Are trees social beings? Forester and author Peter Wohlleben makes the case that, yes, the forest is a social network. He draws on groundbreaking scientific discoveries to describe how trees are like human families: tree parents live together with their children, communicate with them, support them as they grow, share nutrients with those who are sick or struggling, and even warn each other of impending dangers. Wohlleben also shares his deep love of woods and forests, explaining the amazing processes of life, death, and regeneration he has observed in his woodland.
But...as it turns out, Wohlleben takes this approach deliberately, in order to make his readers do one very specific thing -- let go of the instinctive hierarchy we all implicitly assume exists between the plant and animal kingdoms. And between humans, and all the rest of life on earth. So when he discusses the difference between a solitary tree planted in a park setting that rarely lives up to its potential girth or age and the tree in a forest setting surrounded by many others of the same species which lives longer and grows stronger, as the difference between being raised on the streets and being raised in a good stable family -- he's not exactly imposing human centric concepts on an oak tree. He's really trying to get the reader to view the plant world -- the tree world -- as something dynamic, sensitive and responsive to its own environment, participatory and engaged in that environment. And that is something that is surely true, even if the language of intention he often falls into makes me squirm.
But then, people tend to regard themselves as apart from the ecosystem. They are, one might say, unempathetic, blind and deaf to the pulse of other kinds of life. So they do not consider it a moral problem to, say, cut down a tree, because in a human's mind, they are not "hurting" anything. Wohlleben's book is basically an extended explanation and description of how someone hurts a tree-- and the forest -- by cutting it down. In the world of trees, the book would probably come with warning labels for graphic violence.
But it is all science -- all a detailed account of how a wounded tree attempts to heal itself, what happens if it can't, what happens when opportunistic species -- fungi, bugs, critters, (people!), exploit a weakness. And the science, it has to be said, is absolutely fascinating. Do you know, I never realized that the circulatory system of trees which brings water up and down the trunk -- explained to me in grade school as "osmosis and capillary action" -- is not understood? That neither osmosis nor capillary action can account for the amount of water that has to be pushed up sometimes hundreds of feet, gallons at a time. And in fact we just don't know how trees do it.
Wohlleben packs a lot of truly very cool scientific research into what is really a quick and very readable book, and if he is sometimes a little too speculative on what all that research is telling us, nevertheless he succeeds in what he set out to do: convince the reader that if we want to understand and be awake to the rhythms of life around us, then distinctions between plant and animal are arbitrary and not particularly useful.
It's readable, then, but difficult to summarize efficiently. In effect, Wohlleben's already done that work, presenting a condensed version of recent research, and his spare footnotes demonstrate there's a lot more behind it.
The beauty of the book is its showcase of startling concepts, which after parading by suggest a new view of the world around us. This glimpse isn't entirely new, it evokes that old metaphor of a living world long relegated to fabulism or myth, or children's fable, and Wohlleben seems to gently shake the reader, "No, it really is that way, see for yourself".
● The "wood wide web", the forest network of tree roots & fungi linking individual trees into community
(analogous to the interstitium, connected to human lymphatic system, now considered a major organ)
● Individual trees exhibit behavior analogous to: communicating threats through scents & electrical impulses,
activating defenses keyed to attacking species,
sharing water & nutrients with neighbouring trees,
providing deferential treatment to related trees
● Trees in isolation (street kids) behave differently than those in community (forest)
● Forests generate & maintain their own microclimates
● Forests are terrestrial water pumps; coastal forests play an especially important role for all inland climates
● Trees hibernate in winter; individual trees (of the same species, in the same location) will choose idiosyncratic timing for
moving water from branches to roots in Autumn, from roots to branches in Spring
● When breaking into water pipes and cisterns, city tree roots more often seeking loose soil than moisture;
the compacted earth is a barrier to establishing a proper root system
● Science cannot account for the volume of water moved in adult tree trunks:
capillary action, transpiration, osmosis explain but a fraction of water moved
especially in Spring or Autumn
● Electrical impulses similar to that of human bioelectricity, but much slower
Trees have always fascinated me which is why I was quick to pick up German forester Peter Wohlleben's book. The Hidden Life of Trees is interesting reading. Did you know that trees can feed nutrients to the stumps of their fallen comrades, keeping the stump alive for centuries? Did you know that trees communicate with each other, warning their neighbours of pests?
