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How trees talk—and we can listen
BookPage Top Pick in Nonfiction, September 2016
Already a runaway bestseller in the author’s native Germany, The Hidden Life of Trees now offers English-language readers a compelling look at the “secret world” of the forest. Peter Wohlleben, a forester, documents his conversion from lumber producer to tree whisperer, and in the process he reveals the highly communicative social networks of trees.
Wohlleben notes that as humans, we have been more inclined to identify with animals than plants: We recognize a kinship across species when we notice that monkeys indulge in social grooming rituals, or that elephants mourn their dead. Using the language of anthropomorphism, Wohlleben seeks to persuade us that trees too are social beings, in constant communication with one another, caring for their sick and nursing their young. He wants us to recognize our kinship with trees so we’ll be encouraged to preserve their ecosystems more readily.
Trees “speak” to one another through scent, as African acacia trees do when giraffes begin feeding off of them. The acacias being eaten send out a warning scent, which alerts other nearby acacias to produce the bitter toxin that will dissuade the giraffes from eating their leaves. Trees also communicate through a vast fungal network twined around their roots, which transmit electrical signals and chemical compounds. Through this “Wood Wide Web,” forests are truly an interconnected ecosystem—as Wohlleben demonstrates, trees in a community will send healing sugars to the roots of weak or ill trees, and some forests will keep the stumps of their elders alive long after their trunks and branches have disintegrated.
In part, Wohlleben wants to demonstrate how centuries of forestry have harmed trees, especially the practice of thinning out trees, which keeps them from establishing healthy underground communication lines. But even more, he wants to enchant readers into taking a walk in the woods and listening to the trees themselves.