3:30 PM Summer Light — Meadow Creek, Selway Tributary, Nez Perce National Forest, Idaho
Every now and again, one comes across a headline so perfect for this blog, it’s impossible to resist. This piece in the New York Times, titled German Forest Ranger Finds That Trees Have Social Networks, Too is one of the best examples of understanding how scientists are not free from the impacts of culture, their social structure, and their own empathetic development when they generate thinking about the world around them.
For those that won’t read the piece, the writer profiles famous-in-Germany author Peter Wohlleben, a 51-year-old German forest ranger, whose book, “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries From a Secret World,” turned into a surprise bestseller inside of Germany. Wohlleben’s premise is very communitarian — each tree is an individual, with an individual history, with a series of connections that would be classified as highly empathetic between that tree and its neighbors. Trees grow thick branches away from their nearest neighbors and all sorts of stuff — which they observationally do. This quote from the piece sums it up:
PRESENTING scientific research and his own observations in highly anthropomorphic terms, the matter-of-fact Mr. Wohlleben has delighted readers and talk-show audiences alike with the news — long known to biologists — that trees in the forest are social beings. They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the “Wood Wide Web”; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.
“With his book, he changed the way I look at the forest forever,” Markus Lanz, a popular talk show host, said in an email. “Every time I walk through a beautiful woods, I think about it.”
The writer of the piece borrows from mental models he knows — the writer of the piece tells us that Wohlleben is anthropomorphizing, of course — projecting ‘human’ characteristics on trees. Well, sort of. What Wohlleben is really doing is projecting his well-scaffolded Communitarian v-Meme patterns on trees, and coming up with surface-level (not superficial!) truths about forest structure and organization. Note that little clause about scientific knowledge (algorithmic understanding!) and his own observations (his own heuristics generalized) — we can see the pathway up to communitarian knowledge structures pretty easily.
And Wohlleben is well-scaffolded in German culture, all the way down to the Tribal/Magical v-Memes that dominate the entire corpus of German fairy tales. The forest is where magical things happen in Germany (remember the Brothers Grimm!) — so much that when the Black Forest started undergoing rapid deforestation in the 18th century because of nascent pressures from the Industrial Revolution, it led to some of the first environmental legislation in history being passed in the 19th! Talk about some serious social/relational evolution — Magical thinking, and its value, driving higher v-Meme development that literally changed the world.
It’s easy to be dismissive of people like Wohlleben (especially if you’re not so much of a communitarian v-Meme mind yourself!) He’s anthropomorphizing. He’s fantasizing. And so on. But someone like him also gives deep insight, not only into surface-level highly resonant themes AND memes about trees, but about other parts of German society. Take the development of solar energy in Germany, for example. By passing legislation that amplifies and resonates in Germany’s combination meritocratic communitarian culture — where people are evaluated for status on their productivity and potential — Germany is far ahead of the rest of the world for hitting power generation targets because they intrinsically accept the notion of distributed power that pops out of that Communitarian v-Meme.
Anyone doubting this that thinks all this power comes from large centralized plants (there are those as well) need only to look at the photo below.
Greifswald Kirche, C.Löser photo credit
Even a church can be retrofitted for solar power. Now that’s distributed, communitarian v-Meme power.
Coming back to how the forest actually functions — well, with all knowledge about forests or anything, we’re v-Meme limited. We can look at how the forest functions like a community, and learn lessons from that perspective. But, if we’re self aware, we’re going to realize the total truth is higher up the evolutionary v-Meme ladder. And we’re going to have no problem admitting that there are things we just can’t understand in the context of how our own awareness is wired.
And at the same time, the trees, and more importantly, the resonant Wohlleben perspective — that combination of structure and culture we discussed in our own Theory of Everything — gives tremendous business strategy takeaways. Line up culture, social/empathetic structure of your target market, a little magical/romantic thinking that connects to deep stories your customers have, and a product that maps to all these things, and you’ll have a runaway best-seller. It’s that simple.
It’s so simple it deserves a buzz-phrase — Triple Resonant Strategies. Culture, Structure, and Matching, Accelerative Product Design. When these three things feed back on each other, you’re sure to have a hit.