Our first session, delivered by Charlotte Synge, Verdant Earth 🌏
Supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England
Fortunately, having been in to the prison the week before (6th September) to meet one another and see the prison setting, both prison and Oxford, Banbury & Bicester college participants felt comfortable and eager to begin.
After a gentle start and everyone willing to give it a go, we practiced the first three moves of Tai Chi, Qigong Shibashi . Feeling suitably relaxed (and connected to ourselves, if not yet to each other) Charlotte gave her talk Trees to Whales. (See below for full transcript). This highlighted the importance of trees to human existence, the many ways we use them in our everyday lives; not least the paper we draw on, charcoal from willow and ink made from Oak galls, but it also gave us pause to consider the many other habitants in this model of connections and biodiversity. And using a ball of wool, the Connections came…
Filled with inspiration, everyone eagerly went in to the woods and down to Lee pond to collect bits of nature. Returning to the Ecobuild with collected objects, we set about being creative with considerable and magnificent effect!
FROM TREES TO WHALES
Why thank them? As far as we are concerned it is trees that are largely responsible for supplying the air we breathe, the soil we have grown our food in for centuries and the fuels that keep us warm. They provide us with wood for our cradle, our home and even our coffin. They supply us with apples, oranges, olives, avocadoes, nuts, plums cherries and more. They make chemicals we use for all sorts of things including medicines – it may be a tree we have to thank when we are cured of breast cancer and a host of other illnesses. They inspire art, literature and music but more importantly they can teach us how to live and that’s really why I have chosen trees.
Permaculture designers tend to be humble, we accept that it is likely that the best ideas are not ours but that they have already been invented – by Nature. So we look really closely at Nature to see how it works and what it does because after all it has spent 3..8 billion years working out what works and lasts. To us it makes sense to take to look for our inspiration and ideas from these earth savvy organisms.
For instance they waste nothing, they upgrades everything, they don’t pollute their home.
We find that In general nature banks on diversity, it uses lots of interactions and connections and it rewards cooperation so that’s what we do in our designs.
This project is about connections and these can be positive or negative and both are found in Nature. In the past we were educated and conditioned to look at nature with emphasis on species and individuals competing against each other for food, light and shelter etc. However, as we learn more and look at the connections between individuals and between species we are finding that life is far more complex and that joining forces in order to survive is far more prevalent than competition. It is in fact at the core of survival. Competition definitely exists and is a part of the survival strategy used in Nature but more important to survival is cooperation.
We are also discovering, that nothing in Nature works well alone. Nature makes masses of connections and it is found that the environments with the most connections (NOT the most species or individuals) are the most stable ones. For example you can live in a busy city and have connections with no-one and if you break a leg no-one will bring food and supply the help you need. If you live in a small village but have positive connections with people then if you break your leg many people will bring you food and supply the help you need.
I don’t know why, but even in a woodland trees somehow appear to us to stand alone as individuals, They appear to be very self-sufficient organisms, perhaps it is because of their size and majesty.
Trees often instil some sense of wonder in us because but perhaps, if we think about it, the real wonder is that we can see these trees and not be far more in wonder of them. People in the past revered them far more than us and I hope that today I’m going to be able to make you be more in wonder of them.
Trees like trees, they need to reproduce so need other trees but also without other trees they are at the mercy of the weather. As a forest – or community of trees, they moderate heat and cold, they slow strong winds, they generate humidity, even cause rain to fall and create and retain wonderful soil. So trees have developed strategies to look after each other and the other life forms which are good for their community. To do this they make lots of positive connections voluntarily and involuntarily. Trees do not stand alone given the choice and just take what comes they work with others to form stable conditions suitable for their community.
1. Trees can communicate with each other. In Africa when Acacia trees are being eaten by giraffes they produce a warning gas that forewarns the trees nearby. You might ask Why? The trees can’t run away. However, trees can produce toxic, unpalatable chemicals in their leaves but this takes some time so if the neighbours are forewarned that a giraffe is coming they will be better protected.
The trees are sending warnings by scent-mail.
2. It has been shown that with many species of insect, trees can accurately identify which species they are from their saliva as they eat them, the tree then releases fake pheromones that summon specific beneficial predators. So rather than shouting for help the tree sends a scent-mail which can travel far on a breeze inviting a specific species to come to dinner.
