Trees live at such an unhurried rate that although we know they’re alive, it almost doesn’t register. In our minds they become more like things than life-forms, and we treat them accordingly. People have long resisted the idea that the lives of trees are comparable to our own, but Peter Wohlleben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees, wants to change that.
As a child, Wohlleben loved the outdoors, growing up to become a forester in Germany. There he planted trees in tidy rows, priming them to quickly grow tall, straight trunks, and harvesting them for industry as soon as they came to size. A tree that was twisted, short, or sick was considered (commercially) worthless. At that stage in his life, he “…knew about as much about the hidden life of trees as a butcher knows about the emotional life of animals.” Only after he started leading tours through the forest, noticing people’s love for imperfect gnarls and crooked trunks, did he reconnect to his original love for the woods. When he began working with scientists to conduct research on the trees in his forest, surprising findings arose that generated questions about just what kind of life they actually lead.
He found that trees communicate and support one another via vast, underground networks of symbiotic fungus, sending food to offspring and sickly neighbors, even keeping the stumps of the fallen alive for centuries afterwards. They warn one another of impending danger by puffing chemical signals into the air, attract beneficial animals, and synchronize nut and berry production to control problematic deer and boar populations. Like our own nerves, they produce electrical signals which move at a sluggish 1/3 an inch per minute through roots that crackle quietly but constantly below our own hearing capabilities. Wohllenben presents evidence that they are social organisms, with individuals distanced from others being communicatively stunted or even silent, living a fraction of their potential lifespan, vulnerable to attack and unable to ever connect with other trees even if replanted close by. That mighty solitary oak in your backyard is a sickly, mute hermit in comparison to the tiny seedling you nearly step on during a hike.
Wohllenben anthropomorphizes trees heavily in his book, and has a tendency to repeat himself – both habits which will turn away many readers early on – but he does it for a reason. The Hidden Life of Trees is unquestionably meant for the layperson, drawing on everyday human experience to illuminate what is otherwise an unfathomably long, slow sort of life, much of which is hidden underground. Even if you don’t agree with some of the author’s more out-there extrapolations, it’s still worth it to read the book for an insight into a radically different way of looking at plant-life.
Sara Ingle is a Library Assistant at Mebane Public Library. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 919-563-6431.