Forests have social lives:
the science + paintings
by Fedele Spadafora
Trees appear to communicate and cooperate
through subterranean networks of fungi.
What are they sharing with one another?
Fedele Spadafora, Potter Park, Michigan, 2016. Oil on canvas, 16" x 20"
Scientists have discovered patterns of survival and reciprocal sharing among trees--their findings are found in a wide range of media and research reports. Interestingly, the behavior of forests seems to be similar to that of humans and how we live together.
A recent New York Times article by Ferris Jabr--excerpts are below, has described the work of Suzanne Simard, professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia, who has been studying for over 3 decades, plant communication and behavior in the webs of root and fungi in the Arctic, temperate and coastal forests of North America.
Her studies have proven that the new trees that were planted after commercial clearcutting were frequently more vulnerable to disease and climatic stress than trees in old-growth forests. The answer was buried in the soil. Underground, trees and fungi form partnerships known as mycorrhizas: Threadlike fungi envelop and fuse with tree roots, helping them extract water and nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen in exchange for some of the carbon-rich sugars the trees make through photosynthesis. Research had demonstrated that mycorrhizas also connected plants to one another and that these associations might be ecologically important. Simard was more interested in how these plants interact.
Fedele Spadafora, Riverside Park II, New York, 2016. Oil on canvas, 9" x 12".
Simard has discovered that fungal threads link nearly every tree in a forest — even trees of different species. Carbon, water, nutrients, alarm signals and hormones can pass from tree to tree through these subterranean circuits. Resources tend to flow from the oldest and biggest trees to the youngest and smallest. Chemical alarm signals generated by one tree prepare nearby trees for danger. Seedlings severed from the forest’s underground lifelines are much more likely to die than their networked counterparts. And if a tree is on the brink of death, it sometimes bequeaths a substantial share of its carbon to its neighbors. As trees exchange carbon, water and nutrients through underground networks of fungus, are forests demonstrating that cooperation as central to evolution as competition?
Fedele Spadafora, Black Forest II, Czech Republic, 2017. Oli on canvas, 48" x 48".
“Where some scientists see a big cooperative collective, I see reciprocal exploitation,” said Toby Kiers, a professor of evolutionary biology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. “Both parties may benefit, but they also constantly struggle to maximize their individual payoff.” Kiers is one of several scientists whose recent studies have found that plants and symbiotic fungi reward and punish each other with what are essentially trade deals and embargoes, and that mycorrhizal networks can increase conflict among plants. In some experiments, fungi have withheld nutrients from stingy plants and strategically diverted phosphorous to resource-poor areas where they can demand high fees from desperate plants.
Fedele Spadafora, Riverside Park I, New York, 2016. Oil on canvas, 9" x 12".
Simard describes “a world of infinite biological pathways,” species that are “interdependent like yin and yang” and veteran trees that “send messages of wisdom on to the next generation of seedlings.” She calls the oldest, largest and most interconnected trees in a forest “mother trees” — a phrase meant to evoke their capacity to nurture those around them, even when they aren’t literally their parents. In her book, Finding the Mother Tree, she compares mycorrhizal networks to the human brain.
Fedele Spadafora, Black Forest I, Czech Republic, 2017. Oil on canvas, 16" x 20"
Sm’hayetsk Teresa Ryan, a forest ecologist of Tsimshian heritage who completed her graduate studies with Simard, explained that research on mycorrhizal networks, and the forestry practices that follow from it, mirror aboriginal insights and traditions — knowledge that European settlers often dismissed or ignored. “Everything is connected, absolutely everything,” she said. “There are many aboriginal groups that will tell you stories about how all the species in the forests are connected, and many will talk about below-ground networks.”
Fedele Spadafora, The Woods at Night, 2015. Oil on canvas, 8" x 10".
In Cara Buckley's story for the New York Times, Dr. Diana Beresfod-Kroger a botanist and author living in Ottowa, Canada, speaks of the symbiosis between plants and humans extended far beyond the life-giving oxygen they produced. Dr. Beresfod-Kroger said: “Every unseen or unlikely connection between the natural world and human survival has assured me that we have very little grasp of all that we depend on for our lives,” she wrote in her most recent book, To Speak for the Trees. “When we cut down a forest, we only understand a small portion of what we’re choosing to destroy.”
Fedele Spadafora, Michigan Woods, 2016. Oil on canvas, 11" x 14"
Bill Libby, an emeritus professor of forest genetics at the University of California, Berkeley, said he initially had reservations when Dr. Beresford-Kroeger offered a biological explanation for why he felt so good after walking through redwood groves. She attributed his sense of well-being to fine particles, or aerosols, given off by the trees.
“She said the aerosoles go up my nose and that’s what makes me feel good,” Dr. Libby said. Outside research has supported some of those claims. Studies led by Dr. Qi Ling, a physician who coedited a book for which Dr. Beresford-Kroeger was a contributor, found visits to forests, or forest bathing, lessened stress and activated cancer-fighting cells. A 2021 study from Italy suggested that lower rates of Covid-19 deaths in forested areas of the country were linked in part to immunity-boosting aerosols from the region’s trees and plants.
