Fence post or tree? A metaphor for engagement

A fence post and a tree are both anchored in the earth. But they achieve it in totally different ways. A fence post is typically made out of wood, or perhaps concrete. If it is wood, it may be chemically treated to protect it from the organisms of decay in the soil. It is held fast either by compacted earth, or concrete and sits in the earth in attempted isolation.

In contrast, here is Guy Murchie’s elegant and insightful description of a tree root.

If you are among those who think of roots as nothing but dull appendages sleeping peacefully in the stuffy dirt under a plant, you may be interested to know of their real adventures while aggressively hunting for water, air and mineral foods, which means fighting many a pitched battle against competing roots or animals, intermingled with making friendly, constructive deals with rocks, sociable moulds, worms, insects and, more and more frequently, man. At the tip of each advancing thread of root is a root cap, a sort of pointed shoe or shovel made of tough, barklike, self-lubricating stuff that the root pushes ahead of it and replaces constantly by cambium cell division inside as the outside is worn away and turned into slippery jelly by passing stones, teeth, running water or other antagonists. But the tiny root cap is only the first of several specialized parts which, working together, enable the root to steer its zigzag or spiral course, skirting serious obstacles, compromising with offensive substances, judiciously groping for grips on the more congenial rocks, secreting powerful acids to dissolve the uncongenial ones, heading generally downward in search of moisture and minerals while ever careful not to run completely out of air. (The Seven Mysteries of Life, page 46).

Morton Bay Fig (image from Land Lounge)

Extending the metaphor – extending the reach

To extend the metaphor even further, consider mycorrhiza – fungi that establish mutualistic (or symbiotic) relationships with plant roots. Their microscopic mycelia effectively extend the range of roots in their search for water and nutrients. In exchange, the host plant provides its “suppliers” the products of photosynthesis. This “shared value” relationship renders the plant more drought tolerant and disease resistant while providing the fungi with exotic foodstuffs from distant climes.

While the fence post can only support a limited load, from small beginnings the tree can grow to its genetic potential. Its engaged root system provides the platform for a stunning range of diverse and beautiful aerial structures. I am in awe of the engineering feats of trees such as the Morton Bay fig that sprout branches growing tens of metres parallel to the ground.

Many companies are in the process of transformation from the fence-post like relationship with their environment to the organic model so ably described by Guy Murchie. Walmart, for example, the target of justifiable hostility in the past, is taking herculean steps towards sustainability. It is influencing its massive supply chain to do so much better.

The parallels to be drawn from this metaphor are numerous – please share your insights.

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