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🌳 What can the Internet learn from trees?
A first look at Claire L. Evans' article for New_ Public Magazine
Wow, it’s finally here: New_ Public Magazine is launching this week with our premiere issue on decentralization. Today we have an exclusive preview: an article by the writer and YACHT rocker Claire L. Evans, who will also be appearing at our panel this Thursday. Please feel free to forward and share this before the issue goes live on Thursday.
In “The word for web is forest,” Claire challenges us to learn from research about forests to think about the design of our digital networks. What do the life and death of trees have to teach us about protecting the internet?
New_ Public seeks to showcase a diverse array of perspectives that will start new conversations or put voices in dialogue with each other. We’re proud to showcase Claire’s bold vision for “mutualistic entanglement” here in the newsletter, in the online magazine, and in the printed broadsheet we’ll be giving away at Unfinished Live.
The word for web is forest
What trees tell us about the internet
Claire L. Evans
Burbank, at golden hour. I’m driving the 134 freeway, alongside a sliver of Griffith Park tempering city and wilderness. In the distance—through not a particularly bad haze today, after a spring rain—sits the ridgeline of the San Gabriel Mountains. Over the concrete channel of the LA River, the freeway climbs and curls away on itself, giving glimpse briefly to a median planted with ragged eucalyptus trees, all leaning hard, surrounded by snack bags, soda bottles, and those plastic snap-top containers they use to sell weed. It must be the saddest forest in the world.
In a healthy forest, the roots of these trees would be mingling with helpful fungi to transmit water and nutrients to one another, in a mutualistic network scientists call the “wood wide web.” At 70 MPH, I wonder if these Los Angeles eucalyptuses are still able to connect to one another under the roar of the freeway. Surrounded by asphalt, do they bind together, pooling meager resources, surviving one day at a time? I wonder how it feels at the edge, where the forest ends, and their messages have nowhere left to go.
The wood wide web is ancient, but it’s new to us. We owe much of our knowledge to Suzanne Simard, a Canadian ecologist who has spent her career revealing the cooperative nature of forests. In field experiments beginning in the 1980s, Simard traced the ways roots and symbiotic mycorrhizal fungi commingled beneath the surface of the soil in the old-growth forests of British Columbia. Enmeshed in a fungal embrace, she discovered, trees communicate, sending chemical warning signals to one another and passing sugar, water, carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus between species. Wild forests operate, Simard wrote, as “an intelligent system, perceptive and responsive.”
Nature gave Simard’s research front cover-treatment in August 1997; it’s the journal’s editors who, inspired by the development of the World Wide Web, dubbed her discovery the “wood wide web.” The term was apt, and as the web itself evolved, the metaphor of forest-as-network took root. More recent research into the wood wide web’s particularities—along with a broader popular interest in the planetary and mind-altering implications of fungi—has brought the term into wider use than ever.
The wood wide web has been a powerhouse metaphor for popularizing the mutualistic relationships of healthy forests. But like a struggling forest, the web is no longer healthy. It has been wounded and depleted in the pursuit of profit. Going online today is not an invigorating walk through a green woodland—it’s rush-hour traffic alongside a freeway median of diseased trees, littered with the detritus of late capitalism. If we want to repair this damage, we must look to the wisdom of the forest and listen to ecologists like Simard when they tell us just how sustainable, interdependent, life-giving systems work.
Ecosystems are like human societies: they’re built on relationships. “Our success in coevolution—our success as a productive society—is only as good as the strength of these bonds with other individuals and species,” Simard wrote. “Out of the resulting adaptation and evolution emerge behaviors that help us survive, grow, and thrive.”
The life of a forest is many lives, entwined. It’s also intergenerational. The eldest trees—having survived storms, droughts, ravenous insects, and the damage wrought by capitalism and colonialism—serve as the central hubs of the wood wide web. They are the strongest, the most resource-rich, with taproots stretching far beneath the earth. Suzanne Simard calls these elders “Mother Trees,” as do many indigenous people.
“Mother,” here, is also a verb, because that’s what these trees do. In drought, they share water. They pump carbon to the seedlings in their shade, compensating for the light their mighty canopies prevent from trickling to the forest floor. When they die, Simard has shown, they give all of themselves, pulsing every last bit of carbon to their kin.
Mother Trees serve as hubs in a decentralized network. A single Mother can be connected to hundreds of other trees, but in a healthy forest, multiple Mother Trees with overlapping connections ensure that a single elder isn’t responsible for the continuity of the forest as a collective organism. Simultaneously, multiple species of mycorrhizal fungi—sometimes dozens at once—plug into the network with their own specialized offerings, swapping carbon-rich sugars for nutrients foraged from the soil. Thanks to these redundancies, the wood wide web is remarkably resilient; only a clear-cut can destroy it.
