The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate - Discoveries from a Secret World - Book Review
Educational Focus: Service Learning - Our Impact on the Climate
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate - Discoveries from a Secret World
Book Review 3 of 4
Reviewed by Allison Irwin
PCTELA Director of Special Activities
In Central Pennsylvania, just north of State College, there is a beautiful little hotel nestled inside a state park. It’s one of the only hotels of its kind. The Nature Inn at Bald Eagle was “voted the #1 Eco-Lodge in the nation!” Watch this video to see it for yourself. I was lucky enough to spend a weekend here recently.
This past April our Pennsylvania Council of Teachers of English and Language Arts (PCTELA) Executive Council decided to have our annual board meeting in this location. We couldn’t have made a better choice! They held our meeting in a small library overlooking the lobby of the hotel. In that library, during one of our breaks, I discovered The Hidden Life of Trees - a tiny, soft covered book that held my attention for a full weekend. That was all it took for me to rip my way through this incredibly interesting text. I even stopped at Barnes and Noble that evening on the way to dinner just to purchase my own copy.
Written by Peter Wohlleben, a man who spent a good bit of his time as a German forestry worker, The Hidden Life of Trees goes beyond your typical nature story. When he began his “professional career as a forester, [he] knew about as much about the hidden life of trees as a butcher knows about the emotional life of animals.” But over time that changed. The trees he describes take on human qualities of community, survival, grit. Trees, through his eyes, have an almost living presence. Much like a soul. And yet he writes of science and research. Qualitative first-person interactions with forests spanning decades. He doesn’t write about feelings, he writes about facts. But he does it in such a way that you can’t help but view trees in a different light.
One of the most surprising chapters in this book describes how the underground root system of trees act as a community network tying trees of like kind together. I had no idea that they use their roots to pass nutrients and sustain life like an underground electrical grid. When I think of their root system, I can’t help but imagine the synapses and network of neurons we have in our own brains.
“A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old.”
Wohllenben excels at not just introducing the research that is out there, but also making us care about the topic. I’ll never look at a tree in a park the same way again. Since trees in parks and in city landscaping are typically planted by design, they are often completely cut off from this natural grid system. We surround their roots in concrete tombs so they don’t grow to crack the sidewalk or to wrap around underground water pipes. They have no way of extending their roots to their neighbors and therefore spend their lives completely cut off from the life saving bond of other trees that would otherwise pass nutrients and share water in dire times. For this reason, because the trees planted by us tend to be forced into fending for themselves, their quality of life and length of life are significantly thwarted. Like an orphan braving the streets alone with no social network or adults to help him thrive.
Reading this book also taught me other things like why the leaves of certain trees change color, how different species of trees reproduce very differently from one another, and how a seemingly dead stump can actually remain alive for quite some time. I learned how some trees use counter measures to ward off pests and animals that view the tree as a snack. I learned about sustainable practices for forestry management.
I appreciate that his many analogies to human life throughout the book made the science and study of trees so accessible to someone like me who has a relatively minor background in earth science. I never once thought about the science of trees before reading this book. Never. My mind works much more skillfully with words and language, but he made the research easy to understand. And enjoyable to read.
For anyone who enjoys hiking. Anyone that likes looking at pictures of forests. Anyone who has a backyard or front stoop with a tree that shades their property. Anyone who eats chestnuts in winter. Anyone who ever sat by a roaring bonfire. Anyone who has ever felt the smooth surface of driftwood on the beach. Anyone who enjoys breathing oxygen produced by, well, trees. Read this book!