This is an amazing book – I’ve loved trees since I was in grade school and did “reports” on them, collected leaves and made sketches. I’ve always wanted to live in a tree house – even today – they’re so big and so mellow, not at all dangerous or even threatening in any way.
But biology and the natural sciences are not my forte – I’m generally bored to tears with detailed explanations of the chemistry, physiology and neurobiology of the natural world from whales to snails and abellia to zinnia. (Geology and astronomy are usually okay.)
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries from a Secret World
by Peter Wohllenben
read by Mike Grady 7h 33m
2016 / 288 pages
(read 1x, and listened 2x)
That said, toward the end of my first reading I suddenly got into the “spirit” of the book. Where prior I had been somewhat turned off by the mixing of anthropomorphic descriptions of the functions of trees, suddenly it occurred to me that this was the author’s way of personalizing the account – of sharing his love. The book is actually a love letter to trees.
From the Introduction:
“When you know that trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you can no longer just chop them down and disrupt their lives with large machines”
Also, just reading through the chapter titles is illuminating:
- The Language of Trees
- Social Security
- The Tree Lottery
- Slowly Does It
- Forest Etiquette
- Tree School
24. A Question of Character
25. Street Kids
So the second reading was approached with that attitude and it worked. This time I was following along with the Kindle version and it helped tremendously. I “caught” Wohllenben’s enchantment – sense of wonder – whatever the word is.
I suppose this book might be automatically fascinating to someone who is drawn to scientific parts, but to me it’s basically common sense except perhaps the parts about memory and communication. When the author says trees communicate with each other I’m not sure about his definition of “communicate.” Apparently smell is a big part of that “ability.” But I wonder if that would be like saying the soup on the stove is communicating with me when it smells good – does it want to be eaten?
Wohllenben includes tree anatomy and physiology as well as mating, family building, water use, dropping leaves vs evergreens, aging, as well as weather, climate, light and environmental issues along with how all these work together in the forest environment. As to predators, he covers fungi, insects, birds, beavers, bats, owls and other plants and animals and their part in the tree’s life – and afterlife as a rotting trunk and climate change.
Wohllenben uses a lot of anthropomorphic language to describe the biology and physiology of trees. As a forest manager in Germany he has worked with trees for decades and I suppose they have become his friends in a way – he obviously cares for them a great deal.
Yes, I understand about feeling an empathic pain when I see a tree being trimmed or chopped – and even when someone “nails” a poster on one. (I learned about bark as skin as a child.)
And the style is a bit dreamy and fantastical – he takes things a mite too far so as to include the idea of a place for “tree memory” in addition to the communication skills of trees. Also there’s the little idea that trees move because their seeds drop and get blown or moved by animals to different locations. Yes, okay, in a mystical kind of way that’s true.
But the idea of a Wood Wide Web is not new with Wohllenben – And it does feel kind of mystical – and it is being seriously studied by researchers – see links below.
Another problem I had is that I’m not familiar at all with the well-managed forests of Germany. I’ve seen forests all over the US (especially California and Minnesota) and Canada and a bit in Norway and Finland. But I believe Germany’s forests are different.
But although my mind found itself wandering quite a lot, I kept listening, two times (!) That might be due in part to the dreamy voice of the narrator, Mike Grady.
The book ends on what sounds like a rather radical note – that we take care of plant rights with the same care we take care of human rights. We don’t go around snapping the blooms of flowers, forests are not lumber factories – they are complex environments for thousands of creatures and for man himself.
A couple of relevant passages which further demonstrate the anthropomorphic tone:
From Chapter 6: “Scientists have determined that slow growth when the tree is young is a prerequisite if a tree is to live to a ripe old age.”
From Chapter 13: “Many Central European tree species have similar ideas about the ideal place to live, because similar criteria for well-bieng hold true for most of them.”
From Chapter 13: “The yew, the epitome of frugality and patience, has decided to make the most of these decisions.”
From Chapter 25: “As I’ve just described, fungi now march deep into the foolish trees and put them in danger.”
Still, the dreamy style is compelling in its own way – it’s certainly not dry. So perhaps oddly enough, I’d recommend this to any of my relatives or friends who enjoy natural science – I can think of one person in particular.
(An odd personal irritation / distraction: every time the narrator said the word “beech” I, being a California girl, thought of the “beach.” – So … “Beaches are in danger” had a little bit of a jar to my brain.)
Wood Wide Web:
Suzanne Simard – the originator of the idea – and author of the “Note From a Forest Scientist” at the end of the book
“We usually think of a forest as a vast area filled with individual trees. We just assume they are individuals and, aside from pollinating and dropping seeds to propagate, they don’t have anything to do with one another. Nothing could be further from the truth. Under the forest floor is a network of soil fungi that, through the roots, connects all the trees together. This has been referred to as the “wood wide web” and is a means of communication from one tree to another. A forest can be thought of as a super-organism with electrical pathways connecting it”