The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

When I mentioned The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben to a forester I know, he scoffed. And the wildlife specialist we were walking with said, “Oh yeah, trees scream in agony.” They joshed about the absurdity and we moved on to the topic of how to create more habitat for songbirds. My secret caveat being, I didn’t want to kill anymore trees.

The same thing happened a few years ago when I read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. Foer wrote that fish have social lives, and that no fish has a good death. Result: I stopped eating fish.

I have to be careful what I read.

Wohlleben writes of the interconnectedness of trees—through pheromones, roots, fungi, and microbes—to each other and the world around them. Each chapter is a vignette on an aspect of this communication. Wohlleben writes of old growth forests and of planted forests, of trees grown in cityscapes, and how different tree species adapt and react to these varying environments. He describes how trees prepare for winter, procreate, feed and protect each other, grow old, die. Just as ants have been proven to communicate with pheromones, and humans, too, so do trees. With scent, trees give warning of bug invasions. With their root systems, they send nutrients to their compatriots, chemical messages and electrical stimuli, thereby raising the “heated controversy [that] has flared up among scientists. Can plants think? Are they intelligent?” [pg. 85]

Alert: I have read The Secret Lives of Plants and The Secrets of the Soil. I have contemplated and participated in a degree of biodynamic farming. I am on board with the idea that animals and plants are sentient beings. Maybe they don’t think as we do. But trees have been around for millions years—the first trees started to appear 385 million years ago. I would ask this: Why would humans be the only ones to evolve forms of communication and caring? And, even if they don’t think, trees exist at a level we need to return to: nature’s level.

Why do we need to? On page 113 of his book, Wohlleben writes, “An organism that is too greedy and takes too much without giving anything in return destroys what it needs for life and dies out.”

Wohlleben presents facts and details about trees far better than I can regurgitate them. His book describes the elegance and solemnity of elder trees, the spontaneity of young trees and how they can overstep their bounds by growing up too fast, taking too much; the advantages of many trees living together in a forest, and the disadvantages of city life; the importance of diversity, and the possibilities and chances taken by trees who live on a longer time scale than humans. I tend not to remember details. But I do try to gain the essence of what’s being said in a book. I ask, what can I learn that I can apply to my life?

From The Hidden Life of Trees I learned this: To reach deep into the ground for steadiness and connection, and up to the sky for light and water; to not rush but grow slowly; to connect, communicate, share. Wohlleben writes about what I believe: the connection of all things in this world by a vibrant, active energy. Call it electrons, love or sentience, consciousness or not, it’s kind of like magic and can be beautiful.

Does that sound hokey, magic? But there’s so much ugly in life, evil and cruelty. Humans have developed protective tools, concepts like a god who protects us. And we divorce ourselves from the animals and plants that we eat by claiming they don’t feel. But why not believe that they do? Wouldn’t we then take better care of everything around us? The diversity of life on this planet has been destroyed by humans. We live with a mere pittance of what once existed and our economics claim that we cannot save the world because it is uneconomic . . . thereby exposing just how divorced from reality we have become. How can we not save the world when, without it, we cannot exist. Why not accept the awesomeness of such a simple magic as connection and let that lift us up to be our better selves, stewards of the earth, not destroyers. Then we might step forward to make more magic happen.

Does this pass for a book review? Maybe not. But it’s a good book for me to begin this “Read and Reading” page because it expresses my personal beliefs and my hope.

Anyone who yearns to learn from nature will dip into this book and slowly be immersed in tree life. There will be some, like my forester friend, who will scoff and say Wohlleben is no scientist. But the author has lived with trees and has opened himself to what they might teach him. That is a path I will follow.