The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from A Secret World: Peter Wohlleben

Translated from German by Jane Billinghurst

One day, Peter Wohlleben, a forester, stumbles across what he thinks are mossy stones but turn out to be old wood. But not just old wood, which would normally decompose, but the roots of a tree that no longer existed, that had probably been felled 400 years ago. He scrapes away at the bark, revealing a green layer, which means the roots were still alive! But how could they have survived? To survive, trees need to make sugar, which they do through photosynthesis, and that requires leaves. But the roots the author stumbles on have no leaves. The answer is that it was being nurtured by the roots of neighbouring trees, either directly or through the fungi connecting them. They had been making sure the stump had enough sugar to survive.

Wohlleben takes us on a journey of discovery about these creatures who share our planet, but about whom we know so little. Trees in a forest form communities, looking out for the weak, nurturing them through a dense network of roots or through fungi that grow around them. He reveals the stories behind the things we take for granted: for example, how blossoms make the trees vulnerable. When trees focus on producing blossoms, they have fewer leaves, which means they produce less sugar. The lack of sugar, among other things, weakens their defences, leaving them open to attacks by insects.

Trees have more in common with us than simply a sense of community: they also have memories and can learn from experience. In periods of heavy rain, when water is abundant, some trees use groundwater lavishly (like some humans who come into unexpected money and spend it all). But when this water runs out, they suffer. Their barks turn dry and split, which is one of the worst things that can happen to trees. The wounds take a long time to heal. The lesson has been learned. From then on, the trees will “do a better job of rationing water instead of pumping whatever is available out of the ground as soon as spring hits”.

These are only a few of the fascinating facts that Wohlleben shares. Trees are living beings like us that move at a much slower pace and for whom time stretches longer than it does for us. (Which made me think that Tolkien was onto something in The Lord of the Rings.) There is a spruce in Sweden that is 9,550 years old. As we saw from the example at the beginning of this review, the important part is the root—it is the part from which the trunk grows, the part that withstands changes in climate and that takes care of the organism’s survival. “It is in the roots that centuries of experience are stored, and it is this experience that has allowed the tree’s survival.”

Trees planted on streets look lovely, but the concrete jungle is no place for them. They need loosely compacted soil to allow their roots to go deep and space around them to spread out. In cities, neither of these is available: the soil is compacted and the trees are surrounded by concrete structures. This reminded me of my mother’s house that had a small wood growing at the back on a quarter acre of land. When she died, the house had been standing for over 50 years. No one lived in it after that, although we would go and stay there from time to time. On one visit, we noticed a root making its way out of the drain in the spare bathroom. One of the trees was obviously stretching its roots!

I have always had a soft corner for trees, ever since I was a child. There is something comforting and solid about them, not to mention the good they do for the environment. This book brings us a little closer to understanding them and their world.

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