The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben (Greystone Books, 2015) is an approachable book of bite-sized chapters explaining the mysteries of trees. Ever wondered if trees can talk to each other? How they know when to drop their leaves in the fall (and why)? That they can lower the blood pressure of hikers beneath them? Wohlleben answers all these questions – and brings up fascinating others – in this easily-digestible book that’s sure to make a tree-hugger out of anyone.
Wohlleben spent his career managing a forest in the Eifel mountains of Germany, and his passion for trees is contagious. The heart of his essays revolve around the fact that while trees grow slowly and live much, much longer than humans do, they share a remarkable amount of things in common with humans. For instance, tree roots connect with the roots of other trees in forests – even other tree species – to share nutrients, water, and even share signals about predators. While trees have countless ways to compete with each other for available sunlight, they’re surprisingly social creatures whose well-being depends on their community. And not just forest communities – but also communities of fungi, insects, birds, lichen, and plants, too. Wohlleben’s true gift lies not just in his lifetime of knowledge and devotion to forests, but his uncanny ability to spark wonder in the reader.
I most enjoyed learning about how trees differ from one another in strategizing how to eek out a living. It’s stiff competition in forests, after all! Some trees are extremely good at soaking up all the sunlight they possibly can, like beeches, which catch 97 percent of sunlight (that’s not good news if you’re a tree that needs lots of sunlight and you happen to grow beneath a beech). Oaks create lots of tannins in their bark to discourage and slow down fungi from feeding on their tree bark. Spruce store essential oils in their needles and bark, which acts like antifreeze to keep them healthy during very cold winters. Quaking aspen get their name from their leaves, which – thanks to their triangular stem - blow in even the slightest wind; this helps quaking aspen generate more energy, because both sides of their unique leaves are able to photosynthesize. Wohlleben shares a great depth of knowledge of trees in “revealing even more of their secrets” throughout the book, and since chapters are usually 5-10 pages long, readers can take in these facts in bite-size chunks.
The book also discusses the importance – and disappearance – of old-growth forests and forest preserves. Take the Great Bear Rainforest in northern British Columbia, which covers a whopping 25,000 square miles along the Pacific Coast. Over one-third of this area is covered in old-growth trees, which provides much-needed habitat for the rare spirit bear, a black bear with white fur. Old-growth forests in particular have soft, moist soil rich in nutrients — and soil health is essential to healthy ecosystems. Conserving undisturbed forests isn’t just good for ecosystems — it can also provide new sources of income for humans, too. Consider the Adirondack and Catskill parks in New York State, forest preserves that initially curbed excessive logging, soil erosion, and the silting-up of the Erie Canal; today, they’re also a vital source of tourism to the area. The Hidden Life of Trees shares many of the ways that countries around the world aren’t just understanding the importance of conserving forests — but finding out new ways to monetize them as well, through tourism, education, and more.
Explaining complex scientific systems is no easy feat, and doing so succinctly is admirable. My main issue with the book, however, is his tendency to anthropomorphize the trees – to make them seem like they have thoughts and behaviors as humans do. He talks of trees that live in urban areas as “street kids” and the upper canopies of trees being the “executive offices.” I’m sure Wohlleben does so to make his writing more clear and relatable to the audience, but it also makes it sentimental, patronizing, and, well, unfitting for a book with a number of scientific citations. Nevertheless, The Hidden Life of Trees is a book I’ll keep suggesting to my outdoorsy and non-outdoorsy friends alike for a long time to come.
You can find the Hidden Life of Trees here at Amazon.com.