Trees Have Powerful Needs & Wants: The Hidden Life of Trees

Whatcom Million Trees Project and the Pickford Film Center will show The Hidden Life of Trees as part of City of Bellingham’s ALL IN for Climate Action Week.

On September 22 and 25 as in-person showings at the Pickford Film Center, or via virtual streaming on your home screen any time during that same week, Whatcom Million Trees Project showed The Hidden Life of Trees film as part of City of Bellingham’s ALL IN for Climate Action Week. This new film features author Peter Wohlleben, a German forester, and ideas drawn from Wohlleben’s 2015 book of the same title plus his subsequent books.

The Hidden Life of Trees book sold a million copies in Wohlleben’s native Germany alone. It also was a best-seller here in the United States. The book has been translated into 19 languages.

I am a professional landscaper/gardener in Bellingham. This article is my review of Wohlleben’s amazing book.

In short, reading The Hidden Life of Trees radically changed how I see and think about trees. I return to it frequently, to experience again my delight at Wohlleben’s poetic, clear and lively writing.

It’s a marvelous read and an important book. It is also the subject of debate as to its accuracy and intellectual rigor. Read on to find out why.

Long Live the Wood Wide Web!

Some elders among us gardeners began at a time when people thought to make a clean start for a garden by “solarizing” the soil with black plastic. A few years into my practice, I learned about the teeming life and structure in the soil, much of which is destroyed by methods like solarization and double-digging.

Methods and understandings change. And that can be a good thing. Over the 30-years of my involvement, extensive and thrilling scientific work on soil, plants, trees and the forest has “bloomed” and “mushroomed.”

Forest science has undergone an especially profound transformation. Forest ecologist Suzanne Simard and other scientists have completed hundreds of scientific experiments demonstrating that interconnectedness in plant and tree communities is not far off the portrayal of the forest in the film Avatar (minus the neon colors!).

Simard’s documentation of the role of fungal filaments in the “Wood Wide Web” of life in forests is now established, peer-reviewed and accepted forest science. Simard’s newest book, Finding the Mother Tree, narrates her personal and professional journey to these understandings.

In undisturbed forest, trees are connected by an extensive interwoven system of roots and fungal filaments called hyphae. These send chemicals, nutrients and electrical impulses between trees and other plants.

The forest is not inert, it is buzzing with complex “communication”, exchange, “cooperation” and “competition” between individuals of the same and different species. There is evidence that trees and other plants share nutrients and water through these networks, especially with related individuals.

Trees also use the air to ”communicate,” changing leaf chemistry and releasing aerosols when under attack by insect pests or mammalian predators like deer. These messages have the effect of warning other nearby trees who in turn release the defensive compounds into their leaves and the air.

This scientific work links strongly with movements in favor of biodiversity and forest preservation. There is a vast difference in volume and frequency of communication between noisy and raucous undisturbed mixed forest and eerily quiet monocultural tree farms. Mixed forests have the resources needed to survive stresses that can wipe out monoculture. This is especially true in forests where no clear-cutting has ever taken place.

All this adds up to a new science of plant and tree “behavior” — standing on its head our concept of plants as passive recipients of insect and mammalian action, and as mere objects of human exploitation.

Can We Understand Trees Better Using Words that Describe Our Emotions?

This is the context into which Peter Wohlleben ventures with a compelling and entertaining narrative of tree life. Wohlleben uses human emotional concepts like love, support, nurturing, warning, protecting, and human sensory terms like “scent” to understand what trees are up to.

The Hidden Life of Trees presents a fascinating mix of findings from forest science, Wohlleben’s observations from his life work in a relatively undisturbed forest, and his ideas about tree behavior. It is enlivened by his sense of humor and compassion. He wants to make sense of how trees function, how they live in forests, and what their objectives are.

I experience his book as poetry that makes you notice, question and think about the beauty and vitality around us, so often taken for granted. The beauty and vitality that makes it possible for us humans to exist on earth as a species because trees and plants make the oxygen we breathe.

However, anyone who is familiar with the anthropomorphism debate in the animal behavior science world can imagine the outraged response to The Hidden Life of Trees by some in the scientific community. At one point after its publication, a German scientist circulated a petition criticizing the book as nonscientific. The petition got 4500 signatures.

I respect science and the need for precision and accuracy. One needs to read The Hidden Life of Trees with one’s critical faculties intact. I don’t agree with everything in the book, but this does not diminish my delight in Wohlleben’s work. Just asking the questions he tries to answer is of deep value. The human words he uses to imagine a tree’s inner life fosters a sense of bond with a vastly different living creature. Perhaps that is not a bad thing, since in reality we are so dependent on trees.

Wohlleben’s work is a popularization of important science, even though he takes his narrative well beyond the scientific evidence. He has made a very significant contribution to public awareness of how trees and forests might work and what their value to us might be. His work links with human tradition among indigenous cultures in the Americas and other non-Western cultures to regard trees and plants as living beings with power and consciousness, worthy of deep respect, sometimes as kin to humans.

Wohlleben calls on us to reexamine the life, the experience, the “wants” and the needs of trees and other species, and to think about our relation to and place among them. That strikes me as a most worthy endeavor.

The Hidden Life of Trees is the first in a three book series, followed by The Inner Life of Animals and The Secret Wisdom of Nature. Wohlleben’s most recent book, just published, is The Heartbeat of Trees.

The Hidden Life of Trees
The Inner Life of Animals
The Secret Wisdom of Nature
The Heartbeat of Trees

All are available at Village Books. Best yet, if you buy Peter’s latest book The Hearbeat of Trees at Village Books during Climate Action Week (September 20-26), a portion of your purchase will also benefit Whatcom Million Trees Project. Like The Hidden Life of Trees, it’s a marvelous book to give any nature-oriented friend or relative!

Don’t miss the film or the books!!!!

Post-article note: SOLD OUT Hidden Life of Trees film showings at Pickford Film Center during Climate Action Week of September 20-26 benefited Whatcom Million Trees Project to help the non-profit meet its ambitious five-year goal of planting and protecting one-million trees within Whatcom County — as a response to the climate crisis and to enhance the well-being and resilience of our local communities. Thanks everyone!


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Jim Smith is a contributing writer for Whatcom Million Trees Project. He is a professional landscaper/gardener at Kavalski Gardenworks LLC in Bellingham and has been passionate about trees for several decades.