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What trees can teach us about supporting each other

Trees support one another, as people in organizations should, Nancy Napier writes. An Autumn Blaze maple in Napier’s yard.
Trees support one another, as people in organizations should, Nancy Napier writes. An Autumn Blaze maple in Napier’s yard.

When we bought our house over 20 years ago, a beautiful maple at least 50 feet tall shaded the back deck, which faces south and west. Five years later, the tree died of “old age,” according to a tree expert who then took it down.

We planted an autumn blaze maple, which was perhaps 8-10 feet tall. It grew slowly for several years and got to maybe 12 feet. Not big enough to provide shade.

Five or six years ago, we planted an ash about 10 feet from the maple. It was about half the size of the maple, almost scrawny, and also provided no shade. Until…

In the last two or three years, the trees have leapt. They are both about 40 feet high and thriving. They provide shade with abandon. I assumed that they just needed time to take root (15 years for the maple?) before they could take off.

But now, I have another theory that perhaps humans need to remember as well.

A new book, “The Hidden Life of Trees,” by a German forester named Peter Wohlleben (which aptly means “good life”) provided the clue. It turns out that trees thrive when they are in a forest, their own community, where they live and grow close together.

Without all the wonderful details (read the book), I’ll report just that trees communicate (through sounds, chemical transmittal through the air and through fungi networks underground and electrical signals).

They support each other within the cluster. Strong ones provide nutrients to weaker ones.

They grow until their leaves begin to touch, and then they continue to grow up, but not outward into each other, so that sunlight and rain can penetrate the canopy.

I got so excited reading this book one night that I couldn’t sleep (I know, I have strange interests).

But the main point to me was that being nearby, drawing upon the strength of the whole, makes a forest and the individual trees in it stronger. Maybe that’s what happened in my backyard. Having two trees close together allowed them to thrive.

This makes sense to me for organizations as well: If the units are aligned and employees are working together, won’t it be easier to keep the whole organization alive and thriving?

No wonder I love walking through the woods.

Nancy Napier is distinguished professor, Boise State University, nnapier@boisestate.edu.

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