A Game of Give and Take

What Canopy Shyness Can Teach Us About Respect and Freedom

A Game of Give and Take
Illustration from Be a Tree! by Maria Gianferrari

I recently learned about a phenomenon that occurs in nature and that offers an interesting point of view to a dynamic we can find in our social relationships.

In some tree species, we can observe something called canopy shyness —or crown shyness or canopy disengagement. Forests grow and grow without the trees' canopy ever touching each other, leaving a visible network of gaps neatly separating their silhouettes.

As soon as I saw a picture of it, I immediately thought of this expression we have in French and that my mom repeated to us growing up quite often; "La liberté des uns s’arrête à la liberté des autres." I’m not sure there’s a proper English version for it but it translates to "One’s personal freedom ends where another's begins". Which, in the way I was raised, means you can do whatever you want unless it prevents others from doing whatever they want or being happy about or comfortable in a situation. Still today, to me, this rings true and is the simplest form of explanation for concepts like respect, consent, safe space and trust. It taught us self-control, moderation and empathy in that it made us consider the other’s perspective in a situation.

I find it fascinating that a similar dynamic can be observed in trees. Of course, it’s probably simply a result of evolution, and something they had to develop to prevent the spread nefarious insects or something like that. But still. I find it beautiful that when you look up (I still haven’t witnessed this in person, but now it’s definitely on my forest-bathing bucket list) you can notice each tree’s individual entity, the shape it creates, the space it takes up, where it tried to push into the neighbouring tree’s canopy, where it showed restraint and let go of the battle a little bit.

I also love that it’s observable in the crown of the tree, its proud cloud of healthy green leaves, its flamboyant most visible attribute, and that that’s where the negotiating takes part. A bit like us humans, our freedom is this precious and crucial dimension of our lives that we take very seriously. And when it collides with another person’s freedom, that's why pride comes into play. Then it’s crown against crown. Ego against ego. I love that parallel.

Just as for trees, negotiating social life with others is a constant back and forth of "can I take more?", "is this enough?", "was I too much?", a constant dialogue in order to share life more equitably.