When bulldozers ripped through the woods of the Humane Society of the United States, it was a foreshadowing of more trouble to come. Much has been lost in the upheaval at my former workplace. Will the nation’s largest animal protection organization recover and grow back, stronger than before? Perhaps, if the powers-that-be heed the lessons of trees.
The forest lies in a pile, waiting for pickup. Stacked with precision in their above-ground grave, the trees’ torsos are all that remain, stripped of the branches and roots that connected them to the sun, the sky, the earth, and each other.
A road is about to run through the land where this community of plants once thrived, paving over a spot adjacent to the parking lot of the Humane Society of the United States. It will lead people to more restaurants, more shopping centers, and more circuitous routes where other forests once stood. The trees were the first to go, but as the bulldozers rolled in three weeks ago, no one could have predicted that, just a week and a half later, they’d be followed off the property by the CEO.
In both cases, the buildup took decades, but the ending was swift. Outside the red-brick HSUS headquarters, developers and planners with unyielding axes to grind against nature had long had the trees in their sightline. Inside, years of toxic workplace culture erupted into public view with allegations of sexual harassment, leading to the resignation of the organization’s longtime leader.
The days before and since have been difficult for my friends and colleagues at the HSUS, where I used to work. They’ve been devastating for the plants and animals at the edges of the property, who also made a living there.
But the people are resilient, and they will recover. Watching from afar as they’ve struggled for justice, I’ve gone from feeling enervated to empowered, inconsolable to inspired. As each new excruciating detail and misstep by the leadership has unfolded in the media, the victims and their advocates have rallied fast for change, spreading information and support across their social networks in rapid, uncompromising succession.
This is not unlike what trees do. Through an intricate underground network of roots and fungi, they send nutrients, water, and even chemical signals warning of impending attack. They can sense who’s most in need: A tree in the sun might send carbon to one in the shade, while a tree with excess nitrogen might pass some along to a weaker one nearby. Older trees, known as “hub trees” or “mother trees,” recognize their kin and connect with hundreds of others. Dying trees bequeath resources to those still living throughout the forest, leaving all they have to the next generation.
Though aboriginal cultures have respected forest relationships for ages, revering what they call “grandmother trees,” it’s taken Western societies thousands of years to catch up. Canadian ecologist Suzanne Simard, whose research on trees and their fungal partners launched a revolution in how we think about plants, likens the connectedness of the forest to the human social community that helped her fight breast cancer.
“It was this incredible magical network where you could just feel the love going from person to person …” she told Wisconsin Public Radio’s PRX. “For me, it was like I was living the very thing I was seeing in the forest.”
For years in my old workplace, we had the opposite experience, our attempts at connection and teamwork stymied by mind games and dueling egos. Being an uber-confident single operator was rewarded. Being a thoughtful collaborator was not. That doesn’t mean we weren’t productive; the HSUS did—and continues to do—life-saving work for animals.
But the starpower culture of relentless competition and distrust stunted the growth of individual employees and held us back collectively. We had nearly all the ingredients for becoming a stronger, more resilient organization. Instead, employees toiled largely alone in survival mode, while managers struggled against one another to find sufficient resources for their teams.
It’s an outdated model, focused more on short-term gains than on lasting change. And it’s one that humans have long projected unequivocally—and inaccurately—onto nature, crediting only fierce competition for the advancing evolution of organisms. As German forester Peter Wohlleben describes in his book The Hidden Life of Trees, recent research shows there’s a lot more to it:
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. If you ‘help’ individual trees by getting rid of their supposed competition, the remaining trees are bereft. They send messages out to their neighbors in vain, because nothing remains but stumps. Every tree now muddles along on its own, giving rise to great differences in productivity. Some individuals photosynthesize like mad until sugar positively bubbles along their trunk. As a result, they are fit and grow better, but they aren’t particularly long-lived. This is because a tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it.
Trees need one another, even across species, just like people with different skills and backgrounds need one another too. After noticing that Douglas firs didn’t fare well when nearby paper birch saplings were removed, Simard discovered a symbiotic relationship: When the firs are under more shade in summer, birches send them carbon. And when the birches lose their leaves in the cold season, firs return the favor.
Such transfers are made through a buried superhighway of fungi that penetrate tree roots and send their mycelia—long, delicate white filaments—on an exploration into the soil. In exchange for sugars from the tree, these fungi find nutrients and water in places where tree roots can’t reach. They also link into a vast network that connects organisms across the forest.
“A forest is a cooperative system,” Simard told Yale Environment 360, “and if it were all about competition, then it would be a much simpler place.”
At the HSUS, we had our own kinds of mother trees, people of exceptional kindness and talent who shared their wisdom and light with those who needed it most. And like the trees in Wohlleben’s forest, we were bereft when they left. But my bosses saw it differently, with one admonishing us after a particularly painful departure that “everyone is replaceable.”
