The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

This book made the media rounds in 2015, with the biggest news being the “wood wide web,” the revelation that trees are connected and communicating with each other. It’s perspective-shifting, the first time you hear about it. Through the roots, and through the fungal network attached to the roots, trees can pass information about pests and predators, share nutrients, and keep each other alive. I absolutely loved learning about this on podcasts and in articles, and gained a new appreciation for all we do not know about forests. Reading this book, the source material, was supposed to be equally revelatory. It wasn’t. The most interesting insights were spoiled in the marketing. The rest felt repetitive – further examples of the same ideas – and it was a slog to finish.

It didn’t start that way. There is lots to enjoy in Wohlleben’s way of looking at the forest. He insistently personifies trees, and over chapters this casts a spell on the reader’s skepticism. The more he talks about trees as sentient beings, the easier it is to give them that respect. For instance, he says that acacia trees can talk, because they can warn their neighbours about predators. When a giraffe starts eating the leaves of an acacia, the acacia begins to secrete a chemical that makes the leaves taste bad. Since it releases that chemical into the air, neighbouring trees also get the message to make their leaves taste bad. Wohlleben calls this communication. But isn’t it just chemicals? Then I thought about how humans communicate: at the cellular level our bodies are no more than a cause and effect of chemical reactions, similar to the acacia tree. So why not call it conversation?

(Photo: Amy Attas)

And that is the true strength of this book. It’s not a scientific report, it’s a beautiful ode to the science which translates hard facts into loving allegory. The book helps readers see trees the way Peter Wohlleben does. To him, the forest is an epic of triumph and heartbreak. Some trees get perfect growing conditions too early in their lives, and the early growth spurt makes them vulnerable down the line. Some struggle for years in the dim light under the canopy before one day flourishing with the gap left by a fallen parent. Sometimes Wohlleben’s sympathy feels too dramatic, like when explaining the differences between forked trees: “If this transition point is in the shape of a tuning fork or U, then usually nothing happens. Woe betide the tree, however, that has a fork in the shape of a V, with the two sides joining at a narrow angle. The fork always breaks at its narrowest point.”

This sort of sympathy made me chuckle, but more often it forced me to appreciate the wonder of the natural world. “There are more life forms in a handful of forest soil than there are people on the planet. A mere teaspoonful contains many miles of fungal filaments.” In general, humans don’t understand trees because we move too fast – everything we accomplish within our hundred-year-lifespans makes it hard for us to perceive the cognisance of an 800-year-old organism. But maybe it’s there. Like ants who fail to perceive the breadth of a sidewalk, our view of time is microscopic. If we could only get a bird’s eye view, we might have more respect for the beings around us.

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