"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.
“With his book, he changed the way I look at the forest forever,” Markus Lanz, a popular talk show host, said in an email. “Every time I walk through a beautiful woods, I think about it.”
…“I use a very human language,” [Mr. Wohlleben] explained. “Scientific language removes all the emotion, and people don’t understand it anymore. When I say, ‘Trees suckle their children,’ everyone knows immediately what I mean.”
Still No. 1 on the Spiegel best-seller list for nonfiction, “Hidden Life” has sold 320,000 copies and has been optioned for translation in 19 countries (Canada’s Greystone Books will publish an English version in September). “It’s one of the biggest successes of the year,” said Denis Scheck, a German literary critic who praised the humble narrative style and the book’s ability to awaken in readers an intense, childlike curiosity about the workings of the world.
The popularity of “The Hidden Life of Trees,” Mr. Scheck added, says less about Germany than it does about modern life. People who spend most of their time in front of computers want to read about nature…
“For a forester, this tree is ugly, because it is crooked, which means you can’t get very much money for the wood,” [Wohlleben] said. “It really surprised me, walking through the forest, when people called a tree like this one beautiful. They said, ‘My life hasn’t always run in a straight line, either.’ And I began to see things with new eyes.”
-- Sally McGrane, “German Forest Ranger Finds that Trees Have Social Networks, Too,” The New York Times, January 29, 2016.
* * * * *
It’s impossible to envision a world without trees, even though there are areas on the planet that aren’t at all hospitable to them (deserts, wetlands, the arctic, etc).
Our hikes take place in mostly mountainous landscapes where trees are ubiquitous and dominant among the countless life forms that comprise the natural world.
Human beings have an unfortunate tendency to take many ordinary but wonderful things for granted, and that certainly holds true for essential elements of nature like trees. But some of us do pay close attention and have a great appreciation for them.
We know that trees and other plants are very much alive, of course, but to view them as conscious, sentient beings would seem farfetched or absurd to many people.
As sometimes happens, science and research now seem to reveal that our perspectives may not be quite in line with reality, as the above article suggests.
Even if we’ve appreciated trees throughout our lives, it appears that they may be much more complex and in certain senses more “aware” than we ever imagined.
People who talk to trees or hug them have sometimes been ridiculed or considered eccentric, but seeing trees as beings with rudimentary “feelings” may not be crazy after all…
-- Charlie Cook