Few people live in a forest. Instead they live in the ‘burbs or the city or maybe in a region that does not even have forests. Think of Eastern Oregon with its sage-covered high desert, or the Great Plains and its tall grass ecosystem. I grew up in Orange County, California, which had vast tracts of trees near my home—at least for awhile—but none that truly could be called a forest. They were orange groves, planted and maintained by farmers and more akin to lettuce fields than anyone’s idea of a forest.
Author and forester Peter Wohlleben is one of the few. For some 30 years he has lived and worked in the Schnee Eifel, a range of low mountains near the German-Belgian border. He studied forestry in the Rhineland and in 1987 went to work for the German Forestry Commission, eventually overseeing a stand of 3,000 trees, mostly consisting of beech, spruce, and oak. Early on Wohlleben was repelled by forestry practices that he had to perform, such as spraying trees, felling older ones, and killing younger, smaller ones by girdling their trunks. The experience moved him to read up on trees. Over time he came to see the forest with “new eyes,” and imagined what life was like for its trees. He also developed his own ideas about tree care—which can be summed up as trees do a better job of caring for themselves than foresters do on their behalf—and quit his government job. As he states on his website, “I gave up my job because I wanted to put my ideas of ecology into practice, and I now run an environmentally friendly municipal piece of woodland in the village of Hummel.” In addition, he became an author. His bestselling book, The Hidden Lives of Trees, is both charming and memorable. Very likely your view of trees will never be quite the same after reading it.
The essential idea in the book is that the forest is a community of trees whose members care for one another rather than compete for water and canopy space. Wohlleben states his case early on: “A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old.” Old in Wohlleben’s mind is not the 60 or 70 years we might expect from one of our urban street trees; old is hundreds of years and even millennia.
So how do trees care for each other and see their neighbors into old age? One way is through a network of intertwined roots and extensive fungi that allow water and nutrients, such as sugar, to be shared with those in need. Roots are also a means of communication, albeit a very slow one. Unlike electrical impulses in humans that travel almost instantaneously, equivalent impulses in trees are as slow as snail mail. As Wohlleben writes, “The electrical impulses that pass through the roots of trees . . . move at the slow rate of one third of an inch per second."
A second way trees communicate is when they ward off hungry insects and omnivores by expelling noxious chemical dust. Not only do these natural pesticides turn away predators, they are “smelled’ by neighboring trees who then launch their own attacks against the unwanted visitors. Wohlleben writes of Acacia trees in Africa that make their leaves inedible when a giraffe comes to lunch. The giraffe knows the drill and walks away from the offending tree and its alerted neighbors until it is out of range of the natural pesticide.
In presenting the hidden lives of trees, Wohlleben draws upon research by tree scientists, most notably the work of Dr. Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia who contributes to the book a “Note from a Forest Scientist.” In the 1990s she discovered the synergy between fir and birch trees in old growth North American forests, and her research has continued unabated. To this foundation of accepted science, Wohlleben has added an anthropomorphic quality to trees, giving them human feelings such as affection and empathy. I can just see certain reviewers raising an eyebrow at his gentle dramatization of tree lives. However, rather than viewing this personification as a silly excess that flies in the face of science, I prefer to see it as an expression of Wohlleben’s wonder at trees as well as an effective use of his charming writing style. After all, Wohlleben leaves us with an instruction to wonder about trees when we visit the forest and “give free rein to [our] imaginations” until the language of trees is deciphered. “What you imagine is not so far removed from reality."
Take Wohlleben up on his suggestion. Spend time with trees in your favorite forest or municipal piece of woodland and get to know them. While it certainly would be nice to commune with his trees in Germany’s Eifel, you need not go far to find a forest, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area. Ann Marie Brown, an author of guidebooks to local trails, terms the Bay Area “the wildest metropolitan area in the United States, by far.” Wherever you go, whether to a park in the city or a redwood forest in the Santa Cruz Mountains, think of Wohlleben’s scholarly insight into the lives of trees and do not forget your imagination!