The Hidden Life of Trees- A reality fairy tale
The Hidden Life of Trees. A book title that suggests secrets and fairy tales. Both are here to discover, following the footsteps of the author and forester Peter Wohlleben, and Petter Elmberg who read the book and now writes about it. The forest is a magical place indeed, a lot is happening out there. It’s a real networking society. Trees in the forest are social beings. A system that cares.
Trees take their time
Although Peter Wohlleben, the author of The Hidden Life of Trees, doesn’t mention the early farmers in Europe, it is clear that he is critical of modern foresting, often speaking out against the insensitive felling of old forests. I will go out on a limb and say that this mentality, the notion that nature is something impersonal, and trees merely material for humans to use and dispose of, stems from the early Stone Age farmer communities. Because, when the economy shifted from a hunter and gatherer based economy into farming, the mentality also shifted. A breach formed, not in the sense it was isolating people from nature but introducing a new way of perceiving nature.
This ‘new’ mind set, that nature is something to be manipulated for economic reasons, would not prove to be a winning concept though. It wasn’t then and it isn’t now. However, the idea that nature is something outside of civilization, something wild and untamed, ultimately unhuman, this concept stuck. On the other hand, the yearning for nature’s vast forests never faded. And today, where most people in the Western world live in cities, the need for recreational areas is in great demand. We are fascinated by the majestic forests, we may be touched by the vein patterns in a leaf, the mighty beeches that reach for the sky, searching for the sun. Trees breathe calmness, far away from urban lifestyle commotion. Even in the city centre.
Terra incognita under the trees
Peter Wohlleben, a forester with the love for the woods running through his veins, wrote an amazing book, The Hidden Life of Trees. He shows us those seemingly tranquil forests. Bursting with activity. And points out that the forest timeline is measured in decades, not only years. Slow life…So, a fifty year old tree may be a teenager, depending on the species of course. Science and the state of the art are, in general, fascinating. It might be the case that scientists know more about the moon’s surface than the deep world of seas. Hard to believe but it holds true – the soils of the forests are, in the way Peter Wohlleben looks at it, terra incognita.
The ‘wood wide web’
Examining what’s going on down under the trees, the so called ‘wood wide web’, provides extraordinary insights. Although Peter Wohlleben is discussing the world under the top layers of earth, he is more concerned with what is going on above ground level. It is precisely here where Peter Wohlleben’s book really shines, coming up with amazing findings and details. I assume (and hope, for it’s a fascinating subject) the next book will concentrate solely on the ‘wood wide web’ root systems.
Slow forest – Trees take their time
The one thing that gives the forests their magnificent presence is their pace of slow growth. You can return to your childhood forest and easily find your way around your beloved trees, the mighty beech, and the lone oak on the hill. There might be some small changes, some young trees are there now too, but the slow but steady goes on. We can learn what is patience here.
Kinship and trees – parent and midwife
Sometimes this slow pace incites forest owners to speed up the process by cutting down dead trees. Why not do some felling, make room for the younger trees to grow? Generally speaking not a good idea, argues Wohlleben. Why? The ‘dead’ trees contain water tanks worth a fortune, that is for their kin. These trees actually serve as ‘midwives’ for their younger neighbours, nurturing them with water and giving them shelter from the sun. When an old ‘parent’ or ‘midwife’ comes down in a storm, allowing more sun light to be absorbed by the younger trees, a sun race begins.
Trees – the caring family
Some individuals will give in to the temptation and grow an extra branch to maximize growth. Initially this strategy will often provide an advantage in the sun race, allowing such individuals to store extra energy. But when the next storm strikes, such feeble branches will more than likely break. Leaving a wound, which exposes the tree to insidious vermin. Such wounds take years to recover. The tree society doesn’t judge nor punish behaviour. Weaker individuals in a tree society will receive ‘security benefits’, no matter what. This system is as intriguing as it is beautiful. Through the root system the wounded tree will receive a help aid, a water and sugar solution ‘handed out’ by its siblings. Trees are loyal.
Trees are continuously put through such tests, Peter Wohlleben calls these hardships their schooling. During a rainy summer, some trees will give in, become water-holics, and drink more than they should. A party tree that unwisely soaks up more than it can store, runs the risk of wasting that extra energy when winter is coming. Because, as the yearly winter wake arrives, the water-holics’ sleep will not be having a pleasant rest. It will definitely not be counting sheep, but the next time around the tree might have learned its lesson and obtained the knowledge to count. This ability seems to be common in experienced trees, the tree calculates the arrival of seasons by registering light and warmth. By doing so, they avoid to bloom too early and suffer from drought. A dried out tree might actually “cry out”, states the author. When the root system desperately tries to supply the trunk with water, and there is none to find, the roots will signal to the crown. The whole tree will tremble… If it’s unlucky it will break.
This is a sound to be never forgotten. If you have been walking through a forest in autumn and suddenly hear the shotgun’s blast, it might be a tree trunk, cracking. As mentioned before, such wounds can be fatal not only because the crack makes it vulnerable to vermin, it also deters the tree’s chemical warfare to work properly. The description of the defence system is a truly fascinating part. To discourage vermin, the trees send out chemical substances to urge them to stay away. At the same time it’s also alerting its neighbours through the so called ‘wood wide web’. Like their growth, trees take their time here as well. Warning signals spread slowly, at a speed of about an inch per hour.
Some trees collaborate with swamps to provide a safety zone, deterring the vermin from approaching. The swamps will shower their vermin in lethal doses of chemicals. In return the tree will offer a water supply trough the root system. Peter Wohlleben is an excellent observer of these hidden wonders of nature.
By using words that describe individual traits, one could even say, character, a question arises. Does a tree really have such signs of a personality, is it not just a product of climate and soil conditions? Peter Wohlleben has observed three sibling oaks. At first sight they are forming a huge oak, but when observed more closely the tree appears to be three trees. Each single one with individual traits. One of the trees is a true optimist, encouraged by the prolonged summer weather it keeps blooming well into autumn. Another one is a pessimist, rather a realist, early to lose its leaves and save up energy – an early sleeper. The third one is leaning in to the others. ‘Lazy’ trees such as this one might face a lesson. Should one of the siblings fall or get cut down, the ‘lazy’ one that hasn’t had the time to develop a firm root system, will be vulnerable to storms. It has to adopt and carry its own weight. If the tree fails to heed this warning and adjust its trunk, it might be lost forever.
The forester’s temptation – yes or no away with a damaged tree. There isn’t a simple answer. Tree societies seem to be a vulnerable collaboration between individuals. It is a delicate balance. Therefore, as forest owners are removing individual trees, there is always a risk of disturbing the natural order. A ranking carefully planned and maintained by the tree society as a whole.
Peter Wohlleben’s book is an intriguing journey into the secrets of the woods. If you have any interest in reading about forests this one is a must. Do not expect a book written in verse or prose, although it is at once romantic and scientific. The work is intended to be informative, and that is also the style of writing. It is clearly the work of a forester, beautifully articulating a personal relationship with the woods. Fascinating knowledge converted into woodland lines. It left me feeling in awe. With forests, with their tree society system. May it be labelled as the standard for many, and for much. It is a great read.
Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees – What They Feel, How They Communicate. Discoveries From a Secret World, 2016. Published by Greystone Books, Canada.
About the author – Petter Elmberg is a culture journalist, based in Karlskrona, Sweden.
Images: courtesy Petter Elmberg