“The Hidden Life of Trees” – Peter Wohlleben

What started off as an incredibly interesting book filled with completely new information for me, didn’t quite manage to hold that level until the very end. Nevertheless, I still considered it to be a more or less enjoyable read. I really appreciated the sense of humour of the author throughout the writing & the short chapters. Even though it felt like a bit of a downward spiral, which picked up again towards the end, I don’t regret having read “The Hidden Life of Trees“.

The main goal of the author seemed to be to lead the reader into a direction of breaking down the moral barriers between animals and plants (p. 244), as it is mentioned towards the end of the book. In my case, this wasn’t as successful but it still changed my outlook & opinion on trees. It made me want to go out & seek out nature, walk around in a forest & most of all, experience the difference between ancient forests & the ones recently planted (recent, as in still having taken place a couple of hundred years ago), since there is a difference that you might be able to feel between them.

“Walkers who visit one of the ancient deciduous preserves in the forest […] always report that their heart feels lighter and they feel right at home. If they walk instead through coniferous forests, which in Central Europe are mostly planted and are, therefore […] artificial places, they don’t experience such feelings. I am convinced we intuitively register the forest’s health.” (p. 223)

You can straight away feel how passionate & caring Peter Wohlleben is about the subject but in the process of trying to make you feel compassion for trees, I felt like certain facts were too over-emotionalised. When speaking of how trees support each other out of “friendship” rather than it being an instinctive reaction programmed in their DNA. Or describing how they feel pain when they’re being eaten by an animal, rather than saying that an automatic reaction is being triggered when a part of the organism is being ripped away.

“[…] Beeches are capable of friendship and go so far as to feed each other.” (p. 15)

“Beeches, spruce, and oaks all register pain as soon as some creature starts nibbling on them. […] In addition the leaf tissue sends out electrical signals, just as human tissue does when it is hurt.” (p. 7-8)

What I would rather see as proven in the quotes mentioned above, is the fact that trees do react to disturbances but it seems like the information was laid out in a way for the reader to be able to relate more by humanising trees.

There were quite a few topics that simply didn’t hook me, such as which trees lose how many leaves & why, how trees decompose themselves or the detailed descriptions of the micro-organisms living in the earth of the forests. These parts felt like lectures you would have to endure during biology lessons at school. Every now & then you still did come across an interesting fact, which made you want to read on.

“Dr. Suzanne Simard has discovered that [trees] warn each other using chemical signals sent through fungal networks around their root tips […]. These fungi operate like fiber-optic Internet cables. One teaspoon of forest soil contains many miles of these ‘hyphae’.” (p. 9)

I was fascinated by the fact that I once again spotted a parallel to a book I recently read by Jenny Odell, “How to Do Nothing“, when it is mentioned that what it takes to restore the natural habitat of trees & forests is simply doing nothing.

“There’s consensus among German politicians that 5% of the forests should be left to their own devices so that they can become the old-growth forests of tomorrow. […] In contrast to nature preserves, which are carefully groomed, what would be preserved here would be doing absolutely nothing. In scientific terms, this is known as ‘process conservation’.” (p. 235)

To sum up the most interesting things that I learned:

  • That trees “communicate” through their root network, through underground fungi networks & through “smells” (p. 10);
  • That trees are “social” beings, being able to distinguish their own “kind” (p. 23), older trees “taking care” of younger ones (p. 34) & the stronger ones supporting the weaker ones (p. 15 & 249);
  • How a tree’s bark can be seen as the “skin” of a human being & damages to it are just like wounds for us (p. 61);
  • How the roots of a tree can be considered as its brain, where electrical impulses can be registered (p. 83);
  • Why old trees become incredibly thick rather than endlessly growing in height (p. 66);
  • Why trees need “sleep” just like us in order to be able to survive (p. 142);
  • How certain experiments have proven that trees have a type of memory (p. 48 & 149).

If some of these topics seem interesting to you, you might very well enjoy the book 🙂

I don’t have a very broad spectrum of knowledge on nature or trees, meaning that a lot of the names of the trees didn’t say much to me. Even after having translated them to German & Russian, I was still left clueless, so I had to head over to the option of inspecting images of them instead 😀 . What surprised me was that some illustrations of trees are provided within the book, which are placed completely arbitrarily though. It would have been much more helpful to have them summed up within a glossary in the beginning or the end of the book.

One thing to keep in mind if you’d like to get your hands on a copy of the book is to check what kind of an edition it is & which units of measurements are used. I ended up struggling through inches, pounds & Fahrenheit, constantly converting them in order to get an understanding of what was being explained.

On a final note, I feel like it would be important to have a complimentary visual experience on top of the reading. There is the most recent documentary, “Das Geheime Leben der Bäume” (which seems to only be available in a German version at the moment), which was released in January 2020. An older one called “Intelligent Trees” from 2016 can be watched online over here (accessed on 07/05/2020).

“The Hidden Life of Trees” – Peter Wohlleben

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

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