One of the runaway best-selling – and most surprising - books in Germany in the last year has been The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben.
It has sold, to date, 320,000 copies and topped the book charts in Germany. It is to be released in English in September and will certainly be added to my reading list. Some of Wohlleben’s thought provoking comments are that trees are social beings. They can count, learn and remember. They nurse sick neighbours, warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the ‘wood wide web’ and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots. Trees are friends to each other; pairs are sometimes so interconnected at the roots that, if one dies, the other one can often die too. Trees age and wrinkle, just like us! It seems that the secret lives of trees are very deep and wildly complex!
Wohlleben studied forestry and has worked as a ranger in the German forests for almost 30 years so he obviously feels deeply about his trees and he doesn´t like them being used as “organic robots” grown for little more than to give humans oxygen and timber.
Just as many people scoff at talking to plants or playing them music, his thoughts on trees have rankled with many. He is emotional about them, using language very human and close to home rather than scientific terms.
His narrative is humble, by all accounts, and he knows how to bring back the magic and mystery of trees. The words “trees suckle their children” have become his by-line and introduction and it conjures up an image that is
immediately warm and caring, but one that many cannot live with. After working for many years within the State Forestry Administration and then as a forester managing 3000 acres of woodland, he grew to feel that contemporary practices were not best serving the trees or those who depend on them. One of the most common practices nowadays is to space trees within managed plantations more than their natural spacing so that trees get more sunlight and grow faster. But naturalists say that by creating too much space between trees, you are disconnecting them from their family and friends’ networks and comfort zone, thus disabling some of their inborn resilience and resistance to disease etc. An analogy rings clear to me. In the 60’s and 70’s there was mass human exodus leaving the backstreets of smoky, grimy cities and spreading to housing developments on the outskirts. It seemed fine but, without the family back-up for baby-sitting, child-watching, chats and shoulders to cry on, life became more stressful, more rushed. Did it really improve our lives? Wohlleben brought in some revolutionary concepts - after a battle with the owners of the woodland! Big machinery went out and horses replaced them; this enabled smaller spaces between trees. He stopped using chemicals and let the natural balance return. He set aside a corner of the woods where people could bury their cremated loved ones with a plaque bearing their name,
bringing in revenue without cutting wood. He inaugurated a more loving respectful attitude to trees, and especially venerable old ones. Look after your old ones - old gnarled wood is often much more valuable than timber for building! Amazingly, to some, the forest is turning around and has gone from a loss situation to a profit in just 2 years.
Scientific research is, rather reluctantly you feel, backing some of his beliefs. It is known, for instance, that trees can be warriors; under attack from insects or grazers they can use their powerful immune systems to flood their leaves with chemicals called phenolics. It makes them distasteful and they are left alone. Even more strangely, the tree can somehow signal to its friends to start their self-defense mechanisms too!
It is believed that this communication is partly wind-borne – the chemicals are sensed by neighbouring trees – but they also chat through electrical signals carried in the michorizal network of fungus fibres – the so-called
wood wide web. Trees also sing – not just the rustling noises that we can hear but by carbon-coded calls and infrasound. Their sound shapes are as unique as our fingerprints and are probably used to communicate just as we
now know that whales and dolphins do.
I empathise and it set me to thinking more about the minds and modes of trees. They often seem to have very personal characters and we do like to anthropomorphize them. Some are smiley and carefree whilst others seem
sinister and scary. Many a fairy tale has been created in forests and woods and we must all remember the power of the Fangorn Forest in Lord of the Rings.
Trees are intelligent, curious, protective, competitive social beings. They are capable of adaptation reacting to changes in their environment. They can even rewrite their own genetic code, going back to previous models or
producing new ones and using their ‘memory’ of past trends they can prepare for new challenges. They decide how to grow, where to position branches for their own benefit and that of their neighbours. Most are not selfish, though there are exceptions such as the walnut with its allelopathic tendencies. But then again, there´s a baddie in every good plot.
Trees, after all, are the longest living organisms on our planet and one of our greatest natural resources. The older they are, the more wisdom they accumulate and pass it on to their offspring through their genetic coding.
They are symbiotic. They self-support and provide life and shelter to many. They exhale our essential oxygen and inhale CO2. They provide their own food by dumping leaves at their roots, to the delight of many worms, beetles, grubs and other insects. Even when dead, they provide shelter and food for many creatures and their logs grow lichen which feeds migratory herds in many countries. Fungi, bacteria, insects, plants and animals all form part of their social life – it is only man who, largely, refuses to take part!
Yet we need them; they are our lungs and should not be carelessly exploited.
Of course, they supply us with fruits, nuts, oils and sap; we use their wood and leaves for building, shelter, household utensils and fire. They often lift our spirits with their pervading perfume from flowers, leaves and bark;
they feed and nurture us in a multitude of ways. Medicinally we probably still have much to learn, or recover from our ancestors. They provide anti-viral, anti-biotic and anti-fungal medicines. Pau D’Arco, tabebuia avellanedae, has cancer-curing chemicals in its bark. The maidenhair tree, ginkgo biloba, is the last remaining member of its family and is recognised as an aid in numerous illnesses, especially those that are brain-related – memory loss, alzheimer’s, disorders of the central nervous system, and for improving blood circulation. Sap from our common birch, makes an excellent tonic and detoxifier, ridding us of kidney and gall stones, gout and rheumatism. It also makes excellent canoes!
Tiny hairs on tree leaves comb the air, absorbing pollutants and heavy metals. Roots, which are often just seen as problematical, purify, clean and preserve our waterways and stabilise shifting ground. Trees collect water and produce rain.
Trees, apparently can see; they can read the full spectrum of light, whilst we only see a small range of it. We make the mistake of thinking that trees are very different to us, inferior organisms but it is us who are only just
starting to understand some of their complexities. We are only just learning that the chlorophyll molecule is almost exactly the same as our red blood cell except that we have iron at the centre of our cells and trees have magnesium. These sister cells are at the centre of the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide that keeps us all alive. Just as our body cells communicate and react through chemical means, so do those of trees. They don´t appear to have a centralised ‘brain’ but their entire form is intelligent and sensitive.
And – just like us – they have complex sexual lives controlled by hormones - so you have to feel a certain sympathy for the trees because we all know how crazy hormones can make you feel! Trees can be heterosexual, homosexual or self-pollinating (we haven´t managed that one yet!) with a plethora of variations that would make a red light zone blush! Mother Nature isn´t too fussy about male/female; she simply wants to procreate prolifically and raise numerous families. So you get hermaphrodites that have male and female parts in the same flower; monoecious trees with separate male and female flowers on the same tree; and dioecious which are either male or female trees and must search for a compatible partner.
All sorts of combinations of these add spice to the sex life of trees. Hermaphroditic and dioecious trees can self-pollinate but it leads to weaknesses in their genetic make-up. Trees that exchange pollen with other trees have a greater diversity, some good and some bad. It´s a bit more hit-and- miss so, generally, masses of male pollen is released which, of course, can give problems to human allergy sufferers. In our wisdom, we have often planted only male trees on streets as they are less messy – no seed production, so less litter. Deforestation, of course, causes huge damage in a myriad of ways and also decreases the sexual pool; thus interbreeding becomes more common and we all know what problems that can cause! Humans are notorious meddlers.
As Dr. Seuss' tree-loving lorax says, “I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues.” I think many of us are hidden xylophiles; time we come out of the woods and stand tall. Brothers in arms!
Trees Suckle their Children.
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