Trees have an inner life like ours, claims bestseller
Our concern for animal rights may lead to similar protections for trees – so argues The Hidden Life of Trees. Is there more to this than anthropomorphism?
TREES may have vibrant inner lives that aren’t so different from ours. They thrive in families, form underground social networks and may even feel pain. What’s more, they seem to have individual personalities, benefit from a good night’s sleep and communicate using different types of language.
Or so claims Peter Wohlleben in his bestseller, The Hidden Life of Trees, newly translated from German. His insight is based on working as a forester in Germany. “I’ve been watching trees for the past 25 years and living with them all day long,” he told me.
By talking to tree scientists from the nearby University of Aachen and reading academic papers, Wohlleben gained a better understanding of what he was witnessing. As a nature enthusiast, however, most of the insights he presents have not been subjected to the same scrutiny as scientific research, so may be more of a jumping-off point for further investigation.
One problem with studying trees is that they live life in the slow lane, so it takes a lot of time, and close observation, to uncover their “behaviour”. Being able to simply spend time around them, as Wohlleben did, is a good way to make accidental discoveries.
“Trees thrive in families, form underground social networks and may even feel pain“
His most memorable encounter involved what he thought were strangely shaped stones covered in moss. After picking off some of the greenery, he was surprised to find that it was old wood that had become hard as rock, and formed part of a gnarled tree stump that appeared to be hundreds of years old. But a greenish layer under the bark indicated that it was still alive. “The only possibility was that it was connected to its neighbours’ roots, which were sending it sugar to keep it alive,” he says.
Wohlleben’s anecdotes are engaging, but sadly his book contains only a few. For the most part, it jumps around a tree’s life, using anthropomorphic language to explain various aspects. This may help laypeople relate to trees, but when he hints that humans might be able to communicate with plants given that seedlings respond to sound, we have strayed into oversimplification.
The book’s goal, however, is to bring tree conservation centre stage. When Wohlleben started his career, he worked for the forestry commission, where the focus was on optimising lumber production. This meant the trees’ life cycles were speeded up, while the widely spaced planting prevented them from developing the underground connections that they normally would have done. It was only when Wohlleben started organising forest tours that he discovered the natural processes being disrupted.
In the next 10 years, Wohlleben hopes concern for animal rights will lead to similar rights for trees, and forestry practices will become more sustainable. As he says, “Trees are often seen as oxygen producers or raw material for the timber industries. Maybe one day people will also enjoy watching trees as much as elephants.”