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The Hidden Life of Trees


Book Review by Nancy Brannon, Ph.D.

Read this book and you’ll find a whole new perspective on your trail ride through the woods. If you have taken the naturalist course at Strawberry Plains Audubon Center near Holly Springs, MS then you know a little about identifying particular trees and their habitat of the mid-south. Or perhaps you have heard or read something about the forestry program at Ames Plantation in Grand Junction, TN. Even if you have done neither of these, this book offers an “up close and personal” insight into the lives of trees in the forest, and there’s even a section on “street trees,” trees in the urban landscape. The one main criticism that can be levied against the book is that is highly anthropomorphizes the subject, but, on the positive side, it may be said that this approach helps humans better understand their arbor vitae neighbors.

The author Peter Wohlleben is a German forester who writes books with ecological themes. After his graduation from forestry school, he worked for the German forestry administration for 20 years. As he grew more familiar with the forests he was overseeing, he became disenchanted with the technologies used to manage them after observing the damage they cause to the forest. He gave up this job “because I wanted to put my ideas of ecology into practice, and I now run an environmentally friendly municipal piece of woodland in the village of Hümmel,” Germany, he wrote. He devotes his professional efforts to preserving the forest rather than managing it for lumber production. And he regularly leads two-hour hikes through “his” forest, explaining the ways trees communicate with each other, nurture their offspring, and support one another through vast networks.

“Reading up on the behavior of trees — a topic he learned little about in forestry school — he found that, in nature, trees operate less like individuals and more as communal beings. Working together in networks and sharing resources, they increase their resistance” to disease, drought, and other maladies that could mean death for the tree. (McGrane)
“By artificially spacing out trees, the plantation forests that make up most of Germany’s woods ensure that trees get more sunlight and grow faster. But, naturalists say, creating too much space between trees can disconnect them from their networks, stymieing some of their inborn resilience mechanisms.” (McGrane)

So Wohlleben began investigating alternative methods of managing forests used in some private forests in Switzerland and Germany.  “They had really thick, old trees,” he said. “They treated their forest much more lovingly, and the wood they produced was more valuable.” (quoted in McGrane)

When Wohlleben started managing the forest for Hümmel, “he brought in horses, eliminated insecticides, and began experimenting with letting the woods grow wilder. Within two years, the forest went from loss to profit, in part by eliminating expensive machinery and chemicals.” (McGrane) As a result of his “naturalist” approach to forest management and better understanding of tree networks, “I began to see things with new eyes,” he said. (quoted in McGrane)

In this book, Wohlleben takes the perspective of trees and other inhabitants of the forests to introduce the popular audience to the “wood-wide web” through which trees exchange nutrition, water, mutual support, reproduction, and communication signals. He presents evidence from his long-time observations in the Hümmel forest he manages, set in the larger context of scientific research on forests. He debunks many of the common “understandings” people have about trees and explains why our notions are erroneous.

The hidden lives of trees have great importance for humans, and implications for how humans can better thrive. Perhaps one of the most important chapters comes near the end: “Healthy Forest Air.” As you take a breath of fresh air, you can thank trees, not only for emitting the oxygen we breathe, but also for cleaning pollutants from the air – particularly those harmful ones from human activity: acids, toxic hydrocarbons, and nitrogen compounds.

In “United We Stand, Divided We Fall,” Wohlleben explains the strong social networks among trees in a forest that ensure their long-term survival in the forest ecosystem. Trees partner with each other and with fungi, who have a vast underground web, known as mycelium, that proves an “amicable teamwork between fungi and trees.” Through this partnership and network, “a tree can greatly increase its functional root surface so that it can suck up considerably more water and nutrients.”

Trees can give humans a perspective of the long term, as the slower their growth, the longer they can live (“Slowly Does It”). “A good upbringing is necessary for a long life,” Wohlleben writes in this chapter, as he explains how trees support, nurture and parent their offspring.

If you’ve ever wondered why trees (and plants) are green, Wohlleben explains the role of chlorophyll and how human color vision works to give us the combination vision of a “bright-blue sky over a canopy of lush green.”

Do trees need rest like humans need sleep? Do trees hibernate, as some animals, do in winter? You bet! And Wohlleben explains why both are necessary for the health of trees.

Wohlleben explains a form of logging that is least harmful to trees and forested areas – logging with horses!

This book allows us to see trees and forests as more than just objects, a source of lumber. Trees are living, breathing entities and Wohlleben clearly presents their point of view. “We should care about them because of the little puzzles and wonders they present us with. Under the canopy of trees, daily dramas and moving love stories are played out. Here is the last remaining piece of nature, right on our doorstep, where adventures are to be experienced and secrets discovered,” Wohlleben writes. “When you take your next walk (or ride) in the forest, give free rein to your imagination…”
McGrane, Sally. “German Forest Ranger Finds That Trees Have Social Networks, Too.” The New York Times. Jan. 29, 2016.
Wohlleben, Peter.
(Photo of Peter Wohlleben by Gordon Welters for The New York Times)

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