Question – If trees can identify saliva, do they have a sense of taste?
3. Trees and certain fungi in the soil have very close connections in all sorts of ways, they are best mates and in fact the fungi often move in growing right inside the root tips of the tree for a better connection. There are infinite biological pathways in the soil in the form of fungal networks. One teaspoon of soil contains many miles of microscopic fungal filaments. They extend far further than the tree’s root system and actually forms what can be thought of as a “Wood Wide Web” Trees are known to use this wood wide web created by the fungi for sending chemical warnings and signals to other trees.
Much like our telephone system.
4.Trees work together sending signals to flower at the same time so pollination is as successful as possible. This is done using hormones which travel through the root and fungal network which exists in the soil.
If you are going to have one 2 week orgy in the year then it’s a good idea for everyone to know the date.
5. Many trees also need pollinators such as bees and butterflies to come or it won’t be an orgy, there are over 250 species of bee in Britain) and trees need to make connections with these. Trees signal to the pollinators using, colour, scent and form and they provide nectar as a reward. So trees are effectively producing scents which will carry long distances to attract pollinators into the area and then using pretty visual signs like waving flags to say here I am and when they get to the flower it has the structure and marks which directs the pollinator to the exact spot.
Effectively trees use postmen (which travel by air rather than in little red vans) to carry their sperm and pay them with nectar rather than in stamps.
6. Interestingly, some trees produce nectar in their leaves. The bird cherry does this for ants which live with it. The ants live on the nectar and also like a bit of meat such as the animals like caterpillars and aphids that are trying to eat the tree. Another tree species has hollow thorn like structures which are houses for ants which it provides for exactly the same purpose. It gives the ant a safe home so it stays and the ant eats the pests.
Exactly the same as us keeping a cat to deal with the mice that keep raiding our kitchen cupboards.
7. Different species of tree are also in contact with each other even if we might think that they would be competitors because they live in the same place. It has been shown that paperbark birch and Douglas fir trees look out for each other. In late spring and summer the birch tree has plenty leaves and so can make plenty of sugars through photosynthesis, if it is with fir trees it will give some of this food to the fir. The Fir has leaves which are less efficient but are at least there in winter and early spring and during this time it pays the birch back.
Win-win situations like this abound in nature, they are what we try to create in permaculture design and we should look for them in our lives too.
8. Trees can physically support each other. In places where the soil is very loose such as on beaches then there are trees adapted for this environment which grow their roots into a single massive network which prevents them all from falling over when a storm comes.
9. Trees have been shown to be able to recognise their own kin, so they have special family connections too. They send food to their offspring and reduce their own root competition where their offspring’s roots are. The offspring are often quite close and when the parent tree is dying or injured it will send defence compounds to the kin which increases their resistance to future stresses which it will have when the mother tree falls.
It is like leaving everything in order and a will which will help your child support itself when you know you are dying.
10. Trees work so closely with some fungi in the soil. A tree can give up to a third of the sugar it makes to these fungi. But in return the fungi act as an extra root system and one that is particularly good at bringing water and nutrients to the tree. Fungi can’t make sugars though so the tree and the fungi have developed a trading partnership.
Just the same as I would swap my home-grown vegetables for eggs from the lady next door who keeps chickens.
11. If things get dire and nutrients are short there are fungi which will kill organisms in the soil so releasing their nutrients for the tree and themselves.
12. Trees also exude sugars into the soil providing a buffet for lots of other organisms. There are millions of these in a handful of soil and as a whole group these organisms are responsible for breaking down matter such as leaves, dead animals faeces etc. into molecules that are able to be used by the tree. If these organisms are close to the trees roots (because of the sugary treats on offer) then the nutrients the organisms excrete are deposited right next to the root where they can be absorbed.
It’s a bit like inviting a group of friends over for dinner because you know they will bring beer and wine which you are too young to buy yourself.
13.Trees need to travel and as they can’t move as individuals. Lots use the wind to disperse their seeds but many make connections with animals. For instance some produce nuts which animals such as jays and squirrels collect and bury for winter use – or plant if you look at it from the tree’s point of view. Some of these are forgotten or not needed and left to grow. A squirrel will carry a nut several hundred yards and a jay several miles. Many trees produce berries that birds, badgers, deer, mice etc. eat and transport and excrete in other places.
