Do trees have memories? Sure, says author Peter Wohlleben, in his engrossing book about forests and his love for them.
A walk with author Peter Wohlleben through the forest he manages in Hummel, Germany, would be a pleasant and enlightening experience, judging by his book.
“The Hidden Life of Trees” (Greystone Books, 271 pp., $24.95) is rooted in Wohlleben’s knowledge of forests and his love for them.
If his conversation through the forest matched how he writes in the book, it would be folksy but still filled with facts and logic to support his contentions that trees feel pain, have memories, parent their young, learn from injuries and have a sense of time.
The author of “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries from a Secret World” will appear at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 16, at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
The temptation may be to dismiss Wohlleben as someone so enamored of forests that he assigns human attributes to natural processes. But he presents data and observations that go far beyond a fuzzy infatuation with arboreal surroundings. He worked for more than 20 years for the forestry commission in Germany before taking on the management of a woodland in Hummel.
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His experience there is mostly with deciduous trees, especially beech and oak. He writes enough about conifers, though, to make the book applicable to the Pacific Northwest, and the criticism of what he calls “tree plantations” (as opposed to natural forests left on their own) falls squarely on the managed Northwest timberlands.
He draws on research from other forestry experts and scientists, most notably from University of British Columbia professor of forest ecology Suzanne Simard, who contributed a note to the book.
Her research focuses on the interaction of fungi and tree roots that makes possible the exchange of nutrients between trees — even between different species.
This “wood wide web” helps Wohlleben explain how fungi fight off bacteria harmful to trees and how sick trees are nurtured by healthier ones. To Wohlleben, tree communication is not limited to roots, the most likely location of a tree brain, but also takes place, among other ways, by leaves emitting chemical signals to warn neighbors of danger — insects, herbivores and disease.
Whether or not you buy into Wohlleben’s view of why trees do what they do, you’ll probably never look at a tree the same way after reading this book. That would undoubtedly please Wohlleben, especially if you tend to regard trees mainly as precursors to wood products.
That limited view distorts the age of trees from old to old-enough-to-harvest, usually between 60 and 120 years, hardly more than tree adolescence. Trees, Wohlleben says, “simply live to be ancient.” Left alone they live hundreds, even thousands, of years, so long that the study of them must span human generations.
For those who want definitive proof of every Wohlleben assertion, the book can be frustrating. Like that tree-brain idea? The book points to evidence of neurological processes, electrical impulses and brain-like structures in the root tips. But, because Wohlleben relishes the tantalizing thrill of a mystery as much as the satisfaction of an answer, he invites readers to take comfort that there are “still many secrets in the forest.”
Those secrets won’t be revealed, Wohlleben writes, unless forests are left to grow undisturbed so they can return to their natural state. In most places, that means a 200- to 500-year wait, he says. Wohlleben recommends at a minimum “continuous cover forests with careful selective cutting.”
If you ever take that walk with Wohlleben through his forest, don’t be surprised if he asks you how well you think the forest is feeling that day. He thinks humans can communicate on some level with trees? Yep. He can explain, and does in his book, while leaving some secrets, of course.