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BOOK REVIEW: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from A Secret WorldThe Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from A Secret World by Peter Wohlleben
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I picked up this book because it was on one of those “Best Science Books of 2016” lists, and it turned out to be the most important book I read last year. Like most of humanity, I’ve been guilty of thinking about trees largely as objects. Don’t get me wrong. Like others, I never forgot the basics of biology and always remembered that trees are alive because they grow, reproduce, and whatnot. I’ve also never failed to realize that without trees to suck up carbon dioxide and exude oxygen, we couldn’t exist—though I’ve probably not been sufficiently grateful. Still, because of the molasses-like time flow of trees, their immobility, and the fact that many can live for decades after someone chainsaws off a limb, it’s possible to feel they have more akin with rocks than with we members of the animal kingdom. (Note: trees don’t always respond as well as people think to random “trimmings.” As will be a recurring theme, our misunderstanding of this has a lot to do with time perception. If your dog’s head was in the way of the TV screen, and you cut it off with a chainsaw. You’d immediately realize that you’re a homicidal maniac and an idiot because the dog would be dead right then and there. When there’s a branch in front of your window and you hack it down, the tree may stay green for a couple of years [a blink on its time scale] and by the time it dies you’ll have completely forgotten that it was your action that lead to its demise.)

The author, Peter Wohlleben is a German forester, and this book was originally released in German before being translated to English (as well as other foreign languages.)

Wohlleben systematically dismantles the barriers between trees and us by showing the many ways in which they’re more like us than we could possibly fathom at a mere glance. The subtitle’s dual question of “What They Feel, How the Communicate” reflects just a couple of aspects of how trees are more like us than we realize. There are also chapters that investigate how trees share from strongest to weakest, and how the tough love parenting strategy of trees produces robust offspring. (Experience of time may be the way in which humans have the most trouble relating to trees. We believe there is benefit in virtually everything coming to us faster, whereas trees benefit greatly from growing slowly. Slow growth makes for sturdier trees.)

Moving back to that question of communication, one may be dubious that trees communicate because we can neither hear them nor see their gestures. But not only do trees communicate with other trees, some species communicate with members of the animal kingdom as when a tree under attack from insects releases a scent that attracts birds that feed on the attacking insects.

Wohlleben does a great thing by showing us how trees should be more relatable to us than we imagined. However, the lesson needn’t stop there. One might also take away a broader lesson that we shouldn’t assume that our frame of reference maps to the sum of reality. That maybe we should have sufficient humility to recognize the impressive intelligences of species we view too simplistically. There have been a number of books that have come out in recent years that have noted the ways in which monkeys, ravens, owls, and even octopi are much more astute than we give them credit for. Seeing this extended to the plant kingdom takes the discovery to a new level of mind-blowingness.

This book consists of 36 short chapters, each of which deals with a specific topic of interest (e.g. forest etiquette, social interdependence, climate effects, hibernation, illness, and how trees survive under challenging conditions—droughts, introduction of competitors, etc.) There are a few graphics throughout the book, mostly line drawings of trees with the species identified. The book does have notes. However, it’s really set up more like a book of short essays by a naturalist than it is your usual work of popular science.

I’d highly recommend this book for anyone who breathes oxygen.

View all my reviews


3 Comments

  1. I just finished reading Hope Jahren’s “Lab Girl.” She describes some of the ways trees communicate. Fascinating!

    I look forward to reading this one. Thanks for the recommendation.

    Like

  2. […] her and Bill. While the parts of the books about trees didn’t wow me as much as Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees,” that may be because I read his book first and, therefore, was clued into some of the […]

    Like

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