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What We Can Learn from Trees

Volunteers harvesting crops at Dig Deep Farms

What We Can Learn from Trees

By Hilary Bass, Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, Crime Prevention Sr. Program Specialist

A recent NY Time article, “The Social Life of Forests,” described how, beneath their roots, trees in a forest are connected through massive, underground networks of threadlike fungi. These networks, called mycorrhizas, help trees extract water and nutrients from the soil. The fungi, in turn, benefit from the sugars trees make through photosynthesis. Some are calling this the “World Wood Web.”

Biologists, led by Dr. Suzanne Simard, are just now beginning to understand how the partnerships between the trees of a forest and the network of fungi are essential to the health and survival of forests—and by extension, the planet. In addition to sharing nutrients, the networks can also send alarm signals and other information from tree to tree. Research shows that information is even shared among trees of different species, and that “[r]esources tend to flow from the oldest and biggest trees to the youngest and smallest,” thus ensuring the future growth and health of the forest.

In the past, biologists have tended to focus attention on individual trees, overlooking the role of the living systems that allow trees to cooperate and communicate underground. This isn’t surprising. Charles Darwin, considered the father of modern biology, is famous for a theory of evolution that is based on the survival of the fittest. Darwin, in turn, was influenced by Adam Smith, the father of economics, who believed that economics works best for everyone when people act in their self-interest.

Like the biologists, Smith and Darwin couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

The research is shedding new light on how much damage commercial forestry practices, like clear cutting, have had on the planet:

“The razing of an old-growth forest is not just the destruction of magnificent individual trees--it’s the collapse of an ancient republic whose interspecies covenant of reciprocation and compromise is essential for the survival of Earth as we’ve known it.”

It’s important to note that indigenous communities have long understood the existence of interspecies connections and the importance of below-the-ground networks in forests.

Safety means more than the absence of crime.

When we set out 15 years ago to design a new approach to public safety, called “Community Capitals Policing,” we wanted to understand where the system was breaking down for people living in Ashland and Cherryland, two of Alameda County’s unincorporated and underserved communities. We wanted to know why it was happening, and what we could do to fix it.

We knew traditional methods of policing weren’t sufficient to repair the deeply rooted challenges that had created neighborhoods without the means to thrive. We understood that reinvigorating communities was essential to creating livable neighborhoods and deterring crime, but we also knew that it took decades to create these conditions, and that, like the forests, we needed to dig deep to understand the underlying systems that had failed these communities. We were determined to immerse ourselves into the vast civic infrastructure, and to educate and encourage leaders to learn about our investment in the seven “community capitals” that are necessary for a community to thrive and precursors to building a safer community.

We engaged with the community and took on specific projects that would improve lives and begin to repair the community’s fragile networks. Working closely with our partners, we turned neglected spaces into vibrant places to play. We enlivened neighborhoods with public art. We launched an urban farm and a commercial kitchen. We built a boxing gym, a fitness center, a soccer park. a commercial kitchen, and we hosted street festivals.

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, we shifted our resources and began distributing free groceries and fresh produce to food-insecure families. And we secured grants for local food businesses to prepare healthy meals for seniors and vulnerable populations.

After 15 years of hard work, we are no longer working in isolation--no longer being told to “stay in our own lane.”

Alameda County is emerging as a leader and a champion of new solutions to solve complex, systems-based challenges. Today, we are working hand-in-hand with a host of partner organizations not only to reinvent policing, but also to eliminate poverty, change the way healthcare is being practiced, and build a local, circular food economy.

A Time for Repair

A necessary and overdue conversation emerged about the future of policing in the U.S., following the Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and many, many others. Calls to defund the police have led to deeper conversation about how to reallocate resources and reduce police violence.

It’s time to recognize that decades of survival-of-the-fittest policies have failed our communities. Constructive conversations, ground level efforts, and tangible results are what’s needed to address inequity and racism.

Community Capitals Policing provides a new approach, one that puts improving public safety at the center of a robust, collaborative response to deterring crime, reinvigorating communities, and safeguarding justice for all.

Based on President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, Community Capitals Policing was structured to serve as a model and template that can be tailored for other communities, based on their own unique needs.

Dr. Simard references the COVID-19 pandemic in the NY Times and suggests what we can learn from trees:

"The pandemic has revealed just how connected we all are and how vulnerable we become when these networks break down. And I think that really underscores that reciprocity and cooperation is important for any society or ecosystem whether it’s a forest one or human one or otherwise."


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