The Hidden Life of Trees

What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World

Peter Wohlleben
Rating: 8.0

“The matter-of-fact Mr. Wohlleben has delighted readers and talk-show audiences alike with the news — long known to biologists — that trees in the forest are social beings.”
-Sally McGrane, The New York Times

There is so much more to the forest life than what meets the human eye. As you walk through the woods, you may get an impression that the surrounding trees are all very individual, passive entities. Trees are still. Their growth is invisible to a naked eye. They don’t communicate. You may sometimes even forget the fact that they are living beings.

Over the course of their evolution, trees have developed sophisticated communication and cooperation systems that are similar to human ones. On top of that, Wohlleben suggests that they may even have their own version of consciousness and wisdom.

Personality of Trees

Each tree has a unique combination of experiences and traits which add up to its “personality.”

For an amateur who only visits the forest every once in a while, trees may seem mindless. Most people assume that whatever is encoded in their genetics simply conditions the entirety of the trees’ lives.

Wohlleben has been observing individual trees doing for years. If you did the same, you would inevitably notice that each and every one of them is unique. This is because trees are able to “remember” experiences and learn from them – which, over time, forms their unique “personalities.”

Any tree needs to make a multitude of decisions over the course of its lifetime. These include important resolves, such as how long to keep the leaves on, or in which direction to grow roots. If a tree makes a mistake, like shedding leaves after the first frost, it won’t make the same one again.

How differently individual trees interpret their experiences is illustrated by an example of the three oaks that grow very close together on Wohlleben’s land. Observing them over the years, the author has realized that one of them always sheds leaves two weeks earlier than the others.

Since all of them experience exactly the same weather conditions, the explanation needs to be something else. That oak tree has grown to simply be more “careful” than its companions.

Trees hugely depend on community life for growth and survival

Although it may seem like it, trees aren’t loners. Actually, just the opposite is true – most of them evolved to be committed, team players. They each care a whole lot about their fellows in the forest. Not being able to move and run away, trees developed alternative systems of protecting themselves against various threats. Most of these systems are founded on communication and mutual support within the forest community.

One example is the communication network trees develop by connecting their roots through a system of underground fungi. Thanks to certain fungi species, that grow over areas of many miles, trees can “stay connected” by transmitting electrical impulses through that root-fungi network. This is useful, for example, to warn other trees about an invasion of pests or upcoming drought.

There are also other warning mechanisms – for example, based on scent. In African savannas, umbrella acacias’ leaves often get eaten by giraffes. When that happens, the tree starts producing a toxic substance that stops the herbivores from munching on their branches within minutes. Simultaneously, that same substance produces a “warning scent” that other acacias around immediately pick up on – and so, they can prepare for the giraffes’ attack in advance.

Another form of support trees give to one another is sharing nutrients through the roots. When one specimen struggles to photosynthesize enough energy or is under the attack of insects, other trees around may decide to help it by sharing their own food.

Trees can teach us a lot about cooperation and solidarity

At this point you may be wondering: but why would a tree do that? Why would it share its own food with the neighbor, risking that there may not be enough left for itself? Are trees altruists that care for the well-being of others more than for their own?

Not quite. The point here is that trees seem to understand very well – probably better than humans – that supporting the whole forest is in their own best interest.

The tree knows that it is simply better together. It relies on its immediate neighbors, as well as the whole forest’s ecosystem, for its own survival. Living in the woods protects it from storms and other extreme weather conditions – as well as secures the precise microclimate it needs to thrive.

Besides, if a tree is “helpful” to those around – it can also count on the support of others later.

It seems so logical and straightforward – but how often do we, humans, fail to grasp these simple rules of community living? How often do we treat social life as a zero-sum game, where it is either us or the other person who wins?

Maybe by observing the hidden life of the trees, we can get inspired to bring more kindness and cooperation into our own lives. This would allow us to create more situations where everyone is a winner.

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