A robust network is at the root of any effective distribution system, be it for information or products. Further back than any of us can remember, trees have been tapping into powerful hidden networks to become one of the most widespread and resilient life forms on Earth. Vegetative bodies of fungus in the soil’s surface join in spider web systems called mycorrhizae, to form the largest networks on the planet. How do these networks benefit the trees, and how does their mutual association affect the ecosystem as a whole?
Tree roots alone form a powerful network. When coupled with mycorrhizal networks they become infinitely more powerful, capable of moving excess water and nutrients from one location and redistributing these resources to thirsty plant life in another.
Mycorrhizae radiate out from the tree roots to facilitate the harvest and the transfer of resources from far beyond the extent of the roots themselves. Over time, trees exhaust the supply of nutrients and water within reach of their roots. It is only by accessing the vast and ever-changing mycorrhizal networks that trees can continue to grow. When we witness trees growing in solid granite, it is not so much the roots, but the fungal networks that allow them to do so. Unlike roots, they can penetrate deep into the weathered rock, extracting water and nutrients to feed the tree. The fungal enzymes and acids also process nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, iron and calcium, making them available to the tree.
So, what do the fungi get in return? As the modern networking guru Keith Ferrazzi states, “The currency of real networking is not greed but generosity.” In the network of our ecosystem, trees give as much as they take, providing the fungus with water, carbon, and complex sugars.
During drought, the deep roots of trees access groundwater that the surface-dwelling fungus cannot reach. Powered by the daytime sun, the tree draws up water through photosynthesis. When the sun sets, photosynthesis ceases, but the tree’s cells remain full of water. When the soil around the tree is dry, the water stored in the tree’s cells flows out through the roots and is redistributed by the fungal network. That’s why plants stay green longer near deep-rooted trees.
Not only do trees deliver water to their mycorrhizal associates, but they also provide them with the carbon and complex sugars that the fungus need to grow. A 2014 study led by Michael Allen at the University of California, Riverside, demonstrated that 20 to 35% of the carbon sequestered through the photosynthetic process of oak trees in California was handed over to mycorrhizal fungi—both the trees and their fungal associates are sequestering carbon.
The underground associations between trees and fungus are only part of the complex networks that allow ecosystems to thrive. The bears and humans who harvest fish from rivers may travel for miles before they eat them under the shade of a tree, disseminating the nutrients of the waterways and oceans into the forest. Deer and cattle feed on the plants watered by the trees and their interconnected fungal network. These ruminants disperse the water and nutrients far afield when they defecate hours later. During pollination, bees gather pollen, nectar and the plant-derived sugars stored in mycelium, spreading the network’s genetic diversity for miles.
The closer we look, the clearer it becomes that everything is interconnected. A future of joy, health and abundance can only take root in networks born of generosity. Let’s realize that future. As human beings, let’s not only reap the benefits, let’s fulfill our role as stewards of the network of life. The future starts now.