The Wisdom of the Trees: A Guide for a New Investment Paradigm

by | Apr 13, 2017 | health and well being, High Impact Investing, Inclusive Innovation, Social Innovation, sustainable agriculture

For many years, I had a house in Northwestern Connecticut. I survived a nearly terminal illness, spending almost four months in intensive care and around nine months out of work. Buying this house in the country was a big part of my emotional healing following my illness. It was a beautiful wooden house with big windows overlooking a yard surrounded by trees. It had a brook in the back that filled my house with the most soothing sounds whenever it rained. My favorite room in the house was my screened porch where I would sit for hours reading and listening to the brook and the sound of the wind blowing through the trees. Somehow all my troubles and cares seemed to melt away.

My business is a dedication to those amazing trees and the wisdom they shared with me.

Recently, I was reading a book called “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate–Discoveries from a Secret World” by Peter Wohlleben. It is hard to imagine reading this book and feeling the same way about the forest again. Somehow, the fairy tales from my childhood seemed more real filling me with wisdom and important messages from the enchanted forest. It was a welcome respite from my day-to-day life in the investment world with the binary, black and white way much of the financial world still functions. Fortunately for all of us, this is beginning to change.

How do we decide on the best investments that solve problems at the root cause? Better understanding complex interrelationships in complex systems such as the forest ecosystem and all the tools of communication trees use can help us to better map complex problems and potential solutions. Evidently, trees use a variety of communication tools such as scent, electrical signals, and a sense of taste to connect with their microenvironment so that they can grow, thrive, as well as protect themselves. It is clear looking at the newly evolving area of systems biology that we are very similar. For example, one area of new exploration is the human microbiome, an ecosystem of bacteria and other microorganisms that interact with each other and our bodies to keep us healthy in profound ways. New scientific tools and techniques are allowing us to not only measure and study these communication signals and symbiotic relationships for trees but also for our own bodies. This requires we form new interdisciplinary teams to better study these systems such as electrical engineers, physicists, computer engineers, even sound engineers working along side biologists and chemists. This is starting to break down traditional scientific, business and investor silos as a variety of new partnerships come together to create new products and services from these discoveries. The trees in the forest are no strangers to a wide variety of partners. This discussion of the communication of trees in a forest ecosystem should help you to better understand the critical role of the permaculture principles in our sustainable investment model.

“When it comes to some species of insects, trees can accurately identify which bad guys they are up against. The saliva of each species is different, and trees can match the saliva of the insect. Indeed, the match can be so precise that trees can release pheromones that summon specific beneficial predators.”

The author discusses in detail “how trees send warnings through the air, through chemical signals sent through fungal networks around their root tips and also by means of electric signals.”

“These fungi operate like fiber-optic internet cables. Their thin filaments penetrate the ground, weaving through it in almost unbelievable density. One teaspoon of forest soil contains many miles of these “hyphae.” Over centuries a single fungus can cover, many square miles and network an entire forest. The fungal connections transmit signals from one tree to the next, helping the trees exchange news about insects, drought and other dangers.”

In the following quote you can see not only the importance of these symbiotic relationships but also the importance of following sustainable agricultural techniques as opposed to the commonly practiced monoculture farming and industrialized techniques in modern agriculture.

“In the symbiotic community of the forest, not only trees but also shrubs and grasses—and possibly all plant species—exchange information this way. However, when we step into farm fields, the vegetation becomes very quiet. Thanks to selective breeding, our cultivated plants have, for the most part, lost their ability to communicate above or below ground—you could say they are deaf and dumb—and therefore they are easy for insect pests. This is one reason why modern agriculture uses so many pesticides.”

The next series of quotes helps to describe why community is so important for our health, survival and happiness. Somehow with the focus on money at all costs and more predatory definitions of capitalism, we have lost something vital along the way. We have lost our connection to each other and to the environment. More and more people know something is wrong in the world. Despite many years since the last recession, many more jobs added, a rising stock market and many new exciting scientific and technology discoveries, many people are nervous and uncertain about the future. We have division, threats of war, even feelings of despair of many people around the world. The trees have some vital lessons for us to follow to begin to rebuild thriving communities.

“The power of a community of trees”

“The trees, it seems are equalizing differences between the strong and the weak. Whether they are thick or thin, all members of the same species are using light to produce the same amount of sugar per leaf. This equalization is taking place underground through the roots. Whoever has an abundance of sugar hands some over; whoever is running short gets help. Once again, fungi are involved. Their enormous networks act as gigantic redistribution mechanisms. It’s a bit like the way social security systems operate to ensure individual members of society don’t fall too far behind.”

“When trees grow together, nutrients and water can be optimally divided among them all so that each tree can grow into the best tree it can be.”

“….A tree can only be as strong as the forest that surrounds it.”

“But isn’t that how evolution works? You ask. “The survival of the fittest.” Trees would just shake their heads—or rather their crowns. Their well being depends on their community, and when the supposedly feeble trees disappear, the others lose as well.”

“A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

When some trees are threatened or lose their help from their own families they come together to help each other out.

“Thanks to the underground network, neighbors took over the disrupted task of provisioning the roots and thus made it possible for their buddies to survive.”

Permaculture principles are a model to build sustainable agricultural systems, similar to the forest ecosystem. Using these same principles as a model for sustainable finance has many advantages over our current financial/investment systems. Using these principles, we realize that slower, more iterative growth is better than growing too fast and is inherently more sustainable, resilient and creative. These principles allow you to learn from your mistakes and progress in newer, improved ways. They also encourage you to earn a yield as you go along. They are less wasteful and allow you to use your resources more wisely, which should result in a greater number of successful investments that solve many more problems in society. Sustainable agriculture is a great model for capitalism with its highly dynamic, efficient and balanced processes.

Today, the predominant entrepreneurial and investment paradigm encourages the complete opposite and is all about how quickly you can grow, how quickly you can become a company worth more than a billion dollars, and how much money you can raise. Profits are nowhere in sight. Capitalism has the potential to create a wide variety of important services and products that can help people prosper and society to thrive. Today’s paradigm perpetuates inequality, encourages waste and bubbles and leads to herding and predatory behavior. The inevitable results are numerous imbalances that cause us all to suffer, especially the most vulnerable in our society. Once again, the trees have some wisdom to share.

“Trees maintain an inner balance. They budget their strength carefully, and they must be economical with energy so that they can meet all their needs.”

“Scientists have determined that slow growth when the tree is young is a prerequisite if a tree is to live to a ripe old age.”

“Thanks to slow growth, the inner wood cells are tiny and contain almost no air. That makes the trees flexible and resistant to breaking in storms. Even more important is their heightened resistance to fungi, which have difficulty spreading through the tough little trunks. Injuries are no big deal for such trees, either, because they can easily compartmentalize the wounds—that is to say, close them up by growing bark over them before any decay occurs.”

“Their mothers are in contact with them through their root systems, and they pass along sugar and other nutrients. You might even say they are nursing their babies.”

“ The young tree, often, does not get sufficient light and adapts through growing wider and different types of leaves more adapted to the shade.”

“When mother tree dies, younger rises up and can begin to take over photosynthesizing in a more major way, their bodies and leaves adapting, but, by then, they are ready.”

“The young trees that overcome all obstacles continue to grow beautifully tall and slender.”

This is just a small sampling of the beautiful messages in this book. It should be required reading for all business, financial and government employees.