The Magnificent, Lone Spruce / by Marc Cappelletti

The magnificent spruce rose like no other tree in the forest.  Its trunk stood perfectly straight, so thick that even with three of us and a guide hugging it, our fingertips couldn't meet.  Few other trees soared as high, none as perfect.  

But there was something strange about this spruce.  From its base, it took at least fifty paces in all directions to reach the nearest tree.  And the ground around it was clean except for a few bare rocks while the rest of the forest was covered in spongy mosses and brush.  

"It's like that big one moved itself away," I said, immediately feeling silly for saying it.

No one heard because they were crawling with the guide and studying the different types of moss on the forest floor.  I knelt with them, noticing that what I first saw as a green swath was actually a network of different mosses, each with a different shape and texture and shade.  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 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. You could say that they talk."

We drew closer to the ground, as if we'd be able to listen in.

"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, and they always do, they 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 rolled our eyes at the joke and trekked deeper into the forest, wondering what other microscopic miracles we were stepping on. 

On our way back, we stopped at the magnificent spruce.  

"How long ago do you think it died?" my friend asked the guide. 

"I can't tell," she said.  "Years.  You can see the forest has continued to grow.  In time, it will grow back around the spruce.  Something may even spring up from inside it.  You never know.  It's the forest we need to think about anyway.  Not the trees."