In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Ecological Network Aesthetics and the Wood Wide Web
  • Shouhei Tanaka (bio)

In 1997, a team of forest ecologists led by SUZANNE W. SIMARD announced a startling discovery in the scientific journal Nature: the existence of intricate underground mycorrhizal networks, otherwise known as fungal networks, that interlink trees via their roots and traffic resources within a "tightly linked plant-fungus-soil system."1 Later studies further revealed that trees transmitted electrical impulses and airborne compounds to communicate changes in nearby environments. Trees, as SIMARD herself explained, had their own "busy, cooperative Internet" and "were communicating through the web."2 With the publication of PETER WOHLLEBEN'S Das geheime Leben der Bäume ( The Hidden Life of Trees, 2015) and other popular contemporary botany works, the mycorrhizal network officially entered the public imagination under its colloquial name: the wood wide web. No longer inert, individual organisms, trees instead became networked superorganisms entangled with the biotic communities of other plants, fungi, animals, and microbes. Arboreal life suddenly resembled an information superhighway with its own colossal infrastructures of communication, exchange, and transportation. [End Page 119]

Three key themes appear in this wood wide web metaphor: first, the familiar ecological precept that plant life is enmeshed in a complex of biological networks, nested inside an intricate web of relations between micro (organism) and macro (community); second, the assertion of vegetal agencies that are often undermined or misunderstood, such that trees are now recognized as adept cognitive and communicative agents that dynamically shape the ecosystems they inhabit; finally, and most tellingly, the transposition of network metaphors derived from human information and communication technologies into botany to newly recontextualize these aforementioned points.3 Forests function like the internet, equipped with their own information infrastructures. Although not a technological network in any meaningful human sense, a forest has the analogous anatomy of one: a teeming assemblage of entities communicating and interacting within a vast, distributed web of links and nodes. As the popularity of the wood wide web metaphor makes clear, the network emerges as a key template through which our encounters and relations with trees are reimagined. Moreover, the moniker illustrates the diversity of meanings and forms that the term "network" encapsulates—its various manifestations as biological or technological, human or nonhuman, metaphorical or literal, decentralized or hierarchical—and how these configurations tender different ecological templates for apprehending plant life. How do networks generate different forms of ecological thinking about trees, and what can trees in turn teach us about network thinking? The wood wide web unsettles the boundaries between biology and technology, digitality and materiality, thereby jumbling the origins, boundaries, and power that demarcate human network cultures and more-than-human network ecologies.

This essay explores how the network has come to inflect the stories, cultures, and politics of trees in the Anthropocene. By examining the ecological network [End Page 120] aesthetics of trees in various environmental art, literature, and forestry projects, I consider how the wood wide web stages new challenges of multispecies justice and forest conservation in the age of the climate crisis. These works engage the environmental dimensions of network politics in a world increasingly characterized by the entanglement of human and nonhuman networks, unearthing speculative visions of more-than-human coalitions that are powered by a diversity of life forms, infrastructures, and systems. They explore, in short, what happens when the wood wide web meets the world wide web. This convergence of network ecologies and cultures illuminates the politics of forest conservation in the age of "network society," and shows how network imaginaries mobilize different modes of multispecies kinship traversing across biological, cultural, and technological contexts.4 By linking biology to geology and digitality to materiality across scales and species, these works explore the "planetary conjuncture" of arboreal and human histories in an epoch bolstered by technological cultures of interconnectivity, informatics, and instantaneity to imagine new multispecies network futures.5

The first part of the essay analyzes the mobilization of network tropes and technologies in recent forest conservation and management projects that exemplify the techno-utopian vision of forestry futures in the Anthropocene. These projects envision cyborg forests in which ecosystems are harnessed by various surveillance, data extraction, and mapping technologies, thereby...