"Learning from the 'Wood-Wide' Web"

Isaiah 55:8-13

I Corinthians 12:12-27


“…and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”

For some time now, our congregation has been involved in the dialogue between science and religion.

Yet this morning we heard those almost embarrassingly unscientific words of the prophet Isaiah: “The trees shall clap their hands.”

Years ago in another church, I used those words in a call to worship to the great consternation of one of the members, who just could not accept the imagery of this phrase, who could not understand in any way what the prophet might have meant.

After all, trees don’t have hands.

And they certainly don’t break out into applause.

The physicist, Mark Harris, is a professor in the area of science and theology at Edinburgh University. He suggests that the words of Isaiah can speak to us in at least four different ways—with not one way exclusive of the others.

It is figure of speech expressing our human worship of God.

It reflects an ancient, prescientific sense that the world is filled with spirits, a world in which God speaks through thunderstorm or burning bush.

It expresses the worship that all of creation gives to God simply by being itself; as Thomas Merton put it: “A tree gives glory to God by being a tree.”

It looks forward to the day when suffering ends and all of nature offers praise to God.[i]

My guess is that the trees were not clapping this past week when the majestic and iconic European larch tree on the Pentecrest was felled by the winds of the storm that passed through here late last Monday night. They might, however, have joined with the many human beings who felt the loss of this beautiful creature, what one person called the most “magical tree on campus.”

I had been thinking about trees as a part of our planet’s vast biodiversity that we are celebrating during this liturgical Season of Creation. The loss of that great larch is an occasion for all of us to give deeper consideration to trees. We are invited to hold the trees of the field in our awareness that we might discover something new, that we might have a greater appreciation for the things of this world in which we live.

Paul Tillich, the great 20th century theologian, recalled sitting under a tree with a great biologist. Suddenly the biologist said: “I would like to know something about this tree!” Tillich, of course thought that this biologist already knew everything that science had to say about the tree, so he asked what he meant.

The biologist answered: “I want to know what this tree means for itself. I want to understand the life of this tree. It is so strange, so unapproachable.”[ii]

It was one of those moments when science and religion came together, as they often do, not in conflict but with a sense of wonder toward the creative ground of nature.

What do we know of trees?

How do we understand their life?

It’s been said that since Darwin, we have generally thought of trees as striving, disconnected loners, competing for water, nutrients and sunlight, with the winners overshadowing the losers and taking their food and water. The timber industry, in particular, sees forests as wood-producing systems and battlegrounds for survival of the fittest.[iii]

In recent decades, however, many who seek to know about trees have looked, not just at individual trees, but at the vast cooperation of entire ecosystems.

Douglas Rushkoff put it this way: “A tree is not a singular tree at all; it is the tip of a forest. Pull back far enough to see the whole and one tree’s struggle for survival merges with the more relevant story of its role in sustaining the larger system.”[iv]

When Suzanne Simard was getting her degree at the School of Forestry at Yale—and, yes, it always surprises me that they take trees that seriously in New Haven, in much the same way that others are surprised to find out that there is a Divinity School at Harvard—she studied the interactions between the paper birch and Douglas fir.

Simard found that like all trees all over the world, the paper birch and Douglas fir form a symbiotic association with below-ground fungi. These are fungi that are beneficial to the trees and through this association, the fungus, which can’t photosynthesize, explores the soil. Basically, it sends mycelium, or threads, all through the soil, picks up nutrients and water, brings them back to the tree, and exchanges those nutrients and water for sugar or other substances made by photosynthesis from the plant. The tree is fixing carbon and then trading it for the nutrients that it needs for its metabolism. It works out for both of them.

It’s this network that connects one tree root system to another tree root system, so that nutrients and carbon and water can be exchanged between the trees. In a natural forest of British Columbia, paper birch and Douglas fir grow together. Yes, they compete with each other, but they also cooperate with each other by sending nutrients and carbon back and forth through their networks.

The trees work together. When the Douglas fir becomes shaded in the summertime, the more excess carbon the birch has goes to the fir. Then later in the fall, when the birch is losing its leaves and the fir has excess carbon because it is still photosynthesizing, the net transfer of this exchange goes back to the birch.

It is not so much competition as cooperation.

When Simard first wrote about the interaction between trees over twenty years ago, she was warned not to call this “communication.” These were plants, after all.

Now she freely uses phrases like “forest wisdom” and “mother trees.”[v]

For Peter Wohlleben, the German forester and author of The Hidden Life of Trees, the trees have become vibrantly alive and charged with wonder. They were communicating with one another. They’re involved in tremendous struggles and death-defying dramas. To reach their enormous size, they depend on a complicated web of relationships, alliances and kinship networks.

