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On Socially-Distanced Holidays, Connect To Nature’s Internet

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, but because of the coronavirus, many people – for the first time in their lives -- won’t be able to gather with their families and friends.

As an alternative to a big indoor get-together, consider a socially-distanced hike in the woods with your family in one of Maryland’s 53 state parks.

One great way to find the nearest one to you is by downloading the free Maryland Department of Natural Resource “ACCESS DNR” app from the Apple iPhone app store. It provides great maps, directions, public boat launch locations, fishing and hunting licenses – everything.

I used the app for directions to Cunningham Falls State Park, about an hour and a quarter northwest of Baltimore, where I went hiking recently.   

The trail led uphill into the Catoctin Mountains. I walked past huge slabs of shattered rock with greenish gray lichen on their sides and a thick stand of beech trees.  Their leaves were brown and curled, mostly fallen; their bark smooth and gray, but wrinkled, like the legs of a herd of elephants lumbering up the hill.

Now, you might think that walking in the woods in November – after most of the leaves are down, the skeletal outlines of the branches exposed– would be a lonely and isolating experience, not the sort of thing you would want, as a replacement for a Thanksgiving gathering.

But, as it turns out, trees are remarkably social beings. So don’t shy away from spending time with them, as you walk with your family or friends. Beech trees, in particular, have tightly-knit networks of roots and a tradition of sharing food with each other, a little bit like we do on Thanksgiving.

I learned about this in a book called “The Hidden Life of Trees,” written by a veteran forester, Peter Wohlleben.

He wrote that beech trees, like the ones I saw in the Catoctin Mountains, appear to be separate. But actually, their roots spread far under the ground, intertwine and connect with each other. They form a kind of secret alliance with fungi, which penetrate the tips of the roots and spread out in an almost invisible web of filaments. Through these filaments and roots, the trees share water, sugar, and nutrients.

Wohlleben writes: “Nutrient exchange and helping neighbors in times of need is the rule, and this leads to the conclusion that forests are superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies.”

He also writes: “On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of the wind and weather.  But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. In this protected environment, trees can live to be very old…. But to get to this point, the community of trees must remain intact, no matter what…and this is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover.”

With some tree species – like quaking aspen – a single tree will extend roots underground to sprout  hundreds or even thousands of connected offspring.  Thus, a huge forest is actually one tree.  After about a half mile of hiking through the woods, I arrived at Cunningham Falls. A stream cascaded down a slope of rocks. I scrambled up to the top of the falls, where the view was spectacular.

I looked out over the forest as the sun set. An ivory crescent rose into the blue black sky. Despite the chill, I was warmed by the thought that – even though all the trees below me were seemingly competitors, in reality, they conspired with each other through a network – sort of like nature’s Internet.

In that way, the trees are not that different from people: a social species at root, reaching for connection even on Thanksgiving, during a pandemic.

The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations.  The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Tom Pelton's. You can contact him at [email protected].

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.