How Rudolf Steiner’s Agriculture Lectures can help us see the forest for the trees

This article was submitted for publication in the 2019 Stella Natura calendar. I encourage you to purchase a calendar (or two) to support the great things going on at Camphill Village Kimberton Hills.

Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another.  John Muir

Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.   John Muir

Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky.   Kahlil Gibran

I’m an arborist. Upon meeting people familiar with anthroposophy or biodynamic agriculture, the conversations often follows a familiar pattern. “So, you must find Rudolf Steiner’s description of a tree especially interesting,” they’ll say, referencing his eight-part lecture series on agriculture. Almost as an aside, Steiner offers a perspective on trees rather radical for his time in 1924. Placing spirituality aside, a reading of Steiner’s lectures today continues to provide a unique and refreshing understanding of Earth’s largest and oldest life forms – trees.

There are as many approaches available to the reader to study Steiner’s agriculture lectures as there are people with different life experiences. Perhaps as a result of spending most of my adult life teaching science, my approach has been to identify patterns and mechanisms which underlie natural phenomena. Although the focus of this article is on advancements in the physical realm of tree biology, for the author feels he still has much to learn about the spiritual realm of trees, the information should help both the novice and more seasoned readers of Steiner gain new insight into his descriptions of both physical and spiritual processes at work in trees.

Scientists, today and in the past, wrestle with a working definition of a “tree” that distinguishes it from other members of the plant kingdom. Biology textbook and dictionary definitions vaguely describe “a woody plant that’s perennial” but differ with respect to their confidence on height, number of trunks, distribution of branches, and other characteristics that vary considerably among trees. When presented with exceptions to dogmatic definitions, experts revert to the “I know it when I see it,” argument. Perhaps the problem with defining a tree is that a single tree, like a single bee or a single ant, doesn’t represent the larger and more complex life form – the forest as a superorganism. If trees are a subunit of a larger whole, where do “trees” end and other lifeforms begin? Steiner doesn’t attempt to craft a succinct textbook definition of a tree, but he does describe an organism physically and cosmically intertwined with other life forms. Perhaps it’s time to tug at the veils of our limited physical understanding of trees and consider what Steiner proposed about trees “fitting” into a larger organism, in his case, a farm. This article will consider two concepts introduced by Steiner: interconnectedness of trees to their soil environment, and the tree consisting of herbaceous plants “rooted” to the branches and trunk of a tree.

Steiner set out in his fourth lecture to explain the importance of having an expanded awareness of subtle interactions of unseen substances, forces, and spirits to better manage one’s farm. Steiner used an example of a tree, an often overlooked fixture in the landscape, to illustrate how one’s preconceived ideas stifle further exploration that may generate new insights and a deeper understanding of the trees’ true essence. By questioning a division between the bark of a tree and organic matter in the soil as two separate entities, Steiner challenges the reader’s perception of boundaries between living and non-living. Although Steiner uses etheric vitality as the thread to connect the bark of a tree with organic matter in soil, one could just as easily use the soil life around the root surface, in the physical realm, and achieve the desired outcome – an understanding that the tree is such an integral part of the greater whole that seeing a tree as a single organism limits one’s ability to understand the bigger picture.

One is not considered a radical today when recognizing soil to be a living organism. Steiner said as much in 1924, “the soil surrounding the growing plants’ roots is a living entity with a vegetative life of its own, a kind of extension of plant growth into the Earth.”1 Recognition of living soil is embraced and practiced by individuals today disillusioned by industrial agriculture’s approach to growing food. Increasingly people are referring to soil “health” instead of soil quality and mindful of practices that impair their farm and garden’s soil health. Organic and biodynamic growers often have a better understanding of living organisms in soil and speak in terms of feeding the soil with compost, instead of feeding the plant with chemical fertilizers.

Focusing specifically on the interface between the plant’s root and the surrounding soil, Steiner continues, “It is not at all true that life stops at the plant’s perimeter. Life as such continues on, namely from the roots of the plant into the soil, and for many plants there is no sharp dividing line between the life inside them and the life in their surroundings.”1  Soil scientists have long known that unusually high populations of microorganisms exist in a zone approximately 2 mm around the surface of plant roots known as the rhizosphere. Plant roots secrete a variety of compounds to manipulate chemical and physical soil properties to attract beneficial microbes, even jettisoning actively secreting living cells into the rhizosphere which remain alive for several days. Recent discoveries show that plant roots and soil microorganisms disregard artificial boundaries to form a seamless transition of plant-microbe life within, and beyond, the rhizosphere. Select soil microorganisms, loosely called endophytes, can enter root tissues and improve a plant’s ability to tolerate drought, acquire nutrients, and resist insect and disease damage. Beneficial bacteria which adhere to up to 40% of the root surface are involved in relationships with organisms as far out into the soil as the food web extends. Indeed, we now have a greater appreciation of how a bird, perched on a tree’s limb, can fly down to the ground, pluck up an earthworm, and tug on the strings of a resilient soil food web, ultimately modulating populations of bacteria adhering to the surface of that tree’s root.

Although not well understood in 1924, today soil biologists recognize the importance of the life that occurs within, on, and near plants’ roots, so much so that the rhizosphere has been called the most biodiverse and dynamic habitat on Earth.

