Why I’m a tree hugger and you should be too

When Frau B looks out of her fourth-floor bedroom window, she sees two tall trees. On the left is a spruce. Its mass of deep-green needles presents a burst of colour all-year-round.treehuga

But she’s more interested in the maple tree beside it. Each September, she watches its leaves turn from vibrant green to grimy brown and yellow. A few weeks later, the wind snatches them away, leaving a stark tangle of branches for Frau B to observe during the winter months.

At the age of 97, even she is a whipper-snapper compared to a tree.

When I told her the other day that scientists in Norway had discovered a 9,500-year-old spruce, she sighed.

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a tree community in Volkspark Humboldthain

“Mich nimmt der liebe Gott auch nicht,” she said, meaning ‘God won’t take me either.’

It’s something she says quite often, usually with a smile. This time, it conjured up an image of a long line at the gates of heaven. When Frau B eventually gets to the top, she is rejected alongside a Norwegian spruce. Together, they lament the curse of their longevity.

In the past few weeks, my relationship to trees has morphed from passive appreciation to zealous awe. Peter Wohlleben, the author of The Hidden Life of Trees is mostly responsible.

The book was an impulse-buy, having met my three criteria for spontaneous literary purchases: an inviting title, a pretty cover and the promise that I would be a slightly different person after reading it.

My transformation has become especially apparent to LSB, who now finds himself at the receiving end of a barrage of excited outbursts:

“Do you know that trees use fungal networks to communicate?”

“Woah! You will NOT believe this! Trees can detect the saliva of insects and use THAT knowledge to send out chemicals to attract their predators!”

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tree bark in Volkspark Humboldthain

“Okay, I promise this is the last one: did you know that parent trees deprive their children of LIGHT in order to keep their growth rate steady?”

“…I know, I know: I’m sorry but I just have to tell you this: trees of the same species INFORM each other about impending environmental threats!”

At first, he listened politely, nodding occasionally as he scrolled through his phone. But as the days turned to weeks and my enthusiasm failed to wane, he advised me gently that I was putting the “bore”into arboreal.

It hasn’t stopped me though.

What I find so extraordinary about trees is in fact quite unremarkable: they’re just like us.

They have memories, which they can pass on. Communication happens via a sophisticated electric network forged over millions of years. The sick are nursed and the tendency is to protect one’s own.

Eventually though, like you, me and Frau B, they breathe their last and descend into the ground. There they turn to humus and enable new life, once again, to begin.

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a sick tree is propped up by its neighbour in Volkspark Humboldthain

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Lessons from the Lampsilis Mussel

Until yesterday, mussels were something I avoided looking at when passing the frozen deli section of my local supermarket. But when, late last night, I discovered the lampsilis mussel, native to the streams of Missouri, everything changed.

Mohammed Noor, a delightfully geeky professor of biology at Duke University, who is running a free online course on Evolution and Genetics, directed me to a video about the ingenious mollusc.

What I saw left me almost speechless. Not once since the demise of my goldfish Miranda, have I been so intrigued and enamoured by a freshwater creature.

For those of you too lazy to watch the video or in the kind of place where it would be inappropriate, let me tell you about the lampsilis mussel. It will sound like I’m making stuff up, but if you go back to Monday’s post, you’ll realise I’m incapable of that.

Here we go. For some reason, baby lampsilis mussels cannot become adults unless they spend some time inside a large-mouthed bass.

Don’t dwell too long on that. Just trust me that it’s true. Given that mussels cannot swim and are blind, it seems like an almost impossible feat to accomplish.

But the clever lampsilis mussel has found a way to export its young into the mouths of unsuspecting bass. It knows that if there’s one thing a big fat bass fish likes to eat, it’s a smaller, “darter” fish. Now, it’s not exactly going to find some small fish willing to paddle around it all day acting as some kind of bass bait.

So instead, they simply grow a fake one, which is fixed to their shell and exhibits all the characteristics of a small fish. It even darts around when the mussel senses the bass approaching.

When the bass reaches out to gobble up the fake fish, the mussel squirts its young into the bass’s mouth. The mussel babies grab hold of the fish’s gills and feed off its blood before finally dropping off as fully-formed mussels several weeks later. Beyond being deprived of the tasty meal it expected, the bass isn’t harmed in the process.

I’ve been so inspired by the story of the lampsilis mussel, that I’ve drawn up a list of things that humans could learn from them.

1. No matter what the extent of our defects, there is always some inner resource we can employ to solve a problem. It’s our job to find it. It could be anything from the talent to grow a fake fish to the ability to pick ourselves up again after we’ve been knocked.

2. If you can benefit from another’s weakness without harming them in the process, (and even save another fish while doing so) then by all means, go for it.

3. If evolution lends credibility to the highly ridiculous, then so should we.

4. Be patient and persevere. Sometimes you have to wait a while to get what you want. Not every bass is going to swim right into your trap, but chances are if you wait long enough, eventually one will.

5. Non-traditional early childhoods can be very successful.