The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World

June 13, 2021


🚀 Summary

The author, Peter Wohlleben is a German forester whose deep love for forests resonates throughout this book.

The book transports you to the world of trees, one that is slow enough that it easily takes a decade to heal an inch-wide wound. Even at this sluggish pace trees are marvelous creatures that thrive in social settings-much as humans do. This is noticeable as trees are healthier among their companions. They share a filial sense of bonding, affection, and care-taking for each other and can teach and transfer knowledge to their progeny. Trees talk in a language that is made of either scents of chemicals or electrical impulses. In these respects, trees are closer to animals than we realize-capable of learning and communicating. The big issue we have to reconcile with is how utterly slow the rate of these processes are in comparision with our baseline.

To successfully fight climate change with forests the key is to allow them to grow old without intervention. The sad truth is that there aren’t any truly old-growth forests left except one in British Columbia, Canada. When we allow a forest to grow uninterrupted it will eventually create a protected ecosystem capable of storing water and maintaining high levels of humidity-ultimately stabilizing the local climate.

Evolution led to humans developing an intuition for which forests are healthy and stable to set up camp in. The author believes that our noses register this by the scents released by communicating trees. When visitors walk among the trees in the ancient deciduous forests the author manages they report feeling lighter. This is not the case with other coniferous forests which are largely artificially planted. ‘Chapter 34: Why Is the Forest Green?’ is rather enjoyable- it talks about how light is processed by Chlorophyll, why that leads to green-colored forests, and what causes this to have a relaxing effect on the human psyche.

Wohlleben teaches us about trees and in doing so allows us to understand them better. His tone is down-to-earth and his call to action is not high-handed-unlike so many campaigners and activists- it is genuine, simple, and hopeful. He argues that it is possible to achieve a sustainable relationship with forests- we must give up greed and see trees as more than mere objects.

This book has a multitude of fascinating information to uncover and this summary could go on and on. In sum, I recommend this book to everyone particularly to those who feel a connection with nature. Read it to learn, unlearn and shift your perspectives.

🎨 Impressions

It wasn’t an easy read in that I couldn’t breeze through it, yet I was happy to take my time. I hate to admit it, but I did fall asleep reading this at night a handful of times. In fact, I put this book down for a while to read ‘The Midnight Library’ and then came back to this.

I learned a lot from this book and it has changed my view. Just a few pages into the book I remember taking a walk around my block and for the first time I was appreciating the predicament of the trees in my neighborhood. I empathized with the Cherry Blossom standing solo on a lawn and hoped the three Bigleaf Maple trees standing side-by-side on the sidewalk were happy because they had each other. Clearly, I became invested enough to learn the names of the local trees.

With his life’s experience and expertise, it would have been a crime for Wohlleben to not write this book- which is really an expression of his deep love of forests and woods. What Wohlleben does best is use scientific research and personal anecdotes to help the reader discover that trees are so much more than mere objects in our surroundings that we take for granted. The extent of dependence that human evolution, our very existence, and Earth as we know it today have on healthy forests is staggering. Ultimately this book was an awe-inspiring intimate encounter with trees and I enjoyed peeping into their world.

🕵 How I Discovered It

On a podcast with David Allen where the conversation was about productivity. I don’t remember the question that the interviewer asked, but David and the interviewer began excitedly nerding out about how mysterious and wonderful trees are. When he mentioned the title of this book and I knew I had to read it because I wanted in on this hidden world of trees.

Sidenote: I’m sad I didn’t save it because it was a good episode. (I just spent that past 30 minutes looking through my library on Spotify and Youtube- if I ever come across it again I’ll link it.)

✍️ My Favorite Quotes

But what is a statistic worth when you apply it to an individual tree? Just as much as it is worth when you apply it to an individual person—nothing.

I highlighted so many knowledge bombs while reading and here are five excerpts (chapter titles are in bold).

Friendships But why are trees such social beings? Why do they share food with their own species and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors? The reasons are the same as for human communities: there are advantages to working together. A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. 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.

The Language of Trees Thanks to selective breeding, our cultivated plants have, for the most part, lost their ability to communicate above or below ground—you could say they are deaf and dumb—and therefore they are easy prey for insect pests. That is one reason why modern agriculture uses so many pesticides.

Making Friends with Fungi Fungi are in between animals and plants. Their cell walls are made of chitin—a substance never found in plants—which makes them more like insects. In addition, they cannot photosynthesize and depend on organic connections with other living beings they can feed on. There is a honey fungus in Switzerland that covers almost 120 acres and is about a thousand years old. Another in Oregon is estimated to be 2,400 years old, extends for 2,000 acres, and weighs 660 tons.

…In exchange for the rich sugary reward, the fungi provide a few complimentary benefits for the tree, such as filtering out heavy metals, which are less detrimental to the fungi than to the tree’s roots. These diverted pollutants turn up every fall in the pretty fruiting bodies we bring home in the form of porcini, cèpe, or bolete mushrooms. No wonder radioactive cesium, which was found in the soil even before the nuclear reactor disaster in Chernobyl in 1986, is mostly found in mushrooms.

Trees Aging Gracefully In Central Europe, there are no longer any true old-growth forests. The largest extensive stand of trees is between two hundred and three hundred years old. Until these forest preserves become old-growth forests once again, we must look to the West Coast of Canada to understand the role played by ancient trees. There, Dr. Zoë Lindo of McGill University in Montreal researched Sitka spruce that were at least five hundred years old. The Great Bear Rainforest in northern British Columbia, covers almost 25,000 square miles along the rugged coast. Half of this area is forested, including about 8,900 square miles of old-growth trees.

More Than Just a Commodity After all, we are also part of Nature, and we are made in such a way that we can survive only with the help of organic substances from other species. We share this necessity with all other animals. The real question is whether we help ourselves only to what we need from the forest ecosystem, and—analogous to our treatment of animals—whether we spare the trees unnecessary suffering when we do this.

That means it is okay to use wood as long as trees are allowed to live in a way that is appropriate to their species. And that means that they should be allowed to fulfill their social needs, to grow in a true forest environment on undisturbed ground, and to pass their knowledge on to the next generation. And at least some of them should be allowed to grow old with dignity and finally die a natural death.

P.S. If you’ve made it to this point, THANK YOU! This review took me a lot of time and effort to write. It’s embarrassing but it has taken me half a Friday, half a Saturday, and finally a Sunday. I’m telling you this so you know it’s not something that comes easily to me. While writing this is primarily for myself, if reading this made you feel remotely anything from curiosity, disagreement, or a sense of wonder I would adore you if you told me. (My contact info is on the homepage). Happy reading!

Made with lots of ♥️ and