A recent Facebook debate reminded me of that attitude, only this time the discussion wasn’t about people. A friend expressed sadness over the tragic removal of an old tree, and a commenter quickly took her to task. A tragedy, he wrote, is when your child dies in a car accident, or when a combine lops off a farmer’s arms, or when a mother dies after giving birth: “You can’t grow that child or those arms or that mother back again … You can grow another tree.”
The implication was that one tree is the same as the next, easy to take out or plop in with no regard for the individual. But trees might beg to differ. When Wohlleben found what looked like a circle of stones in the forest, he was astounded to discover upon closer inspection that the “stones” were actually the perimeter of the remains of an ancient tree, still green beneath their bark and still very much alive. The stump may not have had any leaves to produce chlorophyll, but she was relying on something equally important: sugary gifts from friends and relatives who’d been nourishing her for centuries.
No stumps will be left in the barren ground behind the HSUS building, where birds and raccoons and opossums used to live. Deer have been wandering in confusion on the dusty land, a haunting scene recalling two of my favorite Mutts cartoons I saved from the Washington Post years ago. Depicting a doe standing among bulldozers, the strips were eerily prescient, especially because they’d been penned by Mutts creator Patrick McDonnell, who resigned in protest from the HSUS board after its initial vote to retain the CEO two weeks ago.
“I need help,” the doe pleads. “I see you can build big malls, huge mansions, giant office buildings … Can someone please build me a forest?”
When I left in 2014, I felt like a tree cut off from its network. The HSUS ecosystem was in trouble, and like a plant under attack by pathogens or power equipment, I conveyed plenty of warning signals to my managers and colleagues about what might come next. Eventually the lack of response became too painful, and I uprooted myself and moved on.
The trees behind the HSUS building didn’t have that opportunity to migrate, and now all the possibilities for regeneration—the seeds and roots and rhizomes—will be entombed under asphalt. In ecology, as in psychology, resilience is defined as the ability to withstand and overcome stressors and bounce back. But there is a threshold. Sometimes the disturbance is too great, the system too broken, the soil scraped too far down, the plants too hemmed in by concrete and asphalt and—especially in suburban areas where nature hovers uncertainly among people who take it for granted—profound neglect. If there is any hope of replacing what’s been lost, both in that HSUS patch and across our broader landscapes, we will all need to answer the pleas of Patrick McDonnell’s doe by building her many new forests.
But we need to do something else, too, as planting anew isn’t always the answer. Too often in modern society, we conclude that the only way to create a thriving landscape is to bring in fresh soil, new plants, and other expensive amendments from the garden center. In my work as a wildlife habitat consultant, I advocate for nurturing what’s already there, encouraging people to focus first on the gifts that nature brings in on her own—the trees and wildflowers carried in by birds and squirrels and wind.
I think of it as looking for the “bright spots” and building upon them—an approach outlined in Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. “To pursue bright spots is to ask the question ‘What’s working, and how can we do more of it?’ ” write the Heath brothers. “Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Yet, in the real world, this obvious question is almost never asked. Instead, the question we ask is more problem focused: ‘What’s broken, and how do we fix it?’ ”
At The HSUS, a lot was working, and a lot still is. Many of the results make the news: the dogs saved from the meat trade in South Korea, the fight to ban elephant trophy imports, the companies selling more humanely produced food, the hands-on care provided for chimpanzees who would otherwise have died in an abandoned research facility. But what’s less known is that behind the scenes are hundreds of employees, along with thousands of volunteer advocates, dedicating countless hours to making the world a better place for animals of all kinds. They are the bright spots.
Whether they’ll be nurtured and recognized now remains to be seen. A new interim CEO, a professional, smart and compassionate woman with years of experience and her own tales of sexual harassment to tell, is at the helm. But it’ll take a lot more than one person to heal a deeply wounded culture. It will take a whole forest of people.
The evolving leadership would be wise to engage them in nurturing a new actual forest outside the building as well, a space where people and animals can gather. My colleagues and I once found peace in those old woods, and it’s no wonder why; the evidence is abundantly clear that exposure to trees and birds and fresh air is essential to our spirits. Often the well-being of trees is inextricably linked to their relationships with us, too, as David George Haskell writes in The Songs of Trees:
Survival increases when saplings are embedded within the human social network. A tree planted by its human neighbors will live longer than one placed by an anonymous contractor. When a tree bears a tag naming it and listing its needs—water, mulch, loose soil, no litter—its probability of survival jumps to nearly 100 percent. A street tree that is granted personhood and membership, one that is noticed, loved, and given identity and history, lives longer than a municipal object, arriving with no context and living with no collaborators.
Like the trees, the people of the HSUS would also thrive under such care. They deserve to be noticed, their voices heard and their histories acknowledged. Adding more superstars—or holding up a few people as more important than the rest—is not the answer. Instead, the new leaders should base their approach on the mutualism of the forest, nurturing the immense talent that’s already there. They should identify the “bright spots” and recognize the contributions of each individual to the health of the whole organization: the mother trees with links to vast networks, the quieter trees struggling along in the shade, the saplings just waiting for a little light to come through the canopy so they can grow—as Wohlleben wrote—into the best trees they can be.
Photos by Nancy Lawson/Humane Gardener