Friday, June 11, 2021

The Word for "Forest" is "Holobiont:" Reviewing a few Books on the Subject

 


The idea of "holobionts" is making inroads just about everywhere, although sometimes people describe the concept without using the term. But we are learning from what we see around us, and the best example from which to learn about holobionts is the forest. 

Just like no man is an island, a single tree doesn't make a holobiont. Not even several trees planted together make a good holobiont. They are a plantation, a completely different thing. And the naive faith that planting trees will solve all our climate problems is just that: a naive idea that plays straight into the hands of the logging companies which get to be paid twice: once for planting trees (to save the environment) and once for cutting the trees (selling the wood on the market). 

A true holobiont is not a single tree, not many trees stuck together in nice rows. It is a forest. And a forest needs to be born, to live, to grow, to mature, and to become a full-fledged holobiont. A living being. A creature of the planetary ecosystem that lives with it and gives life to much more than itself. Forests are part of the "biotic regulation" of the whole system, which includes controlling climate and managing the atmospheric rivers by means of the biotic pump mechanism. We cut forests at our own risk. Forests may not survive humans, but humans will surely not survive without forests. 

So, a quick review of 4 books about the forest as a holobiont, none of them mentions the term, but all of them are infused with it. 

The Hidden Life of Trees. Peter Wohlleben.(2016). A popular science book that had a remarkable success. It deserves it. It is timely, well done, and overall understandable, although at times a little too long. Wohlleben cites the biotic pump and one of its discoverers, Anastassia Makarieva, although, curiously, he doesn't use the term, always saying "water pump." But it is a fine book, by all means recommended. 

Finding the Mother Tree, Suzanne Simard, (2021). I had big expectations for this book, but I must say I was disappointed. There is nothing wrong with enlivening a text with personal stories about the author but, if one exaggerates, the book is no more a scientific text, but an autobiography of the author. This book should have been titled "An Autobiography of Suzanne Simard." Some people like biographies, personally I found this one completely flat. The stories about discovering the way trees communicate with each other are interspersed in a mass of uninteresting details about Simard's personal life told in a style that reminds that of a second-rate novel. Too bad, because Simard surely has interesting things to say. But, here, the idea just didn't work. 

The word for world is Forest, by Ursula K. Le Guin (1972). Not the best novel by Ursula Le Guin, it has an ideological overtone that harms the story, but it is still a gem -- as just about everything that Le Guin wrote. The Forest in the book is a metaphor for human consciousness: truly an anticipation of the concept of holobiont that came much later, but that Le Guin clearly had in mind. This novel also was at the basis of the later movie "Avatar" which also used some concepts by Suzanne Simard in describing inter-tree communication in forests.

Il Segreto del Bosco Vecchio, (The Secret of the Old Woods). By Dino Buzzati (1935). This is not a science book, it is a novel. But if you want to read about a true holobiont, do read it. The story of someone who inherits a wood and plans to cut it to make some money. Then, he discovers that the forest is inhabited by invisible spirits. In my modest opinion, it is one of the best novels ever written in the world. Too bad it doesn't seem to have been ever translated into English. A splendid movie was made out of it but, again, only in Italian.

 

And if you have some time, take a walk in the woods and discover the great holobiont yourself! Humans can be friends with trees even in difficult conditions. Here is a photo taken in Florence a few months ago, this lady made a little garden for herself and for everybody out of a small patch around a tree growing in front of her house, near a busy avenue. 




Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)