The Wood Wide Web

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I am a big fan of metaphors. I believe that there are a lot of complex ideas, in fields like biology, technology, and literature, that are hard to communicate without using metaphors to describe them. Today, I am going to be using an ecological phenomenon I  recently learned about, the mycorrhizal network, to look at the complex connections that we create, and to analyze how we, as individuals, relate to the world around us.  

The Mycorrhiza Network

Suzanne Simard, Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia, studies the complex and unseen world of inter-tree communication and interaction. Her focus is below the ground on mycorrhiza, small, threadlike fungi that form underground connections between the trees above them.

Mycorrhiza connections can be found in the soils below nearly any tree around the world. These small fungi envelop and fuse with tree roots, forming symbiotic relationships in which they help the tree roots collect water and nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, in exchange for some of the carbon-rich sugars that the trees produce through the process of photosynthesis. 

According to Ferris Jabr, in his article The Social Life of Forests, “By analyzing the DNA in root tips and tracing the movement of molecules through underground conduits, Simard has discovered that fungal threads link nearly every tree in a forest – even trees of different species. Carbon, water, nutrients, alarm signals, and hormones can pass from tree to tree through these subterranean circuits. Resources tend to flow from the oldest and biggest trees to the youngest and smallest.”

Maintaining and Nurturing My Networks

When I think about this idea of mycorrhizal roots and networks, I think about my own network, and the people that I am connected to. 

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic when we initially went into lockdown, it was a big adjustment for a lot of people. For many, it felt as if our networks had been abruptly severed. 

While there were certainly challenges, there were also some silver linings. Thanks to modern technology and my new-found free time at home, I was able to reunite with some of my childhood friends from New Jersey. We were able to get on Zoom calls to watch sporting events, text one another, and rekindle our friendships.  While I lost a lot of my physical network, I was able to re-establish other connections that had been neglected.

Collaboration vs Competition

Historically, most people unquestioningly championed Darwinism, the theory of “survival of the fittest.” It is based on the belief that survival is individualistic, and the best man or woman will come out on top. Like Darwin’s theory, capitalism is based on the idea of individual success. However, findings like Simard’s, which support the idea that a community may collaborate for survival, seem to contradict Darwin’s theory. This contradiction begs the question, if we choose to collaborate and work together, what more will we be able to accomplish? 

Maintaining Strong Networks

So what can we take away from the mycorrhizal connection between fungi and trees? For me, the lesson is that it is important to maintain strong networks. In fact, we’re seeing this now when, in the face of adversity, we have no choice but to collaborate, communicate, and share ideas. 

In The Social Life of Trees, Ferris Jabr mentions that strong forests require several key ingredients including:

Multi-generational Individuals: 

As part of her research, Simard introduced the idea of “mother trees.” If you clear-cut a forest and replant the area with only young saplings, the young saplings are likely to die. However, if you leave some of the older trees, the mother trees, they will accept the sapling into their network, and give them knowledge, protection, and nutrients. This multi-generational exchange gives the saplings a higher chance of success. 

Just as saplings need older trees for survival, younger workers need experienced mentors to train them and help them succeed. In a healthy network, just like a healthy forest, younger and older members will both be able to learn from one another. 

Diversity:

A homogenous forest is not a healthy forest; you need different species that all work together to form a strong ecosystem. Likewise, a healthy network needs people with diverse backgrounds who can bring different ideas, perspectives, and opinions to the table.  

Teamwork: 

When trees collaborate through mycorrhiza, it becomes survival of the fittest network, instead of survival of the fittest individual. Likewise, when we work together as a team, it’s no longer my project and my idea; it becomes our projects and our ideas that we are able to accomplish together. 

Which Brings Us to Grio

Our ability to work remotely has created a world in which we are all dispersed across the country and the planet. Here at Grio, we are no exception. We have employees across the United States and abroad. Our organization is a living, breathing organism that is constantly shifting and changing as employees move and transition. 

What started as research into a New York Times Magazine article eventually led me back to Grio. We are a group of individuals with different backgrounds from all around the world. We use key ingredients of a strong forest, multi-generational individuals, diversity, and teamwork, to form a strong team. As a team, we are able to create deliverables that are far stronger than anything any one of us could make on their own. 

Grio is a “mycorrhizish,” Internet of Things (IoT) Network of fun people to work with across the planet. 

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