Wohlleben convincing demonstrates that trees are far more complex organisms than we have understood. A fully functioning forest—forests that take five centuries to develop—are perfectly balanced examples of biodiversity.
Unfortunately, Wohlleben's fascinating information and observations about the forests are mixed with overly anthropomorphic ideas. You get the impression that Wohlleben has spent a little too much time in the woods alone! The Hidden Life of Trees walks the fine line between research and romanticisation, falling too often into the latter.
It is an easy read inviting you to glide along effortlessly as you are led deep and deeper into the marvels that are trees. This is then perhaps its weakness, to keep it easy reading it is light on the scientific support for claims that some might find startling,erring on the absurd. Do trees really talk to each other? The scientific justification is hinted at but with insufficient detail to be able to critic the soundness of the studies referred to. So a highly speculative romanticised look at trees or a well researched look combing all the latest evolving knowledge. Your choice, but I challenge you to walk past another tree and just dismiss it as a tree.
How do we define a tree? By the area of it above the ground or below, where up to half of its biomass is hidden? There is a case to be made for considering at least some aspen groves as one individual, as with Pando, a clonal colony of a single male quaking aspen determined to be a single living organism by identical genetic markers and assumed to have one massive underground root system. The plant occupies 106 acres, and its root system, at an estimated 80,000 years old, is among the oldest known living organisms (adapted from Wikipedia). How are we to put this into our own context?
Before blooming, deciduous agree among themselves. Should they go for it next spring, or would it be better to wait a year or two? "Trees in a forest prefer to bloom at the same time so that the genes of many individual trees can be well mixed...When a pollen grain lands on a stigma, its genes are activated and it grows a delicate tube down to the ovary in search of an egg. As it is doing this, the tree tests the genetic makeup of the pollen and, if it matches its own, blocks the tube."
Despite all the planning done for storing up energy, producing young, etc., if the normal order of things are disturbed by weather, insects, overgrowth by other species, logging, or a plethora of other events, action can be taken by either the tree or an interdependent organism. For instance, lack of nutrients might cause a fungi to release a toxin into the soil to kill off a different type of organism and therefore release nitrogen to fertilize both tree and fungi.
"There are more life forms in a handful of forest soil than there are people on the plant." A tree without a forest is unable to take advantage of the life that would make it its healthiest, and it is doomed to a short existence (by tree standards, if not our own).
And here's something I didn't know, even surrounded by deciduous trees: leaf colors in autumn indicate what nutrients are being withdrawn back into the tree to help it winter over and plan for the following spring. Oaks (which surround my house) make use of every little scrap, which is why the leaves are just a dull brown by the time they fall.
Wohlleben's writing is geared to the non-specialist, and he has a sense of humor, too. Includes a note section and an extensive index.
I liked a lot the information exposed, the mix of research data with the "once you think about it, it makes sense" explanations and the easy-going tone of the book, but the excessive "personification" of the trees (specially at the beginning) made it difficult to take it more seriously.
Why do I say it is challenging? I say say because Peter challenges us in a gentle manner, to review our own beliefs of trees. In the beginning, I read the chapters with complete disbelief and incredulity and, then I asked myself what people thought before they were challenged to believe in the spherical nature of the Earth.
Once you allow yourself to go past this stage, then you open your senses to enter a world that is alien, magical and wholly believable.
An excellent book. I would only have loved some photographs. It is my hope that this lacuna is fulfilled in future editions.
Peter Wohlleben has been working close to trees for most of his life, and is an excellent source for how trees speak. The Hidden Life is a treasure trove of anthropomorphic leanings, ones that make us look deeper at our world, and how we respond and live in it.
This gem of a book is rich in information that can be overwhelming to most readers. For me this means purchasing this book is a must because I've always adored trees, and this beautiful book already has and will continue to teach me more about how trees communicate, suffer, heal, and effect the environment and people.
The premise of the book is extremely simple, yet remarkable in its impact. Naturally occurring forests (as opposed to those generated principally for commercial yield) are highly connected, delicate networks, in which individual trees actively collaborate with each other. He cites examples such as African acacia. These are particularly vulnerable to giraffes, which will eat the higher placed leaves. The tree can sense this happening and responds by releasing a hormone which is borne by the wind to neighbouring acacia trees. These neighbouring acacia plants will then release a bitter tasting toxin into their leaves, which will deter the giraffes. Of course, evolution being the wonder that it is, giraffes have developed ways of countering this, starting with one acacia and then moving upwind, so that the warning hormone will be of no avail.
