These days the forests in Wisconsin appear frozen and silent, but we have learned that we see only a small fraction of the actual forest as we walk its snowy paths. It was a revelation to us to learn that perhaps two-thirds of the biomass associated with trees is below the ground, including not only their massive root systems, but a shockingly large mass of fungi that connect tree roots and deliver nutrients in exchange for carbon. This fungal mat, or “wood-wide web,” turns out to be the foundation of the forest tree’s kahal – a network to which we are tempted to ascribe some humanlike qualities. And even more surprising, we learned that trees communicate, share resources, nurture young trees, and support each other through these fungal connections. Gaining an appreciation of the forest kahal was, for many of us, our entry point into thinking about the mystery of the natural world in a new way.

The Scientists in Synagogues project at Beth Israel Center in Madison, Wisconsin has been immersing itself in The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wollebehn. We have explored whether trees are social beings, and what “being social” might mean in the context of a tree. We’ve explored how trees work from a physical perspective and even worked on imagining ourselves as trees in guided meditation. We read a poem by Howard Nemerov that brought together some of the divergent or contrasting aspects of being a tree, including the stoicism we associate with trees juxtaposed with their flowery nature:

Having the hard appearance of death
With the soft, fluent nature of growth,
One’s Being deceptively armored,
One’s Becoming deceptively vulnerable;

This stanza was a nice parallel to how we are starting to think about trees – that they are, on the one hand, stationary living organisms in a forest, and on the other hand, active, engaged participants in their communities. Our horizons have been expanded horizontally as we have started to think about the cooperation of these members of the forest.

Our explorations have also taken us into sacred texts. Rabbi Betsy Forester has led our discussion group into liturgical texts that use trees both literally and figuratively. These explorations have provided a way for us to see how Jewish religious practice has drawn on the power of trees to convey concepts that reflect the power of their multiple dimensions. These texts, and associated Hasidic teachings, have as well served as entry points into discussions on wonder and awe, and how miraculous the natural world appears even as we learn more and more about its inner workings.

The Hidden Life of Trees has been criticized for being overly anthropomorphic, and we have spent time assessing the extent to which we can use such human terms to describe tree “behavior.” Importantly, we have also wondered if that question is, in and of itself, a reflection of our own anthropocentric attitudes that hinder any acceptance of other forms of “being.”

Some of us hadn’t thought much about how trees reproduce, and we have learned a bit about some of their strategies. One of the most interesting has been the idea of mast fruiting, which involves the production of fruits (and hence seeds)only at intervals of every several years. This makes it possible for some fruits to survive, and not be eaten by frugivores or predators. Mast fruiting is a reproductive strategy that can ensure survival, and one that starts to make sense when we consider that so few seeds actually make it into adult trees. In fact, the statistic that one out of only 1.8 billion beechnuts develop into a full-grown tree made us appreciate how special and unique the life of even a single tree is. Nature is all about fecundity, but the survival odds gave us pause and made us think about survival in a new way.

Most of us hadn’t really thought of plants making active choices in their lives; and especially in a human sense since plants obviously lack the cognitive machinery for doing so. But we watched a short video clip of research showing a dodder plant, which is a parasitic weed, “choosing” to wrap itself around a tomato seedling instead of a wheat seedling nine times out of ten. The “choice” in this case to parasitize the tomato turns out to be based on volatile compounds emitted by tomato that provide an attractant for the dodder plant. But the time-lapse photography certainly makes it seem like choice and provides yet another glimpse into active processes where plants exhibit sensory “behaviors” that mimic those of animals.

As we continue our exploration of the hidden life of trees, we will investigate the scientific critiques of the book in the coming week. Some 2,000 scientists have signed a petition protesting what they consider to be the book’s unrealistic characterization of plants as having human traits. It will be important to try and understand why the scientists feel such a protest is warranted, but it will also be important to dwell in the space in between hard science and communal spirituality- which is where we seem to find the trees as well.

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. This post is from Beth Israel Center in Madison, WI).