The Magical Forest

Where Indigenous Understanding and Science Converge

In an era dominated by scientific innovation based on an exploration of Nature, we see, from time to time, the rediscovery of ancient wisdom preserved by indigenous peoples. This convergence ultimately speaks to the necessity for a sane and holistic view of our natural resources as part of the larger web of life.


There Is a River

“There is a new type of river, which originates in the blue sea, which flows through the green ocean—it not only flows, but it is also pumped by the green ocean—and then it falls on our land.”

The speaker is Antonio Donato Nobre, a Brazilian senior scientist at INPA, the National Institute for Amazonian Research in Brazil, at a TED talk given in 2006. We have all been taught that the Amazon rain forest functions as “the lungs of the planet” through the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Nobre, however, discovered that when trees grow near a large body of water they absorb water through their root system, channel it upward through tubes within them and release it into the atmosphere through their leaves in what is called transpiration. Then the atmosphere responds by producing rain, a natural cycle enlivening the entire biosphere of the region.

Although Nobre’s talk occurred over a decade ago, the implications have not been widely discussed or applied to reforestation programs. Nobre, using satellite imaging, scanned the world for further confirmation of the effects on the planet’s terrain. He found that the forests are organized in the equatorial zone while the deserts appear at 30 degrees north and 30 degrees south latitudes, aligned.

Nobre says, “Look over in the southern hemisphere; the Atacama, Namibia and Kalahari in Africa; the Australian desert, in the northern hemisphere, the Sahara, Sonoran, etc. There is an exception, and it’s curious. It’s the quadrangle that ranges from Cuiabá to Buenos Aires, and from São Paulo to the Andes. This quadrangle was supposed to be a desert. It’s on the line of deserts. Why isn’t it?”

His answer is the rain forest and the Amazon River. The forest emits smells, and these smells are condensation nuclei, which form drops in the atmosphere. Then clouds are formed and there is torrential rain. This relation between the living forest and the atmosphere is ingenious in the Amazon, “because the forest provides water and seeds, and the atmosphere forms the rain and gives water back, guaranteeing the forest’s survival.”

Nobre points out that there are 600 billion trees in the Amazon forest. On a typical sunny day, a big tree manages to transfer 1,000 liters of water through its transpiration. Taking the entire Amazon, and adding up all the water that is released by transpiration, amounts to an incredible number: 20 billion metric tons of water—in one day.

The implications of his findings, explains Nobre, are, “If there is a desert in the continent with a nearby sea, evaporation is greater on the sea, and it sucks the air above the desert. The desert is trapped in this condition. It will always be dry. If you have the opposite situation, a forest, the evaporation, as we showed, is much greater, because of the trees, and this relation is reversed. The air above the sea is sucked into the continent and humidity is imported.”

We can imagine using this dynamic to counteract the effects of urbanization or bring verdant life to arid regions, given the funding and the will. But what is extraordinary is the story Nobre then told.

“Once, about four years ago, I attended a declamation of a text by Davi Kopenawa, a wise representative of the Yanomami people, and it went more or less like this: “Doesn’t the white man know that, if he destroys the forest, there will be no more rain? And that, if there’s no more rain, there’ll be nothing to drink, or to eat?”

Nobre continues, “I heard that, and my eyes welled up and I went: Oh, my! I’ve been studying this for 20 years, with a super computer, dozens, thousands of scientists, and we are starting to get to this conclusion, which he already knows! A critical point is the Yanomami have never deforested. How could they know the rain would end? This bugged me and I was befuddled. How could he know that?”

Some months later, Nobre met Kopenawa at another event and asked, “Davi, how did you know that if the forest was destroyed, there’d be no more rain?” He replied: “The spirit of the forest told us.”


The Talking Trees

Far to the north, a scientist working with the forest made another discovery that revealed the natural intelligence of trees. A professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences in Vancouver, Suzanne Simard, studies the surprising and delicate complexity in nature. Her first revelation occurred when, decades ago, she and her grandfather rescued the family dog from a septic pit. As her grandfather dug into the muck, she became fascinated with the root structure of the trees and the fungal network that accompanied them. In a TED talk given in 2016 she explained, “It was at that moment that I realized that that palette of roots and soil was really the foundation of the forest.”

Simard began studying forestry and in time began working with commercial harvesters. But she was conflicted by the extensive spraying and hacking of birches and aspens to make way for more commercially valuable pines and firs. She went back to school. At that time forestry scientists working in the laboratory had just discovered that one pine seedling root could transmit carbon to another pine seedling root. Simard wondered, did this happen in real forests?

She began conducting experiments deep in the forest. She grew 80 replicates of three species: paper birch, Douglas fir, and western red cedar. She suspected that the birch and the fir would be connected in a belowground web, but not the cedar. It was in its own world. Simard donned a white paper suit, put on a respirator, and then put plastic bags over her trees. Using large syringes she injected the bags with tracer isotope carbon dioxide gases. She injected carbon-14, the radioactive gas, into the bag of birch. For fir, she injected the stable isotope carbon-13, carbon dioxide gas. She used two isotopes to determine whether there was two-way communication going on between the species.

