Book Review: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

Author: Peter Wohlleben Cover of The Hidden Life of Trees
Title: The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries From A Secret World
Translator: Jane Billinghurst
Publication Info: Greystone Books, 2015

Peter Wohlleben, a forester from Germany, writes a series of essays about trees – how they communicate, how they feel, how they handle the stress.  If you’ve never thought that trees can do these things, you’re in for a treat.  Fungal networks in the roots allow individual trees to communicate with other trees in the forests.  In fact, trees can even scream.  They have to deal with the strains of storms breaking their limbs, animals chipping away their bark, and fungi invading their interior. If you like trees, or even just enjoy a nice walk in the wood, this book is a great guide to the hidden world of what is going on around you.

Favorite Passages:

“most individual trees of the same species growing in the same stand are connected to each other through their root systems. It appears that nutrient exchange and helping neighbors in times of need is the rule, and this leads to the conclusion that forests are superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies.”

“They love nutrient-rich, loose, crumbly soil that is well aerated to a depth of many feet. The ground should be nice and moist, especially in summer. But it shouldn’t get too hot, and in winter, it shouldn’t freeze too much. Snowfall should be moderate but sufficient that when the snow melts, it gives the soil a good soaking. Fall storms should be moderated by sheltering hills or mountain ridges, and the forest shouldn’t harbor too many fungi or insects that attack bark or wood. If trees could dream of an earthly paradise, this is what it would look like. But apart from a few small pockets, these ideal conditions are nowhere to be found. And that is a good thing for species diversity.”

“Today’s deposits of these fossil fuels come from trees that died about 300 million years ago. They looked a bit different—more like 100-foot-tall ferns or horsetail—but with trunk diameters of about 6 feet, they rivaled today’s species in size. Most trees grew in swamps, and when they died of old age, their trunks splashed down into stagnant water, where they hardly rotted at all. Over the course of thousands of years, they turned into thick layers of peat that were then overlain with rocky debris, and pressure gradually turned the peat to coal. Thus, large conventional power plants today are burning fossil forests. Wouldn’t it be beautiful and meaningful if we allowed our trees to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors by giving them the opportunity to recapture at least some of the carbon dioxide released by power plants and store it in the ground once again?”

“Wood fibers conduct sound particularly well, which is why they are used to make musical instruments such as violins and guitars. You can do a simple experiment to test for yourself how well these acoustics work. Put your ear up against the narrow end of a long trunk lying on the forest floor and ask another person at the thicker end to carefully make a small knocking or scratching sound with a pebble. On a still day, you can hear the sound through the trunk incredibly clearly, even if you lift your head. Birds use this property of wood as an alarm system for their nesting cavities.”

“Every trunk is different. Each has its own pattern of woody fibers, a testament to its unique history. This means that, after the first gust—which bends all the trees in the same direction at the same time—each tree springs back at a different speed. And usually it is the subsequent gusts that do a tree in, because they catch the tree while it’s still severely bowed and bend it over again, even farther this time. But in an intact forest, every tree gets help. As the crowns swing back up, they hit each other, because each of them is straightening up at its own pace. While some are still moving backwards, others are already swinging forward again. The result is a gentle impact, which slows both trees down. By the time the next gust of wind comes along, the trees have almost stopped moving altogether and the struggle begins all over again.”

“Chlorophyll helps leaves process light. If trees processed light super-efficiently, there would be hardly any left over—and the forest would then look as dark during the day as it does at night. Chlorophyll, however, has one disadvantage. It has a so-called green gap, and because it cannot use this part of the color spectrum, it has to reflect it back unused. This weak spot means that we can see this photosynthetic leftover, and that’s why almost all plants look deep green to us. What we are really seeing is waste light, the rejected part that trees cannot use. Beautiful for us; useless for the trees. Nature that we find pleasing because it reflects trash?”

“I, for one, welcome breaking down the moral barriers between animals and plants. When the capabilities of vegetative beings become known, and their emotional lives and needs are recognized, then the way we treat plants will gradually change, as well. Forests are not first and foremost lumber factories and warehouses for raw material, and only secondarily complex habitats for thousands of species, which is the way modern forestry currently treats them. Completely the opposite, in fact.”

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2