Book Review: The Hidden Life of Trees

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It wasn’t bad, for fanfiction about trees. I just couldn’t figure out a practical way to use this book. That said, the ideas Wohlleben presented were interesting, and I learned a lot. He anthropomorphizes the hell out of the trees, but in trying to frame the forest as a superorganism that communicates chemically and, to a lesser extent, verbally, through its roots and through fungal messengers, you would sort of have to.

Verbally is a stretch, but not only do trees generate their own bioacoustics, they can “hear” other frequencies operating at 220 Hz and grow toward them. Trees stick together. They’re a cooperative bunch. Wohlleben would undoubtedly call them social organisms, if nobody stopped him. He talks about a tree stump in one of the forests he rangers in, chopped down and unable to maintain its biological processes for hundreds of years, yet still alive due to the life support provided it by neighboring trees transfering over nutrients through their interconnected root system.

He goes into great detail about various “behavioral patterns” of different trees, and this is where he started to lose me, since I don’t have enough background knowledge of trees to appreciate it. He holds forth about the wacky hijinks of birches as compared to the more sedate beeches for 40 pages of translated German and I don’t have the context to shake my head ruefully like “oh, those kooky birches”. For that reason, I suspect this book would get a better than 3-star rating from real naturalists, long-time Boy Scouts, and native German speakers.

It’s an awful dry read for a book that draws on so little empirical science, but it’s illuminating in its scope. We think of trees as inanimate objects, the same way we think of walls, or the structural metallic garbage we huck everywhere. Trees are alive, and not just alive in the way bacteria are alive. We have skin, and trees have bark. We have blood, and trees have sap. If you cut through the bark, they lose sap, and become susceptible to infections and parasites. Trees will fight to survive, will attempt to scab over the wound, will deploy poisons and tannins and, sometimes, mercenary fungus to fight off the potential threats to their life. Not only that, they will communicate to the trees around them that they’re under attack using chemicals and acoustics, shooting through what’s functionally an arboreal internet of connected root systems that encapsulates whole forests, and the trees in that vicinity will respond to their “warning” by bringing their own flood of tannins to the surface of their bark in preparation for the coming attack.

It talks a lot about tree competition too, and the slow races to the top of the canopy to maximize photosynthetic potential. Mother trees dropping seeds and then limiting their growth by choking off their access to light, forcing the young trees to focus on strength of trunk and bark thickness for a hundred years before the mother tree finally dies, opening a hole in the canopy for her offspring to access the rest of the light, even as they draw on the decay of her trunk for nutrients.

The Hidden Life of Trees is ideal if you’re a hippie, some kind of deep anprim, or an absolute dweeb about plants. For the layman or hobbyist, it’s not hugely accessible, though not for the usual reasons. Still, I don’t regret the time I put into it. At least now I know that the psilocybin was telling the truth.

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