by Tammy Cloutier
Editor, “About Time,” Whole Terrain
Social beings with roots that crackle and individuals that scream: not the typical phrases that come to mind when one thinks of trees. Is author Peter Wohlleben writing a horror story? No. Rather, Wohlleben invites and challenges readers to explore a new perspective on the lives of trees. In the New York Times bestseller, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World (2016, Greystone Books), Wohlleben sheds light on what really happens in a forest, why a healthy forest benefits all of us, and why we should care.
As a forester in Germany with over twenty years of experience, Wohlleben is no stranger to trees. However, due to his experience with the forestry commission, his view of trees had narrowed to seeing them as a commodity: the value of a tree was based simply on its quality and/or age. But his eyes were opened when he entered a new line of work that involved sharing the forest with, and educating others about, the secrets he discovered. Those experiences allowed him to view a landscape that was familiar to him in an unexpected way. He began to notice shapes and patterns among the forest rather than seeing trees as objects to manage.
The result of Wohlleben’s experience in management and conservation is an informative book that is accessible to both professionals and non-professionals. Although lumber management is referenced, the focus is on aspects that do not have commercial value, yet are still vitally important to all of us, directly or indirectly. Readers catch a glimpse into the lives of trees at levels people are not always privy to such as what happens in the roots beneath the soil we tread on or in the canopies that soar above our heads. Chapters with titles such as “Friendships,” “Slowly Does It,” and “Hibernation” hint at what to expect, and simple illustrations highlight the beauty of various tree species. Could it be that humans have more in common with trees than we realize?
What really happens in a forest?
Wohlleben touches on tree communication. Despite not speaking a language that humans may readily identify, a tree’s roots act as a “brain-like structure” (83), and are in charge of chemical activity. These chemicals allow communication within the tree itself and among its neighbors, with the assistance of helpers such as fungi. Sharing water and nutrients with others of the same species in times of need is not uncommon for some trees, and they are able to differentiate between roots of the same or different species. They are also able to produce different defense compounds for different types of “attacks,” or even coordinate reproduction through the use of what Wohlleben refers to as the “wood wide web” (11).
As a way of understanding and connecting with the world, human beings anthropomorphize animals. Can we do the same for trees? It may be a stretch for some to believe that “trees experience pain and have memories and … tree parents live together with their children” (xiv). Wohlleben explains that electrical signals are generated when tree tissue is damaged, similar to human tissue upon injury, albeit at a much slower rate. The saying, “the apple doesn’t fall from the tree” may be accurate for some tree species: parent trees provide protection and nutrients to the “children” that sprout around them.
Despite the description Dr. Suzanne Simard from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver offers about the sensitive side of trees—“…gentile sessile creatures – the braiding of roots,…wrinkling of tree skin…” (249)—there is a dark side. Competition with other tree species, invertebrates, fungi, birds, and other living things can weaken or destroy trees throughout their long lives. It is no easy feat to live to be hundreds of years old!
Why a healthy forest benefits all of us
In addition to sequestering carbon and releasing oxygen, trees offer a multitude of benefits for the planet that include erosion prevention, shade, maintaining the water cycle, and providing habitat, food, and lumber, to name a few. As Wohlleben reminds readers, a “healthy forest is a more productive, and therefore, more profitable, forest” (xv). For example, one 1600 year old tree was home to over 2000 individuals belonging to 257 different species!
Higher species diversity can assist with maintaining healthy ecosystems. When ecosystems function as they should, humans benefit even though many may not be aware of it. Healthy soils store and process vital nutrients that sustain a variety of life forms people use for food, shelter, medicines, and so forth. Studies have also indicated that walking through forests can decrease people’s blood pressure. By decreasing or eliminating the diversity of forests, and creating monocultures (as people tend to do in our current context), benefits are lost and susceptibility to disease, damage, and fires increase.
Why we should care
Trees survived for millennia before human beings arrived, and perhaps one can assume they will always be there, but they are facing new challenges. “Managed” forests may offer hope, but trees that have been altered or damaged (such as those in nurseries) for human purposes do not network as well, or live as long, as their “wild” relatives. They are generally harvested at around 100 years, a fairly young age considering some species live to be hundreds or thousands of years old. Urban trees are unable to offer the services they would typically provide, either. They have limited space to grow and have to contend with exhaust fumes, dry air, fertilizers, and other toxins, usually leading to premature deaths.
Climate change has both known and unknown consequences, but older trees may be able to assist in mitigating its impact if given the chance. Older trees act as filters, umbrellas, and dams, provide temperature regulation, and even support the base of the food chain. (Who knew?)
Through facts and storytelling, Wohlleben encourages readers to be open to learning more about trees, or at the very least, appreciate what they do. He encourages respect without coming across as sentimental, despite referring to trees using phrases such as “emotional lives” and “unnecessary suffering.”
Readers are left with a reminder that “the forest is constantly changing. And not just the forest – all of Nature. And that’s why many human attempts to conserve particular landscapes fail. What we see is always a brief snapshot of a landscape that only seems to be standing still” (211).
As for the “crackling” roots and “screaming” trees mentioned at the beginning of this review, well, you are invited to discover the story for yourself, or perhaps you have already heard it in a forest of your own.