We hadn't been in the forest long before I saw the giant spruce. Its trunk rose perfectly straight. The top branches stretched to the clouds. And that trunk was so thick, even with three of us and a guide surrounding it, our fingertips couldn't meet. This was a magnificent tree.
But there was something strange about it. From its base, it took at least thirty paces in all directions to reach the nearest tree. The ground was clean except for a few bare rocks while the rest of the forest was covered in mosses and brush. The other trees weren't as tall, weren't as perfect. Most of their trunks were bent and many were missing branches.
"It's like that big one moved over there," I said, immediately feeling silly for saying it.
No one heard because they were busy crawling on the forest floor as the guide pointed out different types of moss. I knelt like them and quickly saw that what had been a swath of green while standing was actually a network of different mosses, each with a different shape and texture. Rocks covered in bright orange and red lichens dotted the green carpet.
"These lichens secrete acids that break down the rocks over time," our guide said. "That helps create new soil. And you know, if you dig below this moss, you'd find what's called the mycorrhizal network."
We looked closer.
"The mycorrhizal is a dense web of fungus beneath the surface that connects these trees. The cells interact with the root cells and share carbon and water and nitrogen and hormones. Even defense cells and information."
We drew closer to the ground, as if we'd be able to hear the trees talking to each other.
"See the biggest trees around here? Chances are they are "mother trees" and have the most connections to all of the other trees; sometimes hundreds. They give a lot, certain times of year more than they receive, but when they need it, they can rely on that network to feed them nutrients or information and keep them healthy. It's a complete give and take depending on conditions and seasons. Scientists call it the "wood wide web."
We sighed at the joke and trekked deeper into the forest, wondering what other microscopic miracles we were stepping on.
Before we hiked back, we stopped at the giant, perfect spruce to marvel again at it's size and isolation.
"How long ago do you think it died?" my friend asked the guide.
"I can't tell," she said. "Years, probably. But soon this forest will grow around it. Something may even spring up from inside it. You never know. It's the forest we need to think about. Not the trees."