A walk through the woods is not like the ones you take elsewhere in the world. It’s a walk that comes with a special kind of quiet, a softness, a quality of air that makes your lungs feel like they’re truly breathing for the first time all day.
Peter Wohlleben has spent a lifetime in the company of trees. He has tended to and watched them through the decades, learning things someone can only learn through patient observation over such a profound length of time.
In “The Hidden Life of Trees”, Wohlleben shares what he’s learned, from individual tree biology to the collective habits of an old-growth forest. Here are just a few of my favorites:
1. Trees communicate with and help each other survive.
Studies have demonstrated that trees can not only detect when danger is imminent, but communicate it to their neighbors. For example, when giraffes graze on the leaves of an acacia tree, it exudes ethylene to other acacias nearby, who quickly begin pumping toxins to defend themselves. This friendly communication is one reason for what Wohlleben fondly refers to as the “wood wide web.”
2. Trees aren’t solitary; they are an ecosystem for other living species.
In 2009, German tree researcher Dr. Martin Gossner sprayed insecticide into a 600-year-old tree. Wohlleben writes: “The lethal results show how species-rich life is... The scientist counted 2,041 animals belonging to 257 different species.” 257 species within one tree!
3. We need old-growth forests.
When a forest is clear-cut, it is only after centuries of regeneration that it fully regains its original biodiversity and nutrient-rich soil. Trees themselves are stronger and healthier when they grow up within old-growth forests: because they grow more slowly under the heavily shaded canopies, their rings are more compact and their trunks sturdier, making them less susceptible to disease or damage. Not least of all, anyone who has had the pleasure of hiking through an old-growth forest knows it has a particular sacredness to it that you just can’t find elsewhere. As Wohlleben puts it, “You need preserves with ancient forests free from any human interference.”
4. One of the most massive living organisms on our planet is the Pando Aspen Grove in Utah.
Aspen trees are unique in that they grow entire root systems. What begins as a single tree can reproduce new, genetically identical shoots, living on even after the original tree has died. This is exactly how the Pando Aspen Grove—aka “The Trembling Giant”—came to be in central Utah. Researchers estimate it spans 105 acres, weighs over 6,600 tons, and is up to one million (!) years old.
Walking through the depths of a forest, we feel wonderfully small next to their sturdy trunks and under their protective canopies. There’s a wonderful mysteriousness among them, as if they hold a wisdom that our young human species is not yet privy to. Peter Wohlleben has tapped into some of that wisdom, and graciously shares it with us in “The Hidden Life of Trees.”
Check out this popular book from your local library, if they carry it. Or buy it so you can scribble notes in the margins of every page: consider supporting our favorite local bookstore, Dotters Books, by putting in a special order request from them.