Trees speak to each other. They share resources and information. They “suckle” their young. They help the sick. They remember. For the most part, humans ignore these connections, this social network that trees have developed over millennia. But now a real-life Lorax is speaking for the trees.
In “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate,” Peter Wohlleben shares a world he has come to know as a forester in Germany. Though scientific evidence and observation is used throughout the book, the author does not use technical vocabulary to get at his main point: what the trees feel. Instead, he describes these living creatures with phrases like talking to each other, nursing the sick, warning neighbors, and ouch when harmed. This, plus the incredible stories of the forest is making the book a sensation around the world.
The data isn’t a complete breakthrough. For years, various studies have revealed an incredible world, invisible to most of us. 90% of plants are in multi-beneficiary relationships with types of fungi, including sharing information through vast underground networks, the fungi linking roots. Certain trees will expel bug-repelling chemicals, which act as early warning systems to other species.
Most forests used for timber in the U.S. and around the world are carefully cultivated. Usually comprised of one or two species prized for certain qualities like quick growth, monocultures abound. Spaced for optimal exposure to sunlight and nutrients, plus heavy use of pesticides and herbicides, forestry is often a science of high yield. But there is more to the story, something most foresters are missing.
Peter Wohlleben discovered the secrets of trees when he visited forests that were allowed to remain in a close-to-natural state. He found that the forest that was allowed to be wild, to tend itself, was much more successful than the ones cared for by humans. In fact, it meant so much to him that he left his job at the state forestry administration and began his quest for an alternative way to utilize the trees.
Working for private owners, Peter cut the use of pesticides, stopped using heavy machinery and instead brought in horses for harvesting, and allowed the trees to do their thing. It worked. The wood that is cut earns much more profit per tree than ever before. His discoveries are catching the attention of the world, “The Hidden Life of Trees,” scheduled to be published in English later this year. As his wonder and respect spread, perhaps the forests will start to feel the same for humans again.
So, the next time you’re in a forest, make sure to watch and listen. What are the trees saying to you?