Everyone was raving about this book when it was first translated to English in 2017. Typically for me, I missed all the hype. I start thinking that this is a self-preservation measure on my side to save me from too high hopes. Because of that I only started hunting for this book in 2019 once the noise died down a bit.
The mistake I made was to read it in London, where real forest feels so far away (for someone without a car). It would surely mean so much more to me had I been in my family home where the forest is a mere 15 min drive away. Still, the book managed to make an impression on me.
Peter Wohlleben (he of the ‘live well’ name) takes us for a walk in the forest. As we walk with him he points out various things and explains about the trees. So far quite typical. What makes this book stand out is that Wohlleben adopts the perspective of trees. As if they were feeling and communicating beings. This for him is the only way to explain some of the phenomena he encounters. Such as trees feeding their competitors or keeping stumps of other felled trees alive.
Based on the research of dr Suzanne Simard he introduces to us the concept of ‘Wood Wide Web’, a communication system formed by trees and fungi. It is what makes the trees collaboration possible and cooperate they must if they want to survive. Trees have to always see the forest for the trees. It is the only way they can control the local climate, keep water where it’s needed, protect each other from the wind, and moderate extreme temperatures. Alone they are just trees together they are a superorganism. Like a superhero controlling water, temperature, humidity, wind, owning and ruling their environment.
Wohlleben writes also about tree parenting. And it is one of tough love. Older trees deprive the younger ones of light. While this makes them grow slower it is exactly what is needed to grow a straight, healthy tree. If they grow too fast their trunks become less stable and more prone to damage. But which teenager would willingly accept that! Young trees are not so different in that respect.
Another aspect he writes about a lot is communication. Some trees are capable of recognizing the insects gnawing on them by their saliva and coordinate a chemical reaction that will make their leaves bitter but also generates, for example, a scent inviting the insect’s predator for a feast. They also communicate with one another by sending chemicals through the network of fungi their roots are connected to. And by sending, very, very slowly, electric signals through their body. Which is not so different from how an animal’s brain works (if you discount the speed of the signal).
At one point Wohlleben even makes a case to consider an option that trees have a brain. It is being often dismissed, on the grounds, it would blur the line between plants and animals. But as he mentions this line is truly arbitrary distinction based on the method of obtaining food, animals eating external organic matter, while trees produce their own food. However, there are known examples of plants that defy this rule. I could not agree more with Wohlleben when he says that maybe we would care more about the trees if we perceived them as closer to animals.
There is a wealth of knowledge and observations in this book and there is no way, or point really, for me to try and cover all of it. Allow me then to mention just one more thing I found fascinating. Forests are the only way of getting the humidity, water and clouds generated over the seas and oceans inland. If we cut down the seaside forests or break too many links of the forest chaing going inland, we will end up with a desert. Forests are the key components to keeping our continents inland space habitable. And we won’t all fit in the shores.
Keep that in mind next time when you are in the forest. And take this book with you! As much as, at times, I felt Wohlleben anthropomorphized the trees a bit too much, this book has taught me a lot and opened my eyes even more. Well worth the life of trees felled for the paper it is printed on. A true tribute to them actually!
Quotes from The Hidden Life of Trees