If a single Mother Tree dies, the network adapts. If they are all felled, the forest loses precious genetic information—the instructions for resilience and survival contained within each Mother Tree seed—and replacement plantings are forced to run without a backup. New seedlings will not get extra nutrients when they need them most, nor receive sips of water in a drought. As the climate changes in ways that stress and endanger young trees, these things could mean the difference between life and death.
The web isn’t what it used to be. When the editors of Nature compared mycorrhizal fungi to a computer network, the web was still predominantly peer-to-peer, its users sharing their thoughts on personal home pages and homespun message-boards. Online advertising was in its infancy. But as the web has centralized, it has strayed further and further from the ideal presented by the wood wide web.
In her recently-published memoir, Finding the Mother Tree, Suzanne Simard described “free-to-grow” plantations in Canada—forests that loggers strip of native plants like birch, alder and willow in order to make space for high-value timber crops. Such clear-cutting emerges from the misguided belief that growth is a zero-sum game. As a young forester, Simard saw firsthand how acutely seedlings suffered in a vacuum. Her experiments revealed why: birch trees that appeared to hog ground water in the summer dropped their nitrogen-rich leaves in the fall, replenishing the soil and feeding young conifers. The birch weren’t competing with the valuable conifers; they were cooperating. The forest was strongest as a community.
Suzanne Simard’s early field experiments with birch and fir showed, too, that although firs grew initially well in a bare-earth clear cut, they suffered from lack of water and nitrogen when their collaborative relationship with neighboring birches was severed beneath the soil. After a few years, any gains they might have made from increased exposure to direct sunlight were obliterated. In the forest, lowered biodiversity doesn’t give high-value crops an advantage: it ultimately reduces productivity, invites rot, pests, and disease, and amplifies the risk and spread of wildfire.
If we take the metaphor of the wood wide web seriously, it’s hard not to see an analogy here to the context collapse endemic to social media. A few corporations control the lion’s share of public cloud infrastructure, and monopolistic ISPs exploit everyday users. Tech and social media giants have clear-cut the web, privileging high-value crops—viral content, controversy, and clickbait—over a healthier ecosystem of people, opinions, and perspectives. By selecting for the most inflammatory and emotional content, big tech has algorithmically weeded the forest into a field of commercial timber. As users, we’re incentivized to chase the quixotic, highly ephemeral celebrity algorithmically meted out by the platforms. Having attained it—through a viral tweet or TikTok dance—individuals, like trees, might initially flourish. But when we sever people from their context and thrust them into the glaring exposure of the sun, bad things happen. The trolls, like mountain pine beetles, proliferate, digging under the bark. Controversy sparks like wildfire, scorching the earth. Most of all, it’s lonely in the clear cut, where there are no teachers, no friends, only consumers.
“We emphasize domination and competition in the management of trees in forests… We emphasize factions instead of coalitions,” wrote Simard. It applies to the web, too. Social media companies segment and isolate us in order to package us up in tidy tranches for advertisers, just as big timber clear-cuts healthy, complex ecosystems and replaces them with sterile plantations designed to yield the maximum profit. These practices privilege factions over coalitions too, over the cooperative, interdependent relationships that bind healthy systems and societies. They ignore the forest for the trees.
The project of decentralizing the web is vast, and only just beginning. It means finding a way to uproot our expression and communication from the walled gardens of tech platforms, and finding novel ways to distribute the responsibilities of infrastructure across a collective network. But we needn’t start from nothing.
To build resilient decentralized networks, let us create “Mother nodes”—sites in the network bearing a responsibility of care. We’ve built institutions like these before: consider public libraries, which serve both as bearers of cultural memory and as generous sources of nutrients for our minds and communities. As Joanne McNeil wrote in Lurking, her excellent people’s history of the internet, “librarians are what the internet is aching for—people on task to care about the past, with respect to the past and also to what it shall bequeath to the future." Can we reimagine libraries for the digital age?
The forests that Suzanne Simard has spent her life studying show us how the internet could be: a mutualistic entanglement of platforms and users, in which resources are distributed according to need. A network where nobody is left to fend for themselves in the clear-cut, or expected to feed a never-ending desire for content. A place where elders with thick barks and deep taproots weather the wildfires, connecting us all to history, bringing continuity to our communities and preventing us from repeating old mistakes.
Live from the Shed
Good news: if you previously tried to get a complimentary ticket to attend Unfinished Live using our promo code NEWPUBLIC100 at this link, but you were unable to before, they have raised our limit and you should be able to get one now. We hope you can join us for two days of panels and much more, beginning on this Thursday, September 23.
Our panel, “What the Internet Can Learn From Trees (And Other Lessons in Decentralization) Curated by New_ Public, an Unfinished Network Partner” will be at 3:20pm ET. To watch the livestream you must register for free beforehand.
Illustration by Josh Kramer. Image courtesy of Unfinished.
New_ Public is a partnership between the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin, and the National Conference on Citizenship, and was incubated by New America.