If trees could speak, what might they say? I’ve written stories about this. I’ve grown up in their company, with a forest stretching out behind my home that I’ve still never fully explored. I speculate on what the trees might say, but Peter Wohlleben, a German forester turned conservationist, insists in the doubly subtitled The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World, that they most certainly are talking. Primary to this argument is the discovery that seems expected and unsurprising if you grew up watching movies like Ferngully or reading fairy tales: that trees, of all species, in a healthy forest are connected, that they work together as a linked super-organism, and that they together contribute to the overall health of the forest in a way greater than the sum of its parts.
Of course, today we would want to understand a mechanism for such a claim, and Wohlleben (“good life” in German) provides one from recent studies. Beneath the ground, the roots of trees are connected in a vast fungal network that allows them to share resources and pass chemical signals (in other words, communicate). Unfortunately, scientists can’t resist the parallels and insist on calling this the “wood wide web.” Awfulness of that label aside, the observed implications are remarkable: trees between different species can share resources, they can pass messages, and older trees can even “teach” younger trees. All of this, Wohlleben argues, is part of how the forest survives and flourishes.
This form of connectivity is central to Wohlleben’s book, though the book does not focus exclusively on this topic. The work is a series of short chapters that offer vignettes on different aspects of the forest. But though they don’t all treat the nature of the “wood wide web” (ugh), they all do emphasize the connectedness of the forest, for instance how it moderates temperature by creating a microclimate or tempers the wind velocity of storms, how it collectively adds to soil health or controls pests. Wohlleben brings a keen eye for detail in his descriptions of the traits and growth patterns of species in his old-growth European forests, where he worked first evaluating forests as economic resources as a forester and now views them through the lens of conservation.
I think our descendants will rightly think us idiots for the assumption that organisms are isolates, that they can be conceptually reduced to living machines that operate more or less individually. It’s the assumption that you could plant an oak alongside a city sidewalk and expect it would grow into the same organism that it would in a forest. People, animals, plants—I think our descendants will chide us for approaching these things as individuals first and only secondly in respect of the systems in which they are a part of, instead of starting the other way around.
This is what Wohlleben does in his book of rather (pleasantly) scattered information and anecdotes: see the forest first, as an integrated system, and only secondly analyze the trees within it. As just one example of this, he talks about the development of trees inside and outside a forest. Inside a forest, they grow slowly, shielded, sometimes nurtured, sometimes stunted by the shade of their parents, maturing gradually over several decades before they reach the crown and have a chance at gathering large amounts of light. Yet this slow growth, regulated by the forest, Wohlleben argues, is essential for ensuring that the tree will have a long and healthy life.
In contrast, “street kids,” as Wohlleben refers to trees planted outside of forests, for example along streets in cities or suburbs, grow too fast for their long term health. More than this though, they grow outside the networks that connect trees in a forest. They don’t have the same support structure or learn the same chemical codes. They are deaf and dumb. Plantations and nursery trees are like this as well, Wohlleben claims. They are orphans, not knowing how to live or speak in community with other trees.
Wohlleben, moving from forestry to conservationism, makes a case for a radically different way of managing and harvesting forests, but more than this, for the lay reader he makes a strong case for conceptualizing the forest in a different way, for seeing it as an entity with cooperative connections, both beneath the ground in ways outside our perception that science is only now bringing to view, but also by highlighting simple things anyone can see in the forest if brought to attention by a careful and watchful eye.