Trees have friends, feel loneliness, scream with pain and communicate underground via the “woodwide web”. Some act as parents and good neighbours. Others do more than just throw shade – they’re brutal bullies to rival species. The young ones take risks with their drinking and leaf-dropping then remember the hard lessons from their mistakes. It’s a hard-knock life.
A book called "The Hidden Life of Trees" is not an obvious bestseller but it’s easy to see the popular appeal of German forester Peter Wohlleben’s claims – they are so anthropomorphic. Certainly, a walk in the park feels different when you imagine the network of roots crackling with sappy chat beneath your feet. We don’t know the half of what’s going on underground and beneath the bark, he says:
“We have been looking at nature for the last 100 years like [it is] a machine.”
There’s a touchy-feely warmth to the book – an “ouch!” when he describes trees having branches hacked, roots cut or being gnawed by insects – and he talks about “brainlike things” going on in trees that enable them to learn over their long lifetimes. He points to scientific research – by Aachen University, the University of British Columbia and the Max Planck Society – that he claims underpins all his vivid descriptions, but he writes as a conservationist and admits that much is still unknown.
“It’s very hard to find out what trees are communicating when they feel well”, he says.
Wohlleben – it translates as “Livewell” – has developed his thinking over the past decade while watching the powerful but self-interested survival system of the ancient beech forest he manages in the Eifel mountains of western Germany.
“The thing that surprised me most is how social trees are. I stumbled over an old stump one day and saw that it was still living although it was 400 or 500 years old, without any green leaf. Every living being needs nutrition. The only explanation was that it was supported by the neighbour trees via the roots with a sugar solution. As a forester, I learned that trees are competitors that struggle against each other, for light, for space, and there I saw that it’s just vice versa. Trees are very interested in keeping every member of this community alive.”
The key to it, he says, is the so-called woodwide web – trees message their distress in electrical signals via their roots and across fungi networks (“like our nerve system”) to others nearby when they are under attack. By the same means, they feed stricken trees, nurture some saplings (their “most beloved child”) and restrict others to keep the community strong.
“Trees may recognise with their roots who are their friends, who are their families, where their kids are. Then they may also recognise trees that are not so welcome. There are some stumps in these old beech reservations that are alive, and there are some that are rotten, which obviously have had no contact with the roots of supporting neighbours. So perhaps they are like hermits.”
It sounds like living in a small village – as he does, in Hümmel, near the Belgian border.
He writes about the unforgiving woodland etiquette – no one likes a showoff who crowds everyone out and hogs the resources. When trees break the rules, you end up with a “drunken forest”. He describes “upright members of ancient forests … This is what a mature, well-behaved deciduous tree looks like. It has a ramrod-straight trunk with a regular, orderly arrangement of wood fibres.”
In Wohlleben’s analysis, it’s almost as if trees have feelings and character.
“We think about plants being robotic, following a genetic code. Plants and trees always have a choice about what to do. Trees are able to decide, have memories and even different characters. There are perhaps nicer guys and bad guys.”
So which are good, bad and sad? Beeches and oaks form forests that last for thousands of years because they act like families, he says. Trees are tribal (“They are genetically as far away from each other as you and a goldfish”) and ruthlessly protect their own kind:
“Beeches harass new species such as oak to such an extent that they weaken.”
Douglas fir and spruce also bond within their species.
Willows are loners.
“The seeds fly far away from other trees, many kilometres. The trees grow fast and don’t live very long. They are like Usain Bolt – always the first, then they can’t breathe any more after 100 years and then they are gone.”
Poplars aren’t social either and “a birch will wipe other trees away so it has more space for its crown. That doesn’t sound very nice but I think birch has no other choice because that’s what it’s grown like because of its genes.”
City trees are like street kids – isolated and struggling against the odds without strong roots
He talks about the natural world admiringly, wondrously even, but unsentimentally.
“The question for me is not should we use any living being but just how to deal with them.” He wants us to cut down our wood consumption and enjoy trees more – he describes them as “plant elephants”. Have we lost our connection with the natural world? “No, I don’t think so. Perhaps we have a little distance because scientists over the last 200 years have taught us that nature works without soul.”
We put following an interview and other video about it:
Extract from the documentary about this subject called - Intelligent Trees: