Tag Archives: wood

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.

There Are Stories in the Wood

I’m accustomed to my wife having the grand visions for our home as far as decorating, re-decorating, renovating, re-renovating, etc. My strategy when she begins one of these projects is usually to keep my head down and stay out of the way. Of course, this is largely impossible, because her projects often involve me building something. There was the dining room table, a while back, and then the built-in bed, more recently.

Her current project has been the renovating/repurposing of our sunroom. The room has always been a bit awkward, a late 50s addition that apparently turned an external porch into a long, narrow space we never quite knew what to do with. It held a tiny desk that I used for what passed as my home workspace, as well as a piano, a couple dog kennels, and assorted randomness.

My wife’s Pinterest-inspired vision for the room was to turn it into a more functional office/study/library, and my portion of this would involve the construction of a custom desk running the length of the room. I love the idea of a mammoth desk, and the skill level didn’t seem to exceed my standard: putting large pieces of wood together in a fashion that would keep them from falling apart over extended usage.

We measured the corner where we wanted it to fit, and I got to work. I had grand ideas of getting beautiful ten-foot planks of some kind of lovely hardwood, and then I saw the prices at Lowe’s. I settled for three ten-foot pieces of regular untreated lumber, which I assume were pine but know from their labels were grown in Idaho forests.

building desk

The trick was finding three pieces that didn’t look like they had fallen off the back of the truck multiple times on the way from the sawmill. I dug through the piles until I found a few that were good on at least one side and relatively straight, and then I stared at them for ten minutes trying to figure out the math. Did I want three that were ten inches wide (which would have made the desk too wide) or three that were only eight inches wide (which would have been too narrow)?

My son, who was helping me out that day, finally sighed and said, “Dad, why don’t you just get a mix so the measurement comes out right?”

Genius. So the middle plank is an 8-inch and the outer two are 10-inchers.

stained desk

I joined them with the magic of a kreg-jig and only modest cussing (actually, it went together pretty easily) and then put 1 x 1 braces underneath and at the far lip. No fancy finishes here. This is going to be a workhorse. My wife reminded me that she wanted a hole drilled in the middle to run cords for those who don’t pen their epics in ink and blood, so I used a 2 1/4-inch hole saw inherited from my dad to make the whole thing look like a doorway for skinny giants.

My wife used witchcraft to find a stain that matched the engineered hardwood floor I installed in the room a couple weekends ago, and she filled in some of the more noticeable cracks with wood filler. On top of that went three coats of a water-based polycrylic, and then it was good to go.

finished desk

Here it is, ready for work. You can see one of the brackets that I used to mount this on the far wall lying on the floor in the middle image above. The brackets I used were probably overkill, but if you know anything about my projects you know they need to be built to withstand the hostility of four rowdy kids. There are two brackets on the far wall and one in the middle, and as you can see here the near end rests on a salvaged file cabinet that my wife painted a whimsical blue.

It’s level, it’s solid, and I have room to sprawl. I like to think that the grain of wood holds stories, maybe compounded of years of soil and sun and wind. If that’s the case, I hope some of that distills into the work I’ll be writing atop these planks.

Or at the very least that they don’t end up crushing my legs.

In Which I Build a Bed

A couple years ago I did a stupid thing. My wife asked for a dining room table for Christmas, and I built her one. She told me it would be easy. She told me she wanted a rustic farmhouse table. She told me that meant it was supposed to be kind of blocky and rough and that I didn’t have to be a great finish carpenter like my dad to make it work.

She was right.

It wasn’t incredibly easy, but it was easy enough that a guy with limited manual dexterity and some of his father’s borrowed tools could put it together over a few days in the basement and then haul it into the living room (out the back door and back in through the front because the thing was so massive) and put it together and hope to never have to move it again.

But it was a tactical error. Because now my wife seems to think I can build furniture.

I’ve held her off for quite a while. Besides some limited projects around the house, I’ve convinced her that most of what needs to be done should be done by skilled professionals or maybe doesn’t even really need to be done at all. But our youngest son had been sleeping on a mattress on the floor for over a year and it was really time to build him a bed. My wife hoped to turn the front dormer in the boys’ room into a built-in bed, and she showed me some pictures online that made me believe this might be a bit less involved than building a table.

Again, she was right.

So now I’ve built a bed. I started by measuring the dimensions of the dormer and the dimensions of the single mattress we needed to fit in there. The dormer is a bit wider than the mattress, and the mattress is a bit longer than the dormer, so the bed sticks out a bit into the room. And since we have three boys living in this room who like to jump onto and off of everything that’s higher than six inches off the floor, I knew I needed to make it sturdy. I had seen a few plans of built-in beds that were basically built on a frame of two-by-fours (or 2×4’s? how do the DIY guys type this out?) screwed into the wall. I wanted something that on the one hand was more stable than that and on the other hand was more free-standing. I wanted to be able to slide this back out of the dormer years down the road when the kids are in college and this room becomes my Don’t Go Up into That Room Because The Author is Working on His Next Great Novel room.

bed-1

So I built a massive frame out of 2x8s (by convention, that’s how we’re going to assume contractor-types write these out). I used a Kreg-jig to put the boards together length-wise, mainly because it’s fun to use a Kreg-jig and to give the frame stability while I fit it together. (Note that immediately after taking this picture I had to hammer that middle cross-section out of place so I could slide the frame all the way into the dormer. The whole thing is wedged in there so tightly now I didn’t bother anchoring the frame into the wall. Don’t tell my wife.)

bed-2

My wife wanted the open end of the bed to be a shelf for storage baskets, and she had very specific dimensions for the three storage baskets from Target that she wanted to be able to fit there. That determined where the second cross-support would go and the height of the bottom of the shelf. I was going to finish the bottom with trim anyway, so that gap would be covered up. Building the frame so high also meant that there were two big storage spaces under the bed for blankets and stuff in the summer.

Yeah, I probably went overboard with how solid I build the frame, but again– three boys jumping on absolutely everything.

bed-3

I covered that shelf on the end with shelving boards that matched the piece of plywood in thickness. I had them cut the plywood to dimensions for me at Lowe’s, which only took three store guys, forty-five minutes, and about seventeen cuts. I put more 2x8s as support/separators between where those grey storage baskets are going to go. (Seriously, my wife loves her some storage baskets. Organization is her coping mechanism for life. And one of the reasons I adore her.)

bed-4

And presto– here’s the bed looking all lived in and moderately organized. I put trim around the base of the bed to complete that built-in look the wife was after. I’m still not quite sure how we (read: she) will do the finishing touches on this end, whether we’ll want to add some additional trim and then paint the whole thing white.

The best part of this project though was how incredibly excited our five-year-old was to go from a mattress to a REAL BED. I think every person who has been to our house over the past month has been escorted upstairs by him to see this wonder of a REAL BED.

And so far, only one or two head-to-bedcorner contacts during upstairs roughhousing, and no trips to the ER so far. (Yeah, I probably should have finished those edges with styrofoam guards.)

That’s all for now because this isn’t in any way a DIY blog and I’m not in any way a DIY guy.