Book Review: The Hidden Life of Trees

Wooden bridge in a temperate rainforest

The Hidden Life of Trees

Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees is an incredible look into the world of trees and how they communicate. Backed by the latest scientific research, Wohlleben demonstrates that trees are capable of having friendships, mothering their children, telling time, and speaking to each other through sound, olfactory, visual and electrical signals. By the end of the book, the reader can’t help but feel that people have more in common with trees than was ever thought possible.

Wohlleben started his career as a forester working in an industry characterized by destructive harvesting practices. Through this work, he learned to assess trees based on “their suitability for the lumber mill and their market value” and he had little appreciation for them beyond this “narrow point of view.” It wasn’t until later in his life, when leading survival and log-cabin tours, that Wohlleben developed a renewed interest and appreciation for trees and began studying them.

The Social Life of Trees

What he uncovered was that trees are highly social and form interdependent communities where every member “is valuable…and worth keeping around for as long as possible.” Trees form these cooperative communities because they are stronger when they work together. For example, by working together, trees are capable of storing huge amounts of water that they later use to control the humidity and temperature of the forest. Trees are also better able to care for the sick and injured when they work together.

Wohlleben’s discussion of trees caring for one another was one of the most interesting parts of his book. He first noticed this behaviour after stumbling on a beech stump that was cut down hundreds of years prior but was still living thanks to the exchange of light and nutrients by the surrounding trees. This was an eye-opening discovery for Wohlleben who has since “observed oak, fir, spruce, and Douglas fir stumps” being kept alive the same way.

Scientific Proof

His observations are backed up by the latest scientific research. Scientists have discovered that trees can offer each other assistance either “remotely by fungal networks along the root tips which facilitate nutrient exchange between trees” or by using “the roots themselves [which] may be interconnected.” Wohlleben does not believe that these caring relationships are coincidental. He cites researcher Massimo Maffei who has demonstrated that plants are “perfectly capable of distinguishing their own roots from the roots of other species and even from the roots of related individuals.” Trees, Wohlleben predicts, have a social hierarchy based on the amount of care they have shown to others. Those ancient trees, like the beech stump he stumbled upon, would have provided hundreds of years of support to the trees that were now supporting it.

Trees not only nurture each other, but they also nurture us through their various services to the environment. Their ability to cleanse the air, cool the environment, prevent soil erosion and flooding, support biodiversity, and mitigate the effects of climate change are invaluable services that we benefit from. Perhaps, we could also learn from the strong communities that trees form and their strength in cooperation and mutual care.

Sustainable Forestry

Wohlleben’s journey has led him to advocate for more sustainable forestry practices that take into consideration the health of our forests. He continues to practice forestry, but now the company he works for has taken a new and sustainable approach to harvesting trees. This new approach, Wohlleben argues, produces better yields and lumber quality while caring for forest ecosystems.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in forests and forestry.

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