After an hour Simard checked the results. She pulled the bag off the birch and ran the Geiger counter around the leaves, finding it had taken up the radioactive gas. Then she checked the fir needles, which were also responding. Simard checked all 80 replicates. The evidence was clear. The C-13 and C-14 was showing that the paper birch and Douglas fir were in a lively two-way conversation. At that time of the year, in the summer, the birch was sending more carbon to fir than fir was sending back to birch, especially when the fir was shaded. In later experiments, Simard and her team found the opposite, that fir was sending more carbon to birch than birch was sending to fir, because the fir was still growing while the birch was leafless. The two species were interdependent, like yin and yang.

Simard wondered how the paper birch and Douglas fir were communicating. She found they were conversing not only in the language of carbon but also nitrogen and phosphorus and water and defense signals and allele chemicals and hormones—vital information.

When walking through a forest we see mushrooms, the visible part of a fungal system. Threads from that system infect and colonize the roots of all the trees and interact with the root cells to exchange carbon for nutrients. Like all networks, it is composed of nodes and links. The biggest and busiest nodes are called hub trees. The hub trees are connected to hundreds of other trees. The hubs, or as Simard prefers, “mother trees” nurture their young by sending excess carbon through the network to seedlings, increasing their survival rate by four times.

Simard wondered, could Douglas fir recognize its own kin? The team grew mother trees with kin and stranger’s seedlings. As it turns out, they recognize their kin and colonize their kin with bigger mycorrhizal networks. They send them more carbon below ground. They even reduce their own root competition to make elbowroom for their kids. When mother trees are injured or dying, they also send messages on to the next generation of seedlings.

“So we’ve used isotope tracing to trace carbon moving from an injured mother tree down her trunk into the mycorrhizal network and into her neighboring seedlings, not only carbon but also defense signals,” Simard says. “And these two compounds have increased the resistance of those seedlings to future stresses. So trees talk. Through back and forth conversations, they increase the resilience of the whole community.

“We can, and should, regenerate our forests with a diversity of species and genotypes and structures by planting and allowing natural regeneration. We have to give Nature the tools it needs to use its intelligence to self-heal.”

This sense of the sustainable ecology of the forest was and is a part of the wisdom of the indigenous people who live by Nature’s laws. Spokesmen for many tribes in the Western hemisphere have gathered together to exhort modern society to curb exploitation and deforestation lest we suffer the consequences.


The Sacred T…

Among the indigenous people of the Western hemisphere, the Maya, who reached a high level of culture, understood that vegetative life was essential for the emergence of humankind. They symbolized this in the form of a tree, both in language and glyphs.

While Western researchers appreciate the sophistication of the Mayan calendar, they fail to understand the true meaning of the Mayan language. Mayan elder, scholar and daykeeper, Hunbatz Men, claims this is because the researchers impose their own interpretations from a Western perspective on the symbolism found on their codices, pottery and murals.

In his book, Secrets of Mayan Religion/Science, Hunbatz Men discusses core concepts of Mayan knowledge and the central role of the tree in their science. Men says there are three sacred letters in the Mayan alphabet: O and ol, G, and T. The T, pronounced te, stands for the tree. Men describes Mayan wisdom as originating in Nature and the tree as a “cultural axis of religion, science and philosophy.” Life is described as “the thing of the tree’ and it is said that, “without the tree the animal would not exist.”

The association of the tree and the creation of humankind is expressed in the Mayan word teol, meaning “spirit of the tree.” Men states that the Maya saw that the tree and vegetative life-forms were embodied with reactions similar to humans. Tamuachan is another ancient Mayan word which signifies the bringing together of human and vegetative life. In Mayan iconography this is symbolized by a tree from whose branches rises a human figure. In the Selden Codex the mythological birth of humanity shows a person emerging from a sacred tree. The T is shown with two intertwined serpents representing positive and negative energy. The use of serpents to symbolize energy is found in other ancient high cultures, such as Egypt, in part because the serpent’s motion resembles the waveform.

The word teol is found in European languages as the root “theol” or “teol” for the word theology, which Men attributes to the dissemination of Mayan language in a distant antiquity. Further, the L in teol is a contraction of lil, meaning vibration, signifying the Mayan understanding of the vibratory nature of energy. This is another glimpse at the sophistication of Mayan sacred science.

Men says, “We realize that our Mayan ancestors understood that plants and trees are sentient life-forms that are capable of producing the paranormal phenomena which parapsychology strives to explain.” He says that the Maya recognized the sensory and extrasensory faculties of the tree now similarly validated by modern science.

Men then translates the Mayan word uahomche as “the tree which awakens us” or “we awaken in the tree.” Men explains that the ancient Mayans understood that the sentient capabilities of all trees and plants was the logical result of the energy they possess. This was a rational extension of their belief that intelligent energy exists in all things.

We cannot be sure whether the science of the Maya originated with them or was formulated by an earlier high civilization of which they were a part, which left evidence of its existence in artifacts and marvelous stone structures throughout the world. Whatever the origins may be, the Maya have preserved this sacred science to the present day.

Examining the intelligence manifesting in Nature described in these examples shows that Western scientific knowledge has begun to understand and explore what ancient wisdom knew and taught. We can no longer accept a dogmatic science that denies the presence of spirit and consciousness in living forms. To acknowledge the complex relationship between the realms of existence and further explore them would be true scientific progress.

We are here to live with Nature, not wage war on it. Hunbatz Men tells us that both the Maya and the Nahua, the indigenous people of Mexico, revered the tree for its great spiritual energy and value. With this in mind we might remember the Nahuatl proverb, which says, “When the last tree dies, the last man dies.”

By Robert Mendel