Granite Geek: The secret life of trees at Science Cafe on Wednesday

Monitor staff
Published: 6/24/2019 5:04:48 PM

Whether or not you hug trees, you have to admit they’re pretty interesting. And the most interesting stuff might be happening beneath our feet.

“There are a lot of cool things going on below ground that we are still learning about,” said Serita Frey, a professor of natural resources at UNH who runs an entire lab that’s learning about this.

The coolest thing you’ve probably heard about – the thing that prompted me to create this month’s topic for Science Cafe N.H. in Concord – is underground communication between trees. The idea is that roots meet or get close enough that they can pass information in the form of chemical signals using fungi or other microbes that live symbiotically with the root systems.

As discussed in a book called The Hidden Life of Trees and much follow-up coverage, this produces some intriguing scenarios as tree-eating insects entering one side of a forest and trees at the other end soon producing a chemical defense because they’ve been warned that trouble is coming.

You can bet we’ll talk about this Wednesday, although our conversation will be more science-y and perhaps not quite as over the top.

“It’s an area of research that’s going on right now. There have been provocative results, but there’s still a lot of skepticism as to how widespread it is,” Frey said.

Frey will be one of the panelists at Wednesday’s Science Cafe at Makris Lobster and Steak House. (You have reserved your seat, right? If not, call 225-7665 – reservations are required.)

Joining her to answer your questions about the topic I’ve cleverly called “The Secret Life of Trees” will be Antioch University New England professor emeritus Tom Wessels, a prominent conservation biologist. I know Wessels because he wrote a terrific book called Forest Forensics, which let me understand what I was seeing in the woods for the first time, but he’s also written other books and started the school’s masters program in conservation.

Rounding out the panel is Dave Anderson, director of education at the Society for the Protection of N.H. Forests, who you may know for hosting the “Something Wild” programs on New Hampshire Public Radio.

We’ll be talking about aspects of trees and forests beyond the “why do leaves change color?” level that I usually stick with. I suspect this will be one of those Science Cafes in which I hadn’t even thought of the questions, let alone of any answers.

Frey has been studying various aspects of the interaction between trees and microbes for many years and has developed an appreciation for how important the invisible world is to the existence of our visible world.

“We’re really not talking about just the fungus and just the tree, we’re talking about the symbiotic relationship, where both partners are required,” she said.

“Because we have a focus on human health, we tend to assume that microbes are bad. We think of microbes as primarily pathogenic – that’s a huge misconception,” Frey said. “I think the human microbiome project has changed that in terms of human health perspective, but I hope it’s also bringing a realization that the Earth’s microbiome is similar. It is what makes the diversity of the planet and is critically important for the health of ecosystems.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

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