Facts Or Fairy Tales? The Hidden Life Of Trees


FIRST PUBLISHED AUGUST 27, 2018, BOOK REVIEW BY SHARON ELIZABETH KINGSLAND, THE HIDDEN LIFE OF TREES, WRITTEN BY PETER WOHLLEBEN

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World, was published in 2016 and became a best‐seller, but not without generating considerable controversy. Wohlleben began his career as a professional forester whose job was to assess the suitability of trees for harvesting. Eventually, his community, the village of Hümmel in the Eifel mountains, hired him to manage their forest according to these ecological principles, which emphasize leaving the forest as undisturbed as possible, promoting diversity of species, and removing trees using animals rather than heavy machinery. Wohlleben also hopes that management can be linked to preservation of undisturbed forests where trees are able to fulfill their “social needs,” pass their knowledge on to the next generation, and grow “old with dignity.” It is not entirely clear to whom this book is addressed, for it has infuriated professional forestry scientists while being warmly welcomed by lay people, who, Wohlleben admits, seem intuitively to grasp the need for an ecological approach to forest management better than forestry professionals do. The reason for this divided response is that his argument's force depends heavily on eliciting an emotional response from readers through its powers of suggestion. As Wohlleben concludes, if we understand the “capabilities” of plant life and learn to recognize trees’ “emotional lives and needs,” then we will also begin to treat plants differently, will cease to view forests as lumber factories, and will understand how forests can serve as oases of respite and recovery for us. His argument is intended to make us appreciate the benefits to us—as well as to the trees—of leaving the forests alone. For the most part, the book has received enthusiastic reviews for revealing amazing “discoveries” and countless “wonders.” These discoveries are not limited to the results of scientific research; Wohlleben also describes his own psychological and spiritual awakening over his many years of working in the forest. One of his goals is to explain basic adaptations of trees that may not be familiar to most people, and to show the reader how, from an ecological standpoint, we need to view trees not as isolated individuals, but as communities bound up in a complex set of ecological relationships, with organisms of the same species, with organisms of different species, and most especially with the soil fungi that help to transmit nutrients to plant roots. Not only are trees like us in having an emotional and social life, but they seem capable of planning ahead to promote the optimum environment to guarantee their longevity. Trees do not just interact accidentally, but form “friendships” in natural forests, whereas in planted forests trees behave like “loners” that “suffer from their isolation.” “Why are trees social beings?” he asks, answering “The reasons are the same as for human communities: there are advantages to working together.”


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