The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel, How they Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World
© 2016 Peter Wohlleben
Joyce Kilmer offered that he had never seen a poem as lovely as a tree — and I for one can’t remember reading a more fascinating science and nature book for a few years. Peter Wohlleben is a German forester who began his career not being able to see the forest for the trees. He saw the trees themselves, of course, in their neat and orderly rows so amenable to easy harvesting — but he didn’t realize how complex and deep a system a natural forest really is. Neither did I, frankly. In The Hidden Life of Trees, Wolhleben takes us into a world where trees share information and resources, not only with themselves but with an underground network, a world where trees are less insular towers and more members of varied and complex local ecosystems.
Let’s start with the coolest part of this book: the mycelial web. In a natural forest, trees are connected to one another through an underground network of fungi, an underground mesh that allows individual trees, even from different species, to share resources. Although above ground trees do compete for light, below the dirt is where deals are done. Trees don’t just swap resources throughout the year, taking turns to support one another as each reaches its strength in different seasons: they also release scents to allow their neighbors to know when predators are around, chewing leaves and branches: enter each tree’s self-defense system, making themselves unpalatable to the predator. So enmeshed are trees together that when one is stricken by lightning or some plague of bugs, others may suffer for its absence — robbed of its particular contributions to the underground exchange.
Although we tend to see individual trees in a forest, Wohlleben argues that trees have relationships, that older trees play a role in their offspring’s lives, if they’re nearby. While we may regard a fast-growing tree as a positive sign, to Wohlleben this is in fact an aberration: in the world of trees, those saplings that grow slowly under the shadow of their forebears prove to be the hardiest, while the energic young turks all die fairly quickly. There’s a circle of life in the forest: even a dead tree feeds and protects its survivors, making it more difficult for predators like deer to move through the forest, and slowly decomposing into a rich humus that the neighbors draw strength from.
Wolhleben’s book explores far more than this, of course, but learning about the communal relationships between trees fascinated me like nothing else. The author also explores trees’ live cycles, and how they “move” their ranges over the year. Other chapters delve into how animals make use of trees, to the detriment or advantage of the trees themselves. Wohlleben’s review also includes sections on why urban and transplanted trees struggle, and why it’s hard for humans to understand the slow pace of arboreal evolution. (A ‘natural forest’ takes at least five centuries to truly mature!) It’s all-around fascinating. I’ve long appreciated trees for their beauty and the bounty of life they can support – the birds and squirrels and such — but now every bit of them, brims over with new fascination.