Peter Wohlleben is a man to be admired. Having graduated from a forestry school in Germany, he worked for the forestry commission for more than 20 years but eventually became disillusioned by the common use of what he considered to be damaging forestry practices. He began applying his own ideas as manager of an ecologically-friendly beech forest, and he shares his knowledge and passion in the multiple books he’s written about trees. The Hidden Life of Trees, a New York Times bestseller, aims to make trees accessible to laypeople through examples of how trees communicate, thrive, and survive.
Comprising 36 short chapters, this book certainly contains many interesting tidbits on a variety of topics, but the overarching message is that trees are not so different from us if we look at them more closely. In the opening pages, Wohlleben discusses how trees need a community to thrive. “A tree is not a forest. On its own a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. . . . But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old. To get to this point, the community must remain intact no matter what. If every tree were looking out only for itself, then quite a few of them would never reach old age.” As John Donne might have said, “No tree is an island.”
Communication among trees is well documented, as when Africa’s acacia trees, upon having their leaves eaten by giraffes, emit ethylene to signal their neighbors that the giraffes are coming, and that their fellows should start pumping bitter-flavored toxins posthaste. Whether plants learn is more controversial. Wohlleben points to a study involving mimosas, a type of “sensitive plant” which closes up when touched. In the experiment, drops of water were allowed to fall on the mimosa leaves at set intervals. Initially, the leaves closed immediately; however, over time, the plant “learned” that the droplets didn’t pose any threat, and they remained open in spite of the water treatment. (As an aside, I had a mimosa plant when I was in kindergarten and thought it was the coolest thing ever, watching those little leaves close up. I now worry I was inadvertently terrorizing the poor plant.)
Considering my newly discovered fascination with fungus, I expected to enjoy this book much more than I did. On the one hand, it lacks, at times, the scientific depth the subject requires. For example, Wohlleben writes, “If trees are capable of learning (and you can see they are just by observing them). . . .” Okay, Captain Anecdotal, you’re going to have to give me a little more than that. I’m not saying trees don’t learn, but there’s a scientific distinction between learning and simple stimulus-response that needs to be explored. At the same time, for a book that appeals to emotions and the joy of nature, it was a bit of a slog for me to get through. I tagged lots of pages as “interesting,” but overall the writing needed to be tighter; perhaps that is the result of it being a translation. As the author discussed how trees are slow-moving, I was reminded of Tolkein’s Ents, with Wohlleben playing the part of Treebeard to my Merry/Pippin wishing he would get to the point quicker.
Overall, I give this book a mild recommendation if you’re a nature lover who is interested in learning about trees. If you can read German, perhaps you can give the original version a try and let me know how it goes!