Wohlleben produces a vast array of equally amazing examples of trees’ proactive engagement with their surroundings, and the manner in which individual trees will interact with fellows, both within and beyond their own species, for the greater good of the wider forest.it is down to such constructive collaboration that some of the great ancient forests have survived.
Knowing precious little about the biology of trees I found this book fascinating, although it was not without its petty annoyances. Wohlleben is clearly very knowledgeable on his subject, but seemed unsure whether he was writing for an equally well-informed audience or for people like myself who are largely ignorant of the technicalities of botany. This led to an irritating mix of the scientific with the patronisingly chatty, which I found simply irritating. I would have preferred a straightforward, technical account, without attempts at happyish humour with talk of tree love happening every year, or other syrupy attempts to make the book humorous. I was certainly left wondering whether all the critics whose encomia were splattered all over the cover had read the same book as me: this was an enjoyable and informative volume, but fell rather short of being ‘a paradigm-smashing chronicle of joyous entanglement’, as Charles Foster asserts!
So says German forester Peter Wohlleben in his remarkable book “The Hidden Life of Trees,” published in Germany in 2015 and translated into English in 2016. True, he may be guilty of a bit of anthropomorphism, but his essential points are supported by the work of researchers and by his own observations over decades spent in European forests.
Observing trees is difficult because everything they do they do slowly. They can live hundreds, even thousands of years, especially in dense forests where they are protected from the wind and have the company of others of the same species. So time moves slowly for trees, and they react slowly to change. When assaulted by insects, for example, they can sense the attack and send out toxins to their bark and leaves that taste so bad the insects will depart. In the case of oaks, their toxins can even kill the marauders. But this sending of messages and toxins through limbs and branches can take a long time moving at a rate of a third of an inch per minute.
Much of what people have long thought about trees is wrong, Wohlleben writes. We think they will do better alone, out in the sunshine and some distance away from other trees. Not so. We think healthy young trees grow quickly. Again, not so. Those trees that live the longest are those that grow very slowly during their earliest decades, mostly in the shade of older trees.
Wohlleben's book, relatively short, brims not just with amazing facts about trees but also with advice for humans with regard to growing trees, harvesting trees and enjoying trees. The blood pressure of forest visitors, he writes, "rises when they are under conifers, whereas it calms down and falls in stands of oaks. Why don't you take the test for yourself and see in what type of forest you feel most comfortable?"
And while there don't do anything to make a tree scream. This book convinces us that their comfort is important, too.
This is a book about the being-ness of trees. What is it like if we experience and receive the world as animate? Just like us, trees have their own perceptions, lives, emotions, communities, and vocations. You’ve likely heard of animal rights activists, but why isn’t plant activism a thing? When protestors fight GMOs, they take an instrumentalist approach, linking GMOs (and the herbicides that accompany them) with cancer. But how does a species feel when genetically modified? These are not the questions that the Western world has the expertise to answer, yet I’m guessing plants don’t like it.
These are not topics discussed in the book, but they are questions that arise from the mindset contained therein.
The narrative is crafted using a jarringly objectivist perspective. “Trees are sentient; let me demonstrate with science.” It feels a little like trying to describe someones emotional state by quoting fluctuations in body temperature; yes, there is a correlation, but maybe there are more direct and precise ways of connecting with the lives of trees.
Because of this, the book illustrates qualities of trees by describing mechanisms: they have the ability to see, smell, touch, hear (and likely taste, although that isn’t mentioned in the book). Trees communicate with each other. They share resources. They learn, and have the capacity for memory.
Why do we need scientific proof before we believe in the animacy of other beings? And regardless of animacy, why do we need to understand that something else can feel before we will treat it with respect? What do these things say about our culture? What would it be like if our starting assumption was that the world around us was perceiving us, concurrent with our perception of the world?
The mechanically-inclined will appreciate some of the engineering notes. Deciduous leaves lose their leaves in winter because of the snow and wind, and pines are straight and tapering so they can bear snow loads.
This is a wonderful and beautiful book about what it is like to be a tree. We need a lot more cross-species empathy.