Sydney M. Williams
Burrowing into Books
Reviews of Selective Readings
“The Hidden Life of Trees”
January 14, 2017
“What we see is always a brief snapshot
of a landscape that only seems to be standing still.”
Peter Wohlleben (1964-)
The Hidden Life of Trees
Earlier this month “Pioneer Cabin,” a 150’ tall sequoia, fell over. Like all living things, trees die. Sequoias are among Earth’s largest and longest-living organisms. This tree was no exception. Its obituary provided details: It was 33 feet in diameter, weighed between 2.5 and 3 million pounds and was estimated to be over 1000 years old. But what you would not have known, unless you had read Peter Wohlleben’s book, is that “Pioneer Cabin” had been able to communicate with other trees, care for its young, ward off dangers and feel pain. In 1889, a tunnel was cut out through the sequoia’s middle, an excision that the author of “The Hidden Life of Trees,” would have disapproved.
The author manages a forest in the 2,000 square-mile Eifel park, located in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate in Germany’s west. Much of the region suffered as armies marched through during World War II, and for much of the post-War period it was among the poorest states in West Germany. But it has a lot of trees.
Mr. Wohlleben writes of the mutualism of different species and the symbiotic lives they live, among other trees, insects, mosses and rodents. He speaks of their adaptability to changing climes. Specific trees live in specific climates, and they migrate as temperatures change. Peter Wohlleben writes how three million years ago today’s native beeches existed as they do now. But, during the ice age, to survive they had to march south, over the Alps to the Mediterranean. Some species, unable to make it over the mountains, died out. Those that survived, as the ice receded, slowly made their way back, and are still doing so.
Mr. Wohlleben is learned about trees, and he makes them anthropomorphic in a manner both respectful to his subject and appealing to the reader. “Trees,” as he writes, “live their lives in the really slow lane.” He began his career as one who looked upon trees as a commodity, but now looks upon them as living things who protect their young, combat disease, bind up wounds, live social lives (preferring their own kind) and compete with other trees for sunlight, food and water. He writes: “When you know that trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you can no longer just chop them down and disrupt their lives with large machines.” He concludes: “I am convinced we intuitively register the forest’s health.” One closes the book knowing one has met an intelligent, civil and compassionate man.
As I age, my life moves to a slower lane; so the feeling of kinship with trees is felt more deeply. The time I have gained has allowed me to appreciate how awe inspiring nature can be. Peter Wohlleben makes the woods come alive, if not with the sound of music, at least with the harmony of our interconnectedness. And, of course, trees gave their lives so that this book could be published. That act, in my opinion, was a selfless sacrifice – and reflects another debt we owe these magnificent sentries.