During a tour of her forest and gardens, Dr. Beresford-Kroeger spoke with wonder about how ancient Celtic cures were almost identical to those of Indigenous peoples, and waxed poetic about the energy transfer from photons of sunlight to plants’ electrons during photosynthesis.
Fedele Spadafora, The Tracks Behind Fisher Body Plant, Michigan, 2015. Oil on canvas, 16" x 20"
Depending on the species involved, mycorrhizas supplied trees and other plants with up to 40 percent of the nitrogen they received from the environment and as much as 50 percent of the water they needed to survive. Below ground, trees traded between 10 and 40 percent of the carbon stored in their roots. When Douglas fir seedlings were stripped of their leaves and thus likely to die, they transferred stress signals and a substantial sum of carbon to nearby ponderosa pine, which subsequently accelerated their production of defensive enzymes. Simard also found that denuding a harvested forest of all trees, ferns, herbs and shrubs — a common forestry practice — did not always improve the survival and growth of newly planted trees. In some cases, it was harmful.
Fedele Spadafora, Krkonoše National Park, Czech Republic, 2017. Oil on canvas, 11" x 15".
Researchers estimate that, collectively, forests store somewhere between 400 and 1,200 gigatons of carbon, potentially exceeding the atmospheric pool.
Crucially, a majority of this carbon resides in forest soils, anchored by networks of symbiotic roots, fungi and microbes. Each year, the world’s forests capture more than 24 percent of global carbon emissions, but deforestation — by destroying and removing trees that would otherwise continue storing carbon — can substantially diminish that effect.
Fedele Spadafora, Asturias, Spain, 2013. Watercolor on paper, 8" x 10"
We, too, are composite creatures. Diverse microbial communities inhabit our bodies, modulating our immune systems and helping us digest certain foods. The energy-producing organelles in our cells known as mitochondria were once free-swimming bacteria that were subsumed early in the evolution of multicellular life. Through a process called horizontal gene transfer, fungi, plants and animals — including humans — have continuously exchanged DNA with bacteria and viruses. From its skin, fur or bark right down to its genome, any multicellular creature is an amalgam of other life-forms. Wherever living things emerge, they find one another, mingle and meld.
Further reading and viewing:
The Social Life of Forests - Trees appear to communicate and cooperate through subterranean networks of fungi. What are they sharing with one another? By Ferris Jabr, Photographs by Brendan George Ko - New York Times
Suzanne Simard, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, 2021 - a vivid and compelling memoir of her lifelong quest to prove that “the forest was more than just a collection of trees.”
How trees talk to each other | Suzanne Simard, TED TALK
"A forest is much more than what you see," says ecologist Suzanne Simard. Her 30 years of research in Canadian forests have led to an astounding discovery — trees talk, often and over vast distances. Learn more about the harmonious yet complicated social lives of trees and prepare to see the natural world with new eyes.
Net transfer of carbon between ectomycorrhizal tree species in the field, Nature journal, 1997. Simard, Perry, Jones, Muyroid, Durall, Molina
To Speak for the Trees: Using Science and Celtic Wisdom to Save Trees (and Souls), Dr. Diana Beresford-Kroeger, a botanist and author, has created a forest with tree species handpicked for their ability to withstand a warming planet. By Cara Buckley - New York Times
Toby Kiers, professor of evolutionary biology at Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam has found that plants and symbiotic fungi reward and punish each other with what are essentially trade deals and embargoes, and that mycorrhizal networks can increase conflict among plants.
Artist, Fedele Spadafora
Fedele Spadafora, Asturias, Spain, 2013.
Watercolor on paper, 8" x 10"
Though Fedele Spadafora currently lives in New York City, the artist is more accurately a citizen of the world, and always on the move. Having earned a B.F.A. from Michigan State University in his native East Lansing, Spadafora headed to Prague, where he spent six years painting and Illustrating books for an alternative press, then five years studying with Nelson Shanks at the Art Students League of New York and Studio Incamminati in Philadelphia. His work reflects his ongoing interest in “real” people and places within a metropolis, as well as nature and landscape. Having grown up in Michigan, surrounded by woods and farms, Spadafora's work in landscape painting is a deeply personal expression of direct experience.
The artist paints works that are recognized for their lively brushwork, moody lighting, and narratives that are both specific and suggested. Says Spadafora of his technique, “I construct each piece by using shapes in an abstract way to design the picture, and continually refine these shapes until figures and landscapes emerge and become solid and real.” Shifting easily from portraiture to landscape to still life, Spadafora is also known for combining personal figures with New York cityscapes to create timeless “human landscapes.“ His work has been shown in New York, Frankfurt, Tunis, and Prague. He is represented by Galerie Leuenroth in Frankfurt, Germany.