The Hidden Life of Trees

The Hidden Life of Trees, Barbara Shorrock

Home Gardening with Barbara

Have you ever found yourself while reading a book exclaim, “How interesting”, or “ Imagine that! I had no idea”, or “Wow! That is very cool”?

This has been my experience with The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. Wohlleben has been a forest manager in Germany for much of his life, and his observation of trees there led to the writing of this book. These are not the trees we see in our backyards and city parks. They are in true forests, more or less undisturbed by man. Europe has been populated by humans for many hundreds of years, so large expanses of old growth unlogged forest are rare, but some do exist. What he tells us about how trees communicate with each other through their roots and even the air is fascinating. His favourite trees are the beech and oak, native to his country, but he also speaks about various conifers as well as other deciduous species in Europe and North America. Under these trees, beneath the forest floor, is a network of fungi and mycelium, among other organisms, that live because of the trees. And the trees thrive because of this “wood wide web” and the benefits they provide each other.

The Social Life of Trees

Wohlleben tells of the social life of trees, where they live in communities of parents and children, sheltering the little ones, nurturing the sick and struggling, helping one another throughout the seasons. When you comprehend that the natural life of these trees is 400 years and more, you must stretch your perspective when thinking what is a youngster, an adolescent, and an adult. A 150 year old tree may be just entering its adolescence in some environments. While every species is intent on living and flourishing, they also support one another in many ways we are only just beginning to understand.

From Fluff to Humus on the Forest Floor

The flow of water and sugar within the tree, just under the bark in the cambium layer, is clearly explained. Photosynthesis through the leaves (and needles in the conifers) is essential during the spring and summer as the tree makes food for growth and stores it in preparation for winter. In his estimation, each tree in the forest will reproduce itself and make exactly one new tree in its lifetime. Think of the seeds the maple produces, or our poplars with their June fluff. Each of those little pieces of fluff contains a seed, and some of them will land in a place where they will germinate, and start a new tree growing. So why only one descendent? Because many animals browse, roots get too wet and rot, not enough light prevents the baby from thriving, or a bird makes a hole for a nest one year and, for whatever reason, fungus and bacteria move in and the tree is doomed. It may take years to die, but die it will. Then, there are insect predators that can wipe out an entire forest until something like a fire stops their progress. When a tree dies, a whole new story commences as it heads off on the path to humus on the forest floor many years in the future, having nourished a myriad of critters and life forms on its way. Fascinating.

I like the author’s way with words as he speaks of the trees as children, parents, elders, neighbors, and street kids. Each species has its own character and a healthy forest has room for many different characters. This book is not a quick read, but a thoughtful and interesting one and the language is not difficult, despite having been translated from the original German. Not once did I find myself thinking, “I wish this guy had had a better editor” as is the case with some of the novels I have read lately. It is no surprise that it remains a New York Times bestseller.

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