“Forests hide wonders…”

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate

Discoveries from a Secret World

By Peter Wohlleben

Greystone Books, 2015

245 pages; notes, index.

This book transforms the common concept of trees as “things” into recognition of trees as beings.

Recent science has demonstrated that trees…

  • link together via underground networks;
  • feed needy members of their communities;
  • warn others of dangers (insect predators, browsing animals, lack of water);
  • protect and nurture youngsters;
  • have cooperative arrangements with other species (fungi, ants);
  • migrate to new areas that offer opportunities to flourish and increase.

Human understanding has been handicapped by the profound difference between our life span and the slow-lane experience of trees. We may hope to see 80 years, while many trees naturally live for centuries. Individual trees, such as the Great Basin bristlecone pines (California and Nevada), have lived more than 5,000 years. (The oldest known clonal tree (genetic duplicate) is named “Pando,” and constitutes a colony of quaking aspen, in Utah, that is 80,000 years old.)

Scientists are just getting around to quantifying some of the amazing qualities, functions, and feats of trees, but, of critical importance to life on Earth, are the complexities of forests, which made the world habitable for humans and other species.

For 20 years, Wohlleben explains his job focused narrowly on assessing spruce, beeches, oaks and pines for suitability for the lumber mill and market value.  Eventually, his love of nature moved him to become more observant. Then Aacchen University began to conduct research in the forest he managed, and he began to manage it differently.

“When you know that trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you no longer just chop them down and disrupt their lives with large machines.”

Wohlleben’s gentler, more natural methods resulted in a healthier, more productive, and more profitable woodland. His current employer, the community of Hummel, in the Eifel mountains of Germany, hired him to do just that. Today, he manages their forest, including stands in preserves that are left completely undisturbed. This gives me hope that greedy, short-sighted and thoughtless humans may yet get it.

This small book, written in clearly, matter of fact prose, bursts with wonders. There’s plenty of trivia you can use to impress your friends, but also, an underlying joy in the telling.

In his introduction to the English version of his book, professional forester, Peter Wohlleben uses the 20th century extirpation of Yellowstone National Park to emphasize

“how vital undisturbed forests and woodlands are to the future of our planet and how our appreciation for trees affects the way we interact with the world around us.”

You’ll never see a tree in the same way after you’ve learned the wonders of their secret world.

Resources:

Trees Do Communicate and Why It Matters for Forest Conservation, Suzanne Simard; http://specialfeature.natureconservancy.ca/content/what-the-knowledge-of-how-trees-communicate-means-for-forest-conservation

List of the Oldest Trees; Wikipedia; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_oldest_trees

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