What the trees taught me

How a year in the forest made things real

Words & images © Paul Ransom

I did the tree change but, in truth, the trees changed me. Before I lived amongst them I was simply a city-based admirer, my appreciation mostly intellectual and aesthetic. I signed petitions urging their protection, emailed ministers about the same, and snapped up the occasional photo opportunities that came my way. Like most of us, I loved trees. But now I am in awe. Now I am their student.

For a little more than a year I lived in a small town on a hilltop. Surrounding us, a healthy swathe of forest. Not pristine wilderness but still home to multitudes. Vegetable, animal, fungal. It was a visual and aural delight – flowers and birdsong aplenty – as well as a never ending menu of scent. Every day it changed, while also seeming still. Eternal.

Yet, beyond the picturesque and pleasant, I became aware of something more profound: a beautiful complexity, a dense network of exchange, a rolling symbiosis. Across its canopy and buried in its soil, the forest talked to itself like an organic internet. It was indeed the wood-wide web, as Suzanne Simard1 and others discovered long before I did. 

To know this as a rational construct is fascinating, even mind blowing, but to walk amongst it is to go somewhere else entirely. At times during my year with the forest, it felt as though I was not merely observing the network but participating in it. The standard demarcating lines between human and nature melted to cool, scented air. To shared breath. This was not so much a losing of self or a dissolution of ego but a process of embedding. I was patched into the grid, and it ran through me.

In short, the journey was from dry knowledge to fluid reality. Whilst the universality of change and interconnection, and the yin/yang mechanisms of homeostasis and entropy, are well known, to behold yourself as being a part of this process, and to witness it happening before you every day, is both arresting and freeing.

In the forest I was a dancer, and together with trees, birds, light, air, dirt and fungus I was engaged in an elegantly structured yet still improvised choreography. The time scales were both minute and massive. The woods changed their tone by the hour yet kept to a count that spanned years. Decades, centuries, millennia.

Yet, however hippy or virtuous that might sound – and whatever vainglorious delusions of enlightenment I may entertain – the forest is not sentimental. Death, like bird shit, is simply a part of the flow. The recycling of resources. A reconfiguration of forms.

Nature is not for or about us, we are simply part of its emergent unfolding. If indeed she is our mother, her love is implacable and ruthless.

I recall the moment when the majestic mountain ash standing just metres from my doorstep dropped a limb. There was a deep crack, and a rustling of foliage that sounded like crashing waves, before a thick, reverberating thud. Seconds later I was standing next to a fallen branch the size of most trees. It had narrowly missed the tiny house I was living in. Dwelling and occupant may well have been crushed had it not. Meanwhile, the forest barely rippled.

Mountain Ash trees in the Dandenong Ranges
Mountain ash, as seen from tiny house doorstep.

A few days later a visiting arborist told me that trees were ‘self-optimising mechanisms.’ The phrase stuck with me over the following months and, as I took my daily walks along the forest trails, not only was I entranced by the sheer physical beauty of the place but I began to tune in to the mechanism. Or, if you prefer, the central organising principle.

The forest, I learnt, was a form of nutrient/information economy – but, rather than being driven by fantasies of unsustainable growth or distorted by formulations of apparent merit, it was underpinned by the cleaner amorality of error correction for fitness. Everything jostling, cooperating and competing, to find conducive resource niches. Everything consuming and providing. All materials recycled in a multi-level process of undoing and remaking. Things becoming other things.   

Being in and around the forest made the cycles of life, death and renewal plain. (Actually, bold. All caps. Underlined.) Here it was in vibrant green…process dwarfing form. Form illustrating process. In this context, my year on the hill was a blink. My lifespan will be but a sigh. The forest a tide. The planet a blue/green season. Each of us acolytes in the temple of a formless deity. God as verb.       

And beneath my feet, the wonder of fungus. The mycorrhizal network – the underground web of fungal fibre that attaches to plants and moves nutrients around the plant community – may have been oblivious to my presence, but I was in awe of its utile genius. Wow, what a system! What brilliant architecture! If ever there was an organisational template worth copying, surely the fungi have something to teach us. (NB: The principle of ‘biomimicry’ is already thriving across system design, engineering, construction and other disciplines. The word is clearly out.)       

Nature – as we like to call it – tends to root out inefficiencies. Neither does it play favourites. Amongst the trees, where limbs and leaves fall, and newborn babes become dinner for opportunists, the networked processes of relentless adaptation do not wait for us. Do not ask our permission. Or seek our applause. They just work. Flow.

Of course, I ‘knew’ much of this before I decamped to the hills; but to be amongst it daily, to sense it, smell it, and feel its breath on my skin, made the reality of it even more real. For as it is in the forest, so it is in me. The organic engine purring. An atomic jigsaw continuously reorganising its pieces.

I always suspected I would find something in the trees. I found that I could lose myself. The fixed point wasn’t fixed. The border walls were porous. The birds, the mushrooms, the eucalypts and me…all orbiting together, giving and taking, wheeling through the process of becoming and unbecoming. Like motion figuring out how to be still. A work in progress.

People have long been mystified by and mystical about forests. I am just another. A single tree, patched into an ecosystem, dancing in time – not only to the music, but as a harmony line. Easy to miss perhaps, but definitely there in the mix.

Ultimately, when the identifiable me dissolves to amorphous potential, a fungal thread will feed my atomic remnants to a tree I will never see and it, in turn, will breathe me out, and I will be as the air.

The beauty of this is indescribable.    

1: Suzanne Simard’s groundbreaking 1997 paper in the journal Nature and her 2021 book Finding The Mother Tree helped to bring both the phrase – wood wide web – and mycorrhizal networks to wider attention. Likewise, Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees and Robert Macfarlane’s Underland. (You can also check out the doco Fantastic Fungi.)

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