If Only Humans Were Like Trees!

By Shlomo Maital


Prof. Dan Chamowitz

    “A person is like a tree in the field,

       Like us, trees grow,

         Like trees, we are sometimes cut down,

         And I don’t know where I’ve been or where I’m going,

       Like a tree in the field.”


   This poem, by Israeli poet Natan Zach, and sung by Shalom Hanoch, raises a question. Are people truly like trees? Because today we know that trees communicate and work to help each other thrive.   Do we humans?

     Dan Chamowitz, Dean of Life Sciences at Tel Aviv University, wrote a wonderful book, What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses. (2012).   “Plants can communicate like people,” he notes. “What does that say about us human beings?”

       What it says is: We should be more like trees.

       A BBC report on this research notes that trees have an Internet, comprised of fungi – thin threads that link the roots of plants deep underground, known as mycelia. This fungal network “helps out the neighbors by sharing nutrients and information, or sabotaging unwelcome plants by spreading toxic chemicals”. It’s the “wood wide web”, says the BBC. “Around 90% of land plants are in mutually-beneficient relationships with fungi.” Why? Plants provide fungi with carbohydrates. Fungi, in turn, help plants suck up water and provide “nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen….fungal networks also boost their host plants’ immune systems by triggering release of defense-related chemicals”.   Plants do business with one another. Douglas fir and paper birch trees transfer carbon between them, through the mycelia.

     Darwin through trees are like individuals, competing for surval. But they are not. “They are interacting with each other, trying to help each other to survive,” notes Prof. Suzanne Simard, UBC Canada.

     This raises two key questions. First, capitalism. Is capitalism built on greed, on individual ‘survival of the fittest’? Because if it is, it is a gross distortion of how ‘survival of the fittest’ works in Nature.  “Let’s work together for mutual benefit,” say the trees. Perhaps that is true capitalism.

     Second: Ecosystems. Plants and trees have evolved complex highly-sophisticated ecosystems, based on mutual synergies and collaboration. We humans seem to be busy, first, destroying the fragile ecosystems of Nature, and second, destroying our own fragile social ecosystems, neighborhoods, communities and families, that build social capital.

     Humans are less and less like trees of the field. And it’s a shame.