Tag Archives: forests

The Hidden Life of Trees

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret WorldThe Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben

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.

Remarkable Trees of the World

Remarkable Trees of the WorldRemarkable Trees of the World by Thomas Pakenham

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a book of postcards. It’s not in actuality a book of physical postcards (though that might be a fantastic manifestation of this work). But that’s what it feels like: amazing images with just enough explicatory prose to whet one’s appetite. Pakenham traveled the world photographing the most remarkable trees from Asia, North America, Africa, Australia, and Europe. Unfortunately, he did not write a book about it. He published a book of postcards instead. Gorgeous postcards, in a huge, hardcover coffee table book. But postcards, nonetheless.

Remarkable Trees of the World is a follow-up to Pakenham’s earlier work that featured sixty remarkable living trees found throughout Britain and Ireland. I’m still very interested in reading that book. Perhaps a constrained focus on the lingering leviathans of one particular corner of the world would allow Pakenham to go deeper than he does in this work.

The trees here are indeed remarkable. There are again sixty, divided into delightfully non-botanical categories such as Giants, Dwarfs, Methuselahs, and Dreams. Usually one particular tree of either aesthetic or historic significance is featured for each entry—such as the grove of oldest trees in the world, the largest living tree in the world, or a tree said to have been grown from a cutting of the original tree under which the Buddha obtained enlightenment. Others are simply examples of broader categories: particularly impressive baobabs, for instance, or Australian mountain ash or examples of bonsai. Any one of the sixty trees Pakenham examines would be worth at least a chapter on its own. Many certainly merit a book in their own right.

But their stories aren’t to be found here. Pakenham’s book is a beautiful work that gives hints and glimmers of the breathtaking scope of these specimens. We get a glimpse of their physical forms through Pakenham’s excellent photographs, and we get a brief taste of the legends or histories that have grown up around them in his brief prose. Pakenham admittedly shies away from any extensive botanical explication, though the book is not the worse for it.

Ironically though, reading the work feels like a whirlwind tour of those organisms that most embody place, fixity, and rootedness. Maybe I simply read it too fast (though you’re driven to turn the page to catch sight of the next forest giant). I felt I was racing through a forest when I should have been lingering in a garden.

If you are passionate about trees, this book is worth your time for the images alone. You’ve probably read about some of these specimens before, but you’ve never seen them through the thoughtful and elegant eye of Pakenham’s camera. Their stories aren’t here though. Here are frightening, awe-inspiring, and terribly pleasing glimpses alone.