What if you could listen to your neighborhood like scientists listen to trees?

Take a walk through a forest and it seems the trees stand still like silent sentinels .

A tree is the ultimate individualist, right? Each one appears totally independent of the others.

That is, until you realize that trees talk to each other.

Yep. They talk to each other. Underground!

Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver did experiments that proved that trees pass information between themselves in a silent underground network. And not just between members of the same species. She found that Douglas fir and paper birch trees can transfer information across species’ lines.

It’s all a bit technical and sciencey, as she explains here, but, bottom line, she found the underground life of trees is alive with the transfer of information.

Basically their root systems can transfer stuff like carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus via something called mycelia.

What’s mycelia, you ask? Well, it’s all a bit technical and sciencey, but essentially it’s fungus. Fungal bodies are made up of a mass of thin threads, known as a mycelium. These threads act as a kind of underground internet, linking the roots of different plants, and passing nutrients and elements between them. 

If you cover one tree in a forest with a huge plastic bag, like Suzanne Simard did, and pump it full of radioactive gas, like Suzanne Simard did, you will find that radioactivity occurs in the other trees in the forest. It was passed underground, via their roots systems and the mycelia. 

So that tree in your garden is probably talking to the bush under your bedroom window right now.

Why is this cool?  Because neighborhoods, towns and villages are like this too.


Take a walk through a new neighborhood and it looks like everyone keeps to themselves. They drive into their garages and keep their front doors closed. They shop silently in local stores. They jog by each other without any acknowledgement. At first glance they can look like forests of silent trees. They occupy similar space, but they have little or no connection.

But what if we thought of neighborhoods like forests? What if we assumed that there’s so much more going on under the surface than meets the eye? Maybe the neighborhood you think is silent is in fact communicating underground through the various webs and networks of conversation and social and commercial interaction that are invisible to the casual observer. 

If scientists can learn to listen to trees, missional church leaders can surely learn to listen to their neighborhood.


The problem is too many church leaders are only casual observers when it comes to their neighborhoods. In my forthcoming book with Christiana Rice, To Alter Your World, we explore ways you can listen to your neighbors. It involves digging deep into the soil, and listening long and hard to what’s going on underneath the surface in your neighborhood. 

It involves learning to read the kinds of social interactions people have, the ways they connect, the causes they’re concerned about, the forums they’ve developed. It involves reading how space is used. And how the built environment shapes communication. It involves learning the history of a place and understanding cultural and generational precedents.

Its actually a bit technical and sciencey, but I think it’s essential work for any missional leader. In future blog posts I’m going to unpack how to listen to your neighborhood like scientists listen to trees. So grab your lab coat. There’s work to be done.    



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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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7 thoughts on “What if you could listen to your neighborhood like scientists listen to trees?

  1. Mike, I am so excited. This fits with how my husband and I long to connect with our church neighbourhood – a suburb that many have written off as “too hard and tough” to love. Looking forward so much to your next posts!!

  2. Looking forward to the book !

  3. Are we allowed cover certain areas of the neighbourhood with plastic bags and pump them full of radioactive gas too? 🙂 Joking.

    It’s interesting – Jesus’ parables and stories are full of references to agriculture, along with his obvious penchant for using the shared table & food as place to build social connection. It’s a point largely missed in our culture that is so separated from any connection to the earth (the soil, forests, food production etc). After getting more in touch with the soil through growing food, the idea that trees/plants talk to each other seems completely normal and unsurprising – you should see what goes on a teaspoon of healthy soil!

    If missional thinkers could begin to see food and “eating as an agricultural act”, which then directs them to the earth and a deeper connection to their neighbourhoods, I reckon we’d start seeing these possibilities everywhere – and Jesus’ words might become imbued with even deeper meaning.

    1. Great thought.

  4. While not using that technical and sciencey metaphor that is what I have been doing for the last fifteen odd years. It’s all true and it works. Although the outcomes are not what I had expected in terms of articulated belief and church attendance. It’s way more underground that church-as-we’ve-always-done-it!

    I look forward to the book.

    1. So pleased to hear that. Keep at it, bro. We were born for this.

  5. Super keen for the new book. Bring it on.

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