Unable to move themselves trees have offered to pay for something else to carry their seeds to a new place just like they did with their sperm. Rather than nectar it is fruit and nuts these couriers get paid with.
14.Trees use the sea too like the coconut tree which produces really tough seeds that float and can wash up on another beach miles away and even in a different country.
So they could be seen as using sea-mail.
15. Trees use us too. We are not exempt from being tempted into a relationship by trees. If we look at the apple tree we can see we have close relationships with it We are used in just the same way as the bees and squirrels The apple tree is native to Kazakhstan (between Russia and Afghanistan), now it is all over the world thanks to us. The apple tree connected with us by producing fruit we wanted so we took it with us and planted it wherever we went. We wanted it for cider making and for food and sweetness. Over the years we have bred different varieties and increased its genetic variation making it suitable for a diverse range of habitats and increasing its chances of survival on this planet massively.
We are so closely connected to the apple tree that we even use the apple as a symbol in the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible.
16. Leaf fall from trees is often the basis for life in cold water rivers feeding millions of invertebrates which in turn feed the fish and so us and otters and bears etc.
17. Trees are important for birds for roosting, safe resting places, nesting sites and vantage points. A Kingfisher sits on branches to get a good view into a stream for fish. Hawks use trees to perch in while they eat their prey. I have an example of a permaculture design which highlights the importance of perches. In an area where all the trees close to a village had been chopped down for firewood for cooking and only grass remained a charity decided to replant trees. All the trees were killed by voles ring-barking the saplings, they could dig and nibble their way under the tree guards and eat the juicy young bark. This presented a conundrum, they justify killing all the rodents in the area but how to make a vole proof fence?
Luckily a permaculture designer became involved who looked closely at this area and other similar areas where the problem didn’t exist. The answer became obvious – there were no trees for the hawks to sit on and rest and eat their prey on. So they put up tall poles and strung rope between them as mock trees. The hawks came and reduced the population massively and didn’t give the voles the peace and safety they needed to nibble under the tree guards and ring-bark the saplings.
18. Trees are connected to hundreds of organisms that they provide a home for. One large tree was sprayed with insecticide and it was found to contain over 2000 individual invertebrates belonging to 257 species. This wasn’t because it was some special giant tree in a tropical forest. Our common Oak trees are known to act as hosts for 284 species of insect, 324 species of algae, mosses and lichen and to provide food for all sorts of animals with their dropped acorns and for thousands of soil organisms with their dropped leaves.
19. Because about 6,000 species depend on dead wood for their survival. This is about a fifth of the world’s species.
20. Number 20 – LAST BUT NOT LEAST.
I called this talk “From Trees to Whales” because I think it emphasises just how far-reaching the connections can be. In Japan there is a campaign run by fishermen called ”Forests are Lovers of the Sea”. In Japan fishermen are replanting forests along the estuaries and coastline of Japan because the leaves dropped from the trees into the estuaries and sea leach acids which stimulate the growth of plankton out at sea. Plankton are the first and most important building block of the food chain in the ocean, they are like the grass of the sea and some whales eat this and other whales will eat the organisms which have grown on the plankton.
Fishermen aren’t planting trees for fun they are planting them because planting trees actually gives more fish and more whales in the sea!
Drawing Connections Activity Wind-down
The connections I have presented here are just the tip of the iceberg, there are thousands of connections most of which, I bet, we still know nothing about. We are discovering that plants feel pain, can communicate well, can learn from experience and remember so who knows what we will discover in the future. There’s even talk that they may have a form of a brain in their root tips.
We’re all entangled in this amazing web, but whatever organism we are and however we live we have the same goal – the continuity of our species. If you keep yourself alive and you keep your offspring alive – that’s success. But it’s only partial success, real success is keeping your offspring alive for thousands and thousands of generations. Trees have learnt the secret of success – to take care of the place that’s going to take care of their offspring
To my mind, trees have also learnt the answer to that big philosophical question that humans have written about and debated over for centuries and still can’t answer. What is the point of life?
I think trees have been showing us the answer for centuries – The point of life is to create conditions conducive to life.
A lot of this can be found in “The hidden life of trees” by Peter Wohlleben.