Translated from German by Jane Billinghurst
I can’t think of a more appropriate book to have read while hiking through the north-western edges of the Black Forest. At the same time there was something disconcerting about it …..
because as I was gloryifying the beauty, the scale, the sheer magnificence of it all, picking out cool, peaceful resting places and reading spots ….
Wohlleben’s book made me aware that the trees weren’t just basking in the sun, creating shelter and unpolluted oxygen for me to breathe, they were engaged in a battle for their very lives. So those amazing formations – coppiced and ivy-clad trunks, crenelated barks, for example
are symptoms of a battle for survival against predators (ivy), logging or fire (coppiced trunks) or thirst (crenelated bark).
I’m writing from memory here so the diagnoses above may not be exactly right. I found Wohlleben’s book full of the most fascinating facts, and much too much for me to take in on one reading.
Wohlleben is a German forester, who does not view or manage his patch of forest as an exploitable commodity, but as a sustainable one. Forests are families, individual trees do not stand alone. They support each other, sharing food via their roots, when one tree is ailing. They communicate via electrical impulses in the roots, using so-called woodwide web. They nurture their young. Different tree species have different characters. Beeches are bullies. They tower over every other species, depriving pines and oaks of sunlight. (Which is why they have taken over the forests of central Europe.) Willows are loners. (Which is why they do not live for long, in terms of tree age.)
But is a willow a loner as humans understand the term? Or do they just grow alone because the seeds travel so far from the parent tree? Wohlleben uses anthromorphic speech throughout and I will confess there were more than a couple of hang-on-a-minute moments as I was reading. But I decided to ride with it, happy to accept that trees do have a consciousness and that human speech can only describe their experience in terms of our own.
As a result, the book affected me in unexpected ways. In addition to becoming aware of the battles for survival in the seemingly peaceful forest, I began to feel sorry for all the trees lining and beautifying the streets of German cities. Wohlleben calls them the “street kids”, and the chapter on them explains just how rough and ready (and short-lived) their existence is.
The Hidden Life of Trees is definitely an eye-opener, aimed at giving its readership a better understanding and greater respect for our forests. Interestingly, while Wohlleben argues that our forests are best left to their own devices (i.e an undisturbed forest is much healthier than a managed one), he does not argue that we should forgo using them as a resource. But he does want to change our behaviour towards them. To move us towards “helping ourselves only to what we need from the forest ecosystem, and … to spare the trees unnecessary suffering when we do this.”
Which, of course, raises the question of whether there is now any legitimate and guilt-free excuse for me to be adding to Mount TBR … As I said at the beginning, a disconcerting thought. I think I’d rather retrace my tracks for a while …