Roots, Shoots and Breaking Silences
Are you a mushroom or a mother tree?
You could’ve cut the tangible discomfort with a butterknife. Probably even a well-loved, wooden spoon. Thursday, post-work, dark-outside-already undertones, with tightly knotted, historic and achingly present, beef gently laid on top. We called it ‘Angry Drinks’. So called because the people in the room were angry. Livid. With each other. With their commissioners. The council. Systems. Lack of systems. The hidden hoops. The decisions that had been made, and the future ones that already felt out of their hands. The measuring sticks, the bureaucracy. The lack of feeling. The fact they couldn’t help feeling. My friend and mentor, Mike, had watched it for years. I’d watched it long enough enough to know the ground was made more difficult to grow in. We both wondered if a little honesty might shift something. So we extended an invitation to an evening that would do what it said on the tin: ‘Angry Drinks’.
Mike and I met to sketch a loose plan for the evening, but in the week before the event I came across a newly released TED talk by ecologist, Suzanne Simard. I had a hunch and we went with it.
The first handful of people to arrive were eager and early, but had walked around the block a couple of times to appear neither. The rest arrived in small, pre-agreed groups. Before any words were spoken, these decisions felt protective and tribal. In line with the new plan, we encouraged our colleagues to grab a drink and head straight into a darkened event space, with benches and cushions waiting for them. With no introductions or context, we began the video: ‘How Trees Talk to Each Other’. Simard is infectiously enlivened by forest ecologies: A total nature nerd, in the most beautiful way. She goes on to explain the results of her latest research; experiments that revealed that trees do, in fact, talk to each other. More than sharing essentials, like water and carbon, they are also generous with their life experience and defence signals, the size of their root systems and tree canopies. These conversations were happening across species, across generations, and above and below ground, all in all making the survival of any, one tree four times more likely.
“I hope today to have changed how you think about forests.” Simard ends. The group, uncharacteristically quiet, milled out of the room and found seats around the table that ran the length of the cafe space. And, after chair scraping and much shuffling, there was silence.
The silence lasted just a little too long for comfort.
And a little longer than that.
“I think, what it is, is that I’m a mushroom, right, and the mother trees around here don’t know they’re mother trees, or, if they do, they’re holding on to their resources on purpose, which isn’t fair on the rest of the forest, especially when you’re only small and you’re on the forest floor and maybe not everyone understands the work that goes in to being a mushroom, and the whole forest wouldn’t work without mushrooms and maybe mushrooms just need a little more recognition.”
Then someone laughed. Thank goodness. A chuckle that gave permission for the whole room to break: break into uncontained giggling, into a humble beginning, into some semblance of understanding. I often reflect on how much the apocalypse needs comedians. But, short of having stand up skills in your back pocket, I think most of us could contribute by allowing a snort-laugh to escape more often with little less shame.
Nearly five years later, using words inspired by Simard’s talk written by community host Daisy Carr, I invited eight young men, aged between 9 and 14, to draw their community as a forest. Three days ago, I walked a group of 20 community-based workers through a similar thing. I’m always surprised in the similarities that show up. Decision makers and budget holders, the local corner shop, youth centre and community cafe always show up. Individuals get named. Gaps get noted. Nothing about Simard’s TED talk, or the words I use, explicitly likens forest ecologies to human ones. But it seems, if we resonate with roots, we can’t help but instinctively see ourselves in the map.
The space we descended on for ‘Angry Drinks’ felt particularly right because it was positioned in the geographical epicentre of the group’s collective angst. There were many threads of discontent in the room that evening, but the systemic sidelining of the creative sector in Leeds was at the heart of it. Developers were developing, local decision makers were welcoming it, and the arts was often bottom of the pecking order. “Will the city just be expensive flats and student accommodation in ten years?” In 2023, as The Tetley announces its closing to make way for another new development, it certainly feels that way.
“There’s a thoughtless Gruffalo galumphing through our forest” one group fed back, this week. “I wish they’d see what’s around them and how long it takes to grow.”