Posted on 14 January 2021

The hidden life of trees

The book

The Hidden Life of Trees [1]; what they feel, how they communicate, how they communicate, discoveries from a secret world.  

The author

Peter Wohlleben (1964) studied forestry and worked for more than twenty years at forest management in the Rhineland. During his work and life he has slowly started to look at forest and nature differently. After he resigned in 2006, he became a forest ranger in the Eifel and wrote several books. The secret life of trees was his (international) breakthrough in 2016.

Introduction

When I began my professional career as a forester, I knew about as much about the hidden life of trees as a butcher knows about the emotional life of animals. The modern forestry industry produces lumber. That is to say, it fells trees and then plants new seedlings. If you read the professional literature, you quickly get the impression that the well-being of the forest is only of interest insofar as it is necessary for optimizing the lumber industry. That is enough for what foresters do day to day, and eventually it distorts the way they look at trees. Because it was my job to look at hundreds of trees every day—spruce, beeches, oaks, and pines—to assess their suitability for the lumber mill and their market value, my appreciation of trees was also restricted to this narrow point of view. About twenty years ago, I began to organize survival training and log-cabin tours for tourists. (…) In conversations with the many visitors who came, my view of the hidden life of trees the forest changed once again. Visitors were enchanted by crooked, gnarled trees I would previously have dismissed because of their low commercial value. Walking with my visitors, I learned to pay attention to more than just the quality of the trees’ trunks. I began to notice bizarre root shapes, peculiar growth patterns, and mossy cushions on bark. (…) Suddenly, I was aware of countless wonders I could hardly explain even to myself. (…) I invite you to share with me the joy trees can bring us. And, who knows, perhaps on your next walk in the forest, you will discover for yourself wonders great and small.

Reasons not to read this book

Even if you love nature, you may have to persevere to keep reading. The chapters sometimes seem a bit separate from each other and although you learn a lot, after half a book you cannot retell much. Perhaps an overarching story or structure would make the book better, something to read through. Perhaps Wohlleben still writes a bit dry in this book; in his last book, The Heartbeat of Trees[2], that is somewhat less the case.

Reasons to read this book

If you like nature, especially trees and forest, this book has a lot to offer; be prepared to marvel at the wonder of nature. One of the book's strongest points is that the writer takes us into the infinite complexity of life. How trees coexist with and depend on large and small life around them, how ingeniously everything is put together and connected. In this way we learn everything about busy soil life, about the slow growth of trees and about the minimal chance of an acorn to become a mature oak. And how birds and other animals live together with trees, or make life miserable and difficult for them. He indicates with examples that a planted forest, like almost all forest in Europe, even if it is a hundred years old, has not yet acquired the necessary complex cohesion with everything that lives, as is the case in a primeval forest. Much of what Wohlleben wants to convey to us about the miracle of the trees and the forest comes "simply" from scientific publications. It's amazing how much science has been able to prove and it's strange that if you didn't read this book, you'd hear so little about it. What I found special to read is how trees communicate with each other through their extensive, very fine root system and how fungi can also act as a kind of mediator in this. Think of it as a kind of internet of trees among themselves. If one tree suffers from a pest, nearby trees are "warned", so that they can immediately produce antibodies or an unpleasant taste that makes the specific insect causing the pest no longer like the leaves. Wohlleben wants to stimulate us to be touched by the wonder of nature. Sometimes for that he also takes us on a trip to something that has not been scientifically proven and makes it more philosophical. And actually that may feel natural… not just approaching the wonder of nature from science.

Notable passage

Can plants think? Are they intelligent? (…) When a root feels its way forward in the ground, it is aware of stimuli. The researchers measured electrical signals that led to changes in behavior after they were processed in a “transition zone.” If the root encounters toxic substances, impenetrable stones, or saturated soil, it analyzes the situation and transmits the necessary adjustments to the growing tip. The root tip changes direction as a result of this communication and steers the growing root around the critical areas. Right now, the majority of plant researchers are skeptical about whether such behavior points to a repository for intelligence, the faculty of memory, and emotions. Among other things, they get worked up about carrying over findings in similar situations with animals and, at the end of the day, about how this threatens to blur the boundary between plants and animals. And so what? What would be so awful about that? The distinction between plant and animal is, after all, arbitrary and depends on the way an organism feeds itself: the former photosynthesizes and the latter eats other living beings. Finally, the only other big difference is in the amount of time it takes to process information and translate it into action. Does that mean that beings that live life in the slow lane are automatically worth less than ones on the fast track? Sometimes I suspect we would pay more attention to trees and other vegetation if we could establish beyond a doubt just how similar they are in many ways to animals.’(pages 83–84)

 

Ansfrida Vreeburg

 


[1] Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, Discoveries from a Secret World, Harper Collins UK, 2017

[2] Peter Wohlleben, The Heartbeat of Trees: Embracing Our Ancient Bond with Forests and Nature, Greystone Books, 2021


    See all news