Below is Tim Flannery’s foreword from Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees.
We read in fairy tales of trees with human faces; trees that can talk, and sometimes walk. This enchanted forest is the kind of world, I feel sure, that Peter Wohlleben inhabits. His deep understanding of the lives of trees, reached through decades of careful observation and study, reveal a world so astonishing that, if you read his book, I believe that forests will become magical places for you, too.
One reason that many of us fail to understand trees is that they live on a different timescale to us. The oldest trees on Earth are nearly 5,000 years old. That’s 60 times longer than the average human lifetime. Creatures with such a luxury of time on their hands can afford to take things at a leisurely pace. The electrical impulses that pass through the tissues of trees, for example, move at the rate of one centimetre per second. But why, you might ask, do trees pass electrical impulses through their tissues at all?
The answer is that trees need to communicate, and electrical impulses are just one of their many means of communication. Trees also use a sense of smell and taste for communication. If a giraffe starts eating an African acacia tree, the tree releases a chemical into the air which signals that a threat is at hand. As it drifts through the air and reaches other trees, they ‘smell’ it and are warned and begin producing toxic chemicals. Likewise, if the saliva of a leaf-eating insect is ‘tasted’ by the leaf it is eating, the tree sends out a chemical signal that attracts that insect’s predators. Life in the slow lane is clearly not always dull.
But the most astonishing thing about trees is how social they are. The trees in a forest care for each other, sometimes even going to the extent of nourishing the stump of a felled forest for centuries after it was cut down, by feeding it sugars and other nutrients, and so keeping it alive. Only some stumps are thus nourished. Perhaps they are the parents of the trees that make up the forest of today. A tree’s most important means of staying connected is the existence of a ‘wood wide web’ of fungi that connects trees in an intimate network that allows the sharing of an enormous amount of information and goods. Scientific research has only just begun to understand the astonishing abilities of this partnership.
The reason trees share food and communicate is that they need each other. It takes a forest to create a micro-climate suitable for tree growth and sustenance. Isolated trees have far shorter lives than those living connected together in forests. Perhaps the saddest plants of all are those we have enslaved in our agricultural systems. They seem to have lost the ability to communicate, and, as Wohlleben says, are thus rendered deaf and dumb. Their lives really are nasty, brutish and short.
Opening this book, you are about to enter a wonderland. Enjoy it.
Extract from The New York Times:
German Forest Ranger Finds That Trees Have Social Networks, Too.
HÜMMEL, Germany — IN the deep stillness of a forest in winter, the sound of footsteps on a carpet of leaves died away. Peter Wohlleben had found what he was looking for: a pair of towering beeches. “These trees are friends,” he said, craning his neck to look at the leafless crowns, black against a gray sky. “You see how the thick branches point away from each other? That’s so they don’t block their buddy’s light.”
Before moving on to an elderly beech to show how trees, like people, wrinkle as they age, he added, “Sometimes, pairs like this are so interconnected at the roots that when one tree dies, the other one dies, too.”
Mr. Wohlleben, 51, is a very tall career forest ranger who, with his ramrod posture and muted green uniform, looks a little like one of the sturdy beeches in the woods he cares for. Yet he is lately something of a sensation as a writer in Germany, a place where the forest has long played an outsize role in the cultural consciousness, in places like fairy tales, 20th-century philosophy, Nazi ideology and the birth of the modern environmental movement.
After the publication in May of Mr. Wohlleben’s book, a surprise hit titled The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries From a Secret World, the German forest is back in the spotlight. Since it first topped best-seller lists last year, Mr. Wohlleben has been spending more time on the media trail and less on the forest variety, making the case for a popular reimagination of trees, which, he says, contemporary society tends to look at as “organic robots” designed to produce oxygen and wood.
Presenting scientific research and his own observations in highly anthropomorphic terms, the matter-of-fact Mr. Wohlleben has delighted readers and talk-show audiences alike with the news – long known to biologists – that trees in the forest are social beings. They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the “Wood Wide Web”; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots… Continue reading article
The Hidden Life of Trees
What They Feel, How They Communicate - Discoveries from a Secret World
A forester's fascinating stories backed by the latest scientific research illustrate how trees nurture and talk to each other.
In this international bestseller – which has sold more than 320,000 copies in Germany alone – forester and author Peter Wohlleben draws on groundbreaking scientific discoveries to reveal the ways in which trees are like human families and communities: tree parents live together with their children, communicate with them, support them as they grow, share nutrients with those who are sick or struggling, and even warn each other of impending dangers.
About the Contributor
Anastasia Hadjidemetri is the former editor of The Booktopian and star of Booktopia's weekly YouTube show, Booked with Anastasia. A big reader and lover of books, Anastasia relishes the opportunity to bring you all the latest news from the world of books.