Echoing Suzanne Simard, he speaks of wise old mother trees feeding their saplings with liquid sugar and warning the neighbors when danger approaches. In his eyes, reckless youngsters take foolhardy risks with leaf-shedding, light-chasing, and excessive drinking, and usually pay with their lives. Crown princes wait for the old monarchs to fall, so they can take their place in the full glory of sunlight. It’s all happening in the ultra-slow motion that is tree time—but I don’t think Wohlleben would be surprised if these trees began to clap their hands.

There is now a substantial body of scientific evidence showing that trees of the same species are communal, and will often form alliances with trees of other species. Forest trees have evolved to live in cooperative, interdependent relationships, maintained by communication and a collective intelligence similar to an insect colony.

“Some are calling it the ‘wood-wide web,’” says Wohlleben. “All the trees in every forest that is not too damaged, are connected to each other through underground fungal networks. Trees share water and nutrients through the networks, and also use them to communicate. They send distress signals about drought and disease, for example, or insect attacks, and other trees alter their behavior when they receive these messages.”

Not that everyone sees it this way. The eminent British scientist, Richard Fortey, asks with gentle scorn: “The mother tree protecting its little ones? It’s so anthropomorphized that it’s really not helpful. The case is overstated and suffused with vitalism. Trees do not have will or intention. They solve problems, but it’s all under hormonal control, and it all evolved through natural selection.”

Still, Peter Wohlleben tells us: “I don’t think trees have a conscious life, but we don’t know. We must manage our forests sustainably and respectfully, and allow some trees to grow old with dignity, and to die a natural death.” He has rejected the confines of the careful, technical language of science, and in doing so, helps move toward the desire of Tillich’s biologist friend—to know a tree.

You might want to talk to the botanist in our congregation to see what he thinks of all of this.

To me, there are echoes in the forest of Paul’s words to the Corinthians: The body does not consist of one member but of many. The hand needs the foot, the ear needs the eye and together they work for the common good.

Or maybe, since the trees were at this long before Paul came along, we could say that Paul is echoing the wisdom of the forest.

Paul’s well-known point is that we are the body of Christ and individually members of it. In congregations we need one another. In the larger church we need people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives and denominations—although in an increasingly polarized nation and world, we are losing track of this. In these days we are called to the difficult work of coming to a new understanding that “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’”

What we learn from the wood-wide web is that in spite of the competition, all of creation is interconnected. We are one part of a vast creation and all of creation is made for collaboration and cooperation. We cannot say to the trees, “We do not need you.” We cannot say to the other animals, “Because you are not human you do not belong to the body of creation.”

We are discovering that all creation needs one another and when one suffers we all suffer with it.

The theologian, Sallie McFague, suggests that we consider the image of the world as God’s body. In doing so, she says, “We are experimenting with a bit of nonsense to see if it can make a claim to truth.”

To call the world “God’s body,” is not to provide an actual description—any more than to say the trees will “clap their hands” suggest we listen for applause. But it opens us up to consider a great body that consists of more than simply Christians, indeed more than human beings alone, a body that is God’s great collaborative act.
Will the trees clap their hands?

Suzanne Simard suggests: “We need to bring in human aspects to this so that we understand deeper, more viscerally, what’s going on in these living creatures, species that are not just these inanimate objects. We started to understand that it’s not just resources moving between plants. It’s way more than that. A forest is a cooperative system, and if it were all about competition, then it would be a much simpler place. Why would a forest be so diverse? Why would it be so dynamic?

Simard concludes: “Using the language of communication made more sense because the behavior of plants, the senders and the receivers, those behaviors are modified according to this communication or this movement of stuff between them. We as human beings can relate to this better. If we can relate to it, then we’re going to care about it more. If we care about it more, then we’re going to do a better job of stewarding our landscapes.”

That other great twentieth century theologian, Karl Barth, put it this way: “when we accept again our destiny in Jesus Christ…we are only like late-comers slipping shamefacedly into creation’s choir in heaven and earth, which has never ceased its praise.”

Then we—and all of nature—will give thanks to God who, as the prophet announced, will bring new life and take away judgment.

If we look and listen we might even behold the trees of the field clap their hands.


[i] Ruth Bancewicz, “The Trees Clap Their Hands,” https://scienceandbelief.org/2015/02/10/the-trees-clap-their-hands-what-does-it-mean-to-say-that-creation-praises-the-creator/

[ii] Paul Tillich, “Nature Mourns for a Lost Good,” in The Shaking of the Foundations, pg. 79.

[iii] Richard Grant, “The Whispering Trees,” Smithsonian Magazine,
March 2018.

[iv] Douglas Rushkoff, Team Human, pg. 12.

[v] Diane Toomey, https://e360.yale.edu/features/exploring_how_and_why_trees_talk_to_each_other