I recently listened to a TED talk by Suzanne Simard entitled, “How Trees Talk to Each Other.” Suzanne is a forest ecologist in British Columbia, Canada. Her research over the past 30 years has shown that forests are not just a collection of individual trees. Rather the trees in a forest are connected and communicate with each other through a vast, complex underground network of fungal highways called a mycorrhizal network. Through these networks trees transmit carbon and water, as well as defense signals when a tree is injured by disease or insects.
Within this communication network there are hub or mother trees. They nurture their young and anchor the entire forest network. The mother trees help make the whole forest resilient through the wisdom they communicate to their kin. Forests need complexity to be healthy. Planting only one or two species leaves a forest vulnerable to disease.
I look at forests differently now after learning how the forest is actually a community. I couldn’t help but see this as a metaphor for our community of communities at Holy Wisdom. The monastery has grown organically over the years to include a variety of groups with different interests and ways of interacting with the monastery resources. Members of Sunday Assembly come primarily for worship. The Friends of Wisdom Prairie come to work on the prairie and learn about environmental conservation. The oblates and participants in spiritual deepening council offerings come for spiritual growth. However, we are more than a collection of individuals or groups. We are an interconnected community. People’s interests and participation at the monastery often touch on various aspects of the monastery’s life. This complexity is enriched by a fuller network of communication and collaboration.
Simand describes forests with their expansive underground networks as super cooperators. Since coming to our new identity as a community of communities a few years ago, we seek to strengthen the communication and collaboration among the communities that make up the monastery. As the administrative team approved programs proposed for 2018, we saw ways the various groups and communities here could collaborate with each other: spiritual deepening council with oblates; sacred citizenship planning with Sunday Assembly social justice committee, for example. To strengthen the whole monastery community, two-way communication is invaluable as we share our experience, resources and enthusiasm with one another. As we become a more complex organization/organism we need a more complex network of communication and collaboration.
Dialogue (common conversation) is one of the four pillars of Benedictine life. (The other three are common prayer, common work, and common meals.) As one example of common conversation, this year our volunteer picnic included volunteers from every area of the monastery. In the past, we had a separate recognition for different groups of volunteers. The conversations were rich as people who work on the prairie dialogued with ministers from Sunday Assembly or people who volunteer in the kitchen met people who volunteer in the retreat and guest house. This common conversation strengthens all of us.
Trees speak in the language of carbon and water. At the monastery, we speak the language of Benedictine values: hospitality, respect for all persons, stability, openness to change and growth, humility, forgiveness, prayer, interdependence, balanced living. Suzanne Simard says that it is the back and forth conversation among trees that increases the forest’s resilience. Our back and forth communication among communities and groups at Holy Wisdom also increases the resilience of the monastery and the communities it includes.