Importance of Social Networks and the Wood Wide Web

With Earth Day upon us indulge me a little as I compare the importance of the strength of our social relationships to the intricate network that is part of a healthy forest. A healthy forest floor communicates through what is sometimes referred to as the wood wide web. When I learned about these well-networked relationships within a forest it got me thinking about the strength of my personal relationships and how we collectively work together to keep each other strong.

In a forest mother trees, are the largest, oldest trees, and have the most fungal connections in the forest. Their roots are deep and dependent on a complicated web of relationships, alliances, and kinship networks. They draw up water and make it available to shallow-rooted seedlings feeding them with liquid sugar. Mother trees help neighboring trees by warning them when danger approaches, sending them nutrients, and when the neighbors are struggling, mother trees detect their distress signals and increase the flow of nutrients accordingly. Meanwhile, reckless youngsters take foolhardy risks with leaf-shedding, light-chasing, and excessive drinking, and usually pay with their lives. Crown princesses wait for the old monarchs to fall, so they can take their place in the full glory of sunlight.1

The difference in consumption and contribution rates between mother trees and younger trees plays out in our lives and workplaces every day.

Consumption versus contribution ratio – how community versus individual-oriented are you?

It is important in any relationship to consider how much you are contributing versus how much you are consuming? Your consumption to contribution ratio if you will, is a particularly appropriate question on Earth Day. When you over-consume (news, food, social media, time, attention, etc.) it can create undue anxiety. The remedy?

Giving back. When we focus on others, we not only feel better we strengthen our social bonds. This can come in the form of writing letters to friends, posting helpful information that would be useful to others, or simply picking up the phone to check in on someone.

What happens when you have lost part of your forest floor?

We are hard-wired to crave social bonds, even the whites of our eyes that allow us to see where people around us are gazing separate us from other animals. We are highly social creatures and many of us are suffering right now, working through collective experiences of isolation, forced togetherness, mourning the layoff of fellow colleagues and friends.

What is your relationship within your forest (social network)?

Some definitions to consider and get you thinking about where you fit in the forest.

Symbiosis, Living together, close long-term interaction between two different biological organisms.

Parasitism, a relationship between two independent organisms in which one lives in or on the other and causes it harm. Examples include harmful relationships, mosquitoes & humans, fleas & dogs.

Mutualism, a relationship between two independent organisms that benefits both. Examples include: Honeybees & flowers, clownfish & anemone protect each other from predators.

honey bee clownfish

Commensalism, a relationship between in which one organism benefits and the other organism goes unaffected. Examples include air plants & trees, egrets & cattle.

airplant  cow

Thank you for indulging me in making comparisons of the relationships in nature and the wood wide web to the health and strength of our own social networks. Now go forth and think about your own consumption to contribution ratio. Happy Earth Day to everyone who is part of the health of my forest floor and beyond!

Recommended Reading: The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate (Wohlleben)

Michele CSC

Michele Leedom

Principal & Founder, Clinton Street Consulting

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1. Paraphrased from an article by Richard Grant

2. Redwood forest, photo by Billy Huynh


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