 

A Canopy Rooted in the Crown

Just as there is no clear boundary between a tree’s root and living soil, likewise there’s no clear boundary between a tree’s twig and its parent branch, that branch and the trunk, and the trunk and root system. Iterative growth occurs throughout the tree, resulting in a continuation from the smallest of branches, to the smallest of roots. True, there are some anatomical and physiological characteristics unique to a branch as compared to a root, but the appearance and function are very similar and lack a feature delineating a boundary. This uniform development emerges from the action of a relatively small number of cells whose growth (cell division and elongation) and differentiation produce the more specialized tissues that make up the tree.

In temperate regions, most trees grow in a pattern alternating between increasing in length and width, primary and secondary growth respectively. Primary growth, in the above-ground shoot system, occurs when buds grow into young green shoots with leaves, flowers and fruits. [A similar mechanism occurs below ground in the root system producing fine absorbing roots.] The most notable effect of primary growth is the elongation of branches and roots. Secondary growth, in the above ground shoot system, occurs when a thin layer of cells within the vascular tissue, the cambium, undergoes growth and differentiates into a new layer of xylem and phloem. Xylem is the water and mineral conducting tissue composing the wood or central bole of the tree, while phloem is the specialized tissue actively pumping sugars throughout the tree located just under the tree’s bark. It’s the action of the cambium, situated between the xylem and phloem, that produces the most notable effect of secondary growth, the addition of an annual ring of new wood on the tree’s trunk and branches with a resulting increase in diameter. For the purpose of this article, the canopy of the tree will refer to new shoots with leaves, flowers and fruits produced by primary growth, while crown will refer to the trunk and branches produced by secondary growth. At first glance, a tree appears to be a simple organism that results from the iterative growth just described; however, the areas of the tree produced by primary growth that interface with the atmosphere/sunlight and the soil environment parallel sense organs in an animal extending out in both directions from the more inert woody portion of the tree.

In lecture 7, Steiner continues his unconventional view of a tree by suggesting the canopy of a tree, defined here as the products of primary growth, is similar to herbaceous plants “rooted in the twigs and branches of the tree, just as other plants are rooted in the Earth.”1  Steiner addresses the obvious confusion of his statement by acknowledging that physically there are no roots where the canopy is fixed to the crown observable by “coarse outer perception.”  He states the canopy has lost its roots and remain in contact with the tree’s root system etherically. Is it possible that even with “coarse outer perception” one can view the tree’s crown as capable of serving root-like functions?

A tree’s root system performs a variety of functions, five of the most recognizable being: absorption of water and nutrients; storage of starch; conduction of water, nutrients and sugars; structural stability; and production of hormones. Of the five functions, two, absorption of water and minerals and production of hormones, are primarily performed at the very ends of the root which may be considered a recent result of primary growth, not the secondary growth that produced woody tissue referred to as “root” and “crown” in this article. It’s interesting to note that the leaves, products of primary growth, also function in absorption (carbon dioxide) and, along with buds, production of hormones, the most obvious being the hormone auxin which stimulates the primary growth of roots.

The three remaining functions of the root are just as easily fulfilled by the trunk and branches of the tree. In other words, with respect to conduction, storage, and structural stability, one would be hard pressed to distinguish where the root ends and the trunk and branches begin. The vascular tissue is seamlessly linked from the roots through the trunk and branches of the tree’s crown. Like the roots, the trunk and branches are capable of storing starch, the preferred long term storage form of sugar. All parts of the tree modulate their growth to improve structural stability to remain intact in response to loads, such as gravity and wind. Through primary and secondary growth, the tree adjusts the number and orientation of roots, trunk and branches, including load-bearing components of cell walls, to optimize the tree’s ability to withstand loading events.

To gain a more holistic perspective of trees, follow the movement of sugar, not just within a single tree, but as it courses through an entire forest. Within a tree, sugars move from where they’re stored, or produced, to where they are being utilized. This network of sharing selflessly extends to other trees and soil organisms. Sharing of sugar with other trees may not make sense when viewed from a single tree’s perspective, but from a forest’s perspective, this collectivistic practice creates a complex and redundant network that results in a more resilient organism. Interconnectivity among trees in a forest has lead some to marvel at the similarities between the World Wide Web with the forest’s Wood Wide Web.

What makes trees one of Earth’s largest and oldest organisms is a single male quaking aspen tree that has become an entire forest in central Utah. The Pando forest measures over 100 acres and consists of a “tree” that has cloned itself by repeatedly growing over 40,000 trunks from its spreading root system.  No doubt Rudolf Steiner would see the humor in experts stumbling on the terms “tree,” “trees,” and “forest,” trying to define this organism with its canopy “rooted” in the branches and trunks, which are in turn, “rooted” in a massive root system.

So in response to inquiries about whether I find Rudolf Steiner’s description of trees interesting, I reply, “Yes!” Judging by the startled expressions on the faces of the inquirers, it appears my response is more than enthusiastic!

1 Steiner, Rudolf. Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture. Translation by C. Creeger and M. Gardner. 1993. Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association. Kimberton, PA.

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