Having recently just finished Peter Wohlleben’s book, The Hidden Life of Trees, I’ve found myself exploring the reserve with a renewed respect and intrigue for the trees and surrounding networks of vegetation. Peter’s deep understanding of the lives of trees and writing style allowed him to portray a very ‘personified’ understanding of trees; much like if every tree had a human face within an enchanted forest.
We often head out into the reserve with the intention of finding animals and seeking the thrill of being able to witness animals in action. And often it’s the surrounding environment of the sighting that’s a bonus, which can always amplify the overall experience.
My viewpoint was flipped the other way around when we recently drove a guest who enjoys creating artistic portraits of trees. So I found myself shifting my perspective when scanning the bush on a drive – not only looking for animals but also for any prominent or unique trees to stop and admire. Something which stuck with me from one of our conversations was,
“We are so quick to take human portraits, but who’s taking portraits of the trees? Just like humans, each one has a personality, life history and uniqueness that I want to highlight and share through my art.”
I have therefore been reflecting on the extent and magnitude of what we as humans can learn from the life of trees…
Trees hugely depend on community life for growth and survival
Every species of tree tries to procure more space for itself in order to optimize its growth performance, and by doing so essentially crowds out space for other species in their “fight for light” (the ability for its leaves to have the space and access to sunlight to photosynthesize). However, also essential to their survival is to ensure they also win the “fight for water” on the ground (tree roots tap into the damp ground and by growing fine root hairs increases their surface area to maximize water absorption).
Usually under normal circumstances, and in isolation, this strategy for growth is sufficient. But in a wilderness area as vast and diverse as the one we find ourselves in (or other grand wilderness/forest areas), there is more power in being part of a community than standing on your own; and being interconnected is essential.
And so that is why for millions of years trees have created an indispensable relationship with fungi. As described in a previous blog, an underground web-like colony of fungi (known as mycelium) act like “fibre-optic internet cables”, creating a communication network disseminating news around the many square miles.
This allows information to be shared about predator feeding, insect invasions, droughts and other potential dangers to be spread and shared amongst trees – even between competing species of trees as well as with shrubs and grasses. This underground “world wide web” is essential for communication, and the entangled root system allows trees to nourish their offspring and nearby trees by sharing nutrients and water resources for mutual benefit.
“United we stand, divided we fall”
It has always fascinated me that a species of such grandiose size and appearance can so essentially depend on and cooperate with a network barely visible to the human eye, and yet they are both better off together.
One’s successes will always be limited if we do not rally, incorporate or work with the community networks around us.
Trees epitomize patience and persistence
I have shared the way being in the wilderness teaches you about the value and importance of patience in a previous blog, but the life of trees epitomizes this even more.
Although trees can spread and shed millions of seeds, ultimately it is only the success of one seed that generates a mature tree that can live out the full capacity of its lifespan. And the success of a single seed embedding itself into the earth is itself no guarantee, considering the external factors at play (i.e. weather and seasonal conditions rotting the seed from prospective germination; otherwise herbivorous threats feeding on a seedling’s new leaves starving it of an opportunity to grow).
“Scientists have determined that slow growth when the tree is young is a prerequisite if a tree is to live to a ripe old age.” Peter Wohlleben
Just like a solitary leopard consistently weighing up the risk verse reward of exerting its energy in a stalk for food; trees expend energy to grow (lengthening branches and widening the diameter of their supportive trunks), but they also need to hold energy in reserve to react in defence if a threat is apparent.
And in a tree’s lifetime, each conditioned to its own journey of growth, considering its supportive environment, will go through periods of growth, selflessness (sharing nutrients with neighbours), self-preservation, dormancy, stagnancy and burnout.
But hey, isn’t that just what the journey of life is all about? The ebb and flow of these different states, that ultimately still move you forward on a path to where you are meant to be (so long as you keep grounded roots hehe).
Therefore, when one considers the factors necessary for successful growth (having only touched on a few), it is pretty awe-inspiring to observe the ones that have managed to do just that… Many of the prominent, impressive trees we see around Londolozi are slow-growing like the Jackalberrys (Diospyros mespiliformis), Leadwoods (Combretum imberbe), Weeping Boer-Beans (Scotia brachypetala), Knobthorns (Senegalia nigrescens), Torchwoods (Balanites maughamii), and Brown Ivory trees (Berchemia discolor).
So, next time you visit Londolozi I encourage you to spend an extra few moments really noticing the prominence of some of these beautiful trees.