The wood-wide web: How forests can teach us about regeneration

The wood-wide web: How forests can teach us about regeneration

Imagine if your industry was like this. Everyone is connected – not just digitally, but really connected in a way that they care about each other. Some of the big players do more than advise newbies or budding entrepreneurs, they actively help with resources, insight and energy.

In the neighbourhood where these workplaces are located, there’s a central hub. This is like the wellspring of wisdom, creativity and growth. Ideas are exchanged. Strategies are shared. This hub helps everyone in the system thrive. Instead of competition across your industry, there’s genuine co-operation. You’re all working to the same end: to create more life, more vitality. And this co-operation extends beyond the four walls of the office block. It supports the barista in the corner cafe, or the community garden in the central mall.

This isn't fiction

If this sounds like the latest Avatar movie, you aren’t far wrong. In fact, this scenario describes the “wood-wide web” — or how forests and trees communicate with each other.

Canadian scientist, Suzanne Simard, first floated this theory back in 1997. Her initial research headlined in Nature magazine. A fourth-generation forester from British Columbia, Simard had grown up hearing stories of how her grandparents had clear-felled ancient western red cedar forests by hand. The massive logs were hauled out by horses, and then launched down river to be milled as timber. “Grandpa taught me about the quiet and cohesive ways of the woods, and how my family was knit into it,” she says.

The giant stumps of these trees are still visible today in Canada, just like they are in old-growth forests in Australia. When I’m walking in places like Dorrigo National Park, I often think the cuts in the base of the stump are like two haunting eyes. These marks show where two men would stand on a plank of wood as they used axes to manually cut the tree down. It was a painstaking, slow and dangerous process for the men involved (we don’t know, of course, how it was for the trees…) Now, however, an entire forest can be bulldozed in a matter of hours.

Photos below: From Old Treasury Building, Reproduced courtesy of Museums Victoria.

like us - Trees are social and cooperative

I read Simard’s book, Finding the Mother Tree, over Christmas. Even if some of the science went over my head, her story is compelling. But what she shares is even more instructive.

When Simard started work as a forestry ecologist she became fascinated (to the point of obsession) about why some reforested plantations thrived, and others failed. Over decades, through hundreds of painstaking experiments, she helped uncover the existence of the mycorrhizal (fungi) network that connects forests. She also proved that the oldest “mother trees” are like “hubs” that share their excess carbon and nitrogen with understory seedlings. Trees, she says, are “social and cooperative”. They’re connected through underground networks… “with communal lives not that different from our own.”


For decades, Simard was excluded and dismissed by the male-dominated forestry industry. Her research contradicted their exterminate-all-weeds clear-cutting policy. Over time, Simard proved that different species of tree actually support each other – rather than compete. Her work, like that of other scientists, questions the Darwinian theory of evolution and survival of the fittest: which is what capitalism and modern economics is built around. (In an interesting aside she also mentions that Darwin developed his theories at the same time as Adam Smith penned The Wealth of Nations which is still the basis of liberal economics today.)

Inevitably, she does have her detractors. Kathryn Flinn in Scientific American, questions Simard’s anthropomorphism and use of “culturally weighted words” like ‘mother’ to describe the older trees. Flinn also makes the good point that “plants are fundamentally unlike us” and we need to respect those differences.


But, ultimately Simard is working to change centuries of Western colonial thinking that views forests (and everything in them) as resources to plunder. She flips the script. Instead of us saving the forests, she suggests that the forests can save us.

Simply put, she wants us to care. And that’s what regenerative businesses do – in fact, that’s the principle that regeneration is based upon – CARE.

Thoughts? Can you imagine your workplace or industry transforming like this over time?

Photos below: Dorrigo National Park – my arms are stretched around a 1000-year old eucalypt tree.

The wood-wide web: How forests can teach us about regeneration
The wood-wide web: How forests can teach us about regeneration