Published by Greystone Books on September 13th 2016
Genres: Nature, Plants, Trees, Science, Life Sciences, Botany, Essays
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In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben shares his deep love of woods and forests and explains the amazing processes of life, death, and regeneration he has observed in the woodland and the amazing scientific processes behind the wonders of which we are blissfully unaware. Much like human families, tree parents live together with their children, communicate with them, and support them as they grow, sharing nutrients with those who are sick or struggling and creating an ecosystem that mitigates the impact of extremes of heat and cold for the whole group. As a result of such interactions, trees in a family or community are protected and can live to be very old. In contrast, solitary trees, like street kids, have a tough time of it and in most cases die much earlier than those in a group.
Drawing on groundbreaking new discoveries, Wohlleben presents the science behind the secret and previously unknown life of trees and their communication abilities; he describes how these discoveries have informed his own practices in the forest around him. As he says, a happy forest is a healthy forest, and he believes that eco-friendly practices not only are economically sustainable but also benefit the health of our planet and the mental and physical health of all who live on Earth.
I found plenty in this book to make me wonder and to see trees in a new light. The connections which “make fungi something like the forest Internet”. The various ways trees exchange vital nutrients with each other. The use of scent as communication. The innovative ways that trees defend their leaves from predation. The methods trees use to intercept water. All these and other learnings I appreciated.
However, I found the book heavy-going and frustrating and was relieved when I finally made it to the end.
Pseudoscience abounds. He presents interesting hypotheses but often doesn’t back them up with scientific evidence, merely talking about brain-like structures at root tips, and a mechanism to store memories and experiences. Some chapters seemed to come to an end before he could draw a conclusion. For example, he mentions three oaks that shed their leaves at slightly different times, seemingly because “the tree on the right is a bit more anxious than the others, or to put it more positively, more sensible.” He says that “recent research has discovered something that at least calls into question the effects of transpiration and the forces of cohesion,” but then fails to say what that research has discovered.
The author’s anthropomorphism is ubiquitous: Beeches harass other species, pines resent competitors, mother trees have buddies. And long parts of the book are boring. In many chapters he introduces a topic and then goes through the list of how it relates to different trees: the oak, the beech, the silver birch, the Douglas fir, the spruce etc. When this device happens repeatedly it gets rather tedious. And most examples are western European trees with brief forays into north America. I would have loved to read more about Asian or African trees.
The book does include gems of insight and knowledge. But for me, they are hidden amongst too much foliage.