seem to be moving, physically, but even when this isn’t so perceptible, they’re still moving, emotionally, psychologically, socially. Children are choreography in action. It’s easy to see when they’re playing ‘tag’, say, spinning towards and away from one another, but we might also consider how there is an emotional, psychological, social choreography in action too. It isn’t the ‘polite gap’ of physical trees or children that I wish to pay attention to here: it is the honour of ‘being a fellow child’ that I see, despite the occasional disagreement. There are small courtesies and allowances paid to one another, which are replete with knowing and feeling what it is in being ‘child’.
If trees can be shy at their branch-tips, more recent research shows they are anything but at their roots. In a forest, the hair-like tips of individual root systems not only overlap, but can interconnect, sometimes directly via natural grafts, but also extensively via networks of underground fungal threads, or mycorrhizae. Through these connections, trees can share water, sugars and other nutrients, and pass chemical and electrical messages to one another.
This is the nub of things. The forest of children is an interconnected affair, below the surface of what the many adults think they see or hear or know. It never ceases to amaze how the smallest particle or packet of information can fizz around the underground, along the root system and its off-shoots, to surface again elsewhere or elsewhen, maybe whole or maybe slightly modified but always passed without adult discernment. Children inhabit a culture, an extensive rhizomatic array, way beneath and beyond the forgotten comprehension of many adults of the local system above the ground.
Canadian biologist Suzanne Simard . . . describes the largest individual trees in a forest as hubs or ‘mother trees’. Mothers have the deepest, most extensive roots, and are able to supplement smaller trees with water and nutrients, allowing saplings to thrive even in heavy shade.
I have seen this mother phenomenon in action, but never really realised it as something akin to the trees until thinking recently. One child, girl or boy, of any age, quietly, humbly sustains those around them, sacrificing something, ignoring something, giving something and walking away. They get on with their own play. We of the playworking-minded adults think we have the monopoly on such actions, and sometimes we do act in these ‘mother tree’ ways, but when we see a child, quietly, come to give an upset other the doll she was playing with, say, walking away then without a word or gesture (or another, sat quietly stroking the hair of her friend in front of her, for reasons we can only guess the depths of), we can realise otherwise.
Scientists have known for more than 40 years that if a tree is attacked by a leaf-eating animal, it releases ethylene gas. On detecting the ethylene, nearby trees prepare to repel boarders — boosting production of chemicals that make their leaves unpalatable, even toxic.
It isn’t beyond the realms of possibility (what do we adults really know?) to suggest that a locale of the forest of children can act in similar ways. An attack on one is a warning to the others, and the others can then seem just as toxic to the attacker looking for more to feed on. I have seen small groups closing ranks. The question remains, though: what, or who, here constitutes the toxic agent?
A sobering aspect of recent revelations is that many of these newly recognised ‘behaviours’ are limited to natural growth. In plantations, there are no mother trees, and there is very little connectivity. This is partly because of the way young trees are transplanted and partly because when they are thinned to prevent competition, what little underground connectivity neighbours have established is severed. Seen in this light, modern forestry practices begin to seem almost monstrous: plantations are not communities but crowds of mute, factory-farmed individuals, felled before they have ever really lived.
This paragraph, to me, is very poignant. I shall leave you to draw your own conclusions of minutiae and wholenesses on it.
For this playworking-minded writer, it suffices to say that we can affect a positivity of nurture, in all manner of circumstances and to some degree, but it’s better if the nature of connectivity isn’t stripped away or trammelled on to start with.