The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlebben - a short review

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Oddly, I think this non-fiction book might inspire a tree-based game where the players are forests rather than Ents...

I had been meaning to read The Hidden Life of Trees for some time now, and finally made the opportunity. Broadly speaking, it did not disappoint, except in two specific areas that I'll talk about later.

Peter Wohlleben has worked with trees for years, mostly in Germany, and is convinced that they exhibit behaviours far more complex than we usually reckon, behaviours that we normally associate with higher animals and birds than with plants. He describes how they communicate, both chemically through scent and electrically via their root systems and fungal symbiotes. They can also support each other in times of hardship and old age, count daylight hours, perceive environmental changes and opportunities, and remember important facts in order to shape future actions. It all makes for fascinating reading, and the material is well worth exploring.

What also came home to me was how little we know about the life of trees, largely because the timescale they live on is so slow compared to ours. But another factor which Peter highlights many times is that many of us never meet a tree in its natural state - as one part in a naturally regulated and extensive forest. Isolated trees, or those in small stands, or those living in managed woodland, are all constrained to live unnatural lives, so their growth and actions are as distorted from natural as ours would be if we were kept away from human company as we grew up. It's a rather sobering thought, that our typical treatment of trees might easily be considered cruelty.

Peter also highlights areas where our grasp of ordinary tree biology is very weak. It is common knowledge that trees draw water and nutrients out of the soil using their roots, and deliver it to their leaves and growing shoots - for some trees this is a journey of tens, or even a couple of hundred feet. It comes as a surprise to read that we don't actually know how they do this, and that the normal explanations of osmosis, capillary action, or transpiration cannot possibly account for the heights reached.

One of the most vivid parts was Peter's attempt to get to linguistic grips with the slowness of the life cycles of trees. He describes very effectively the grand migrations of forests south and north as the ice ages have come and gone, and the stages by which newly available soil is occupied first by the little plants, then by comparatively fast outlier trees, and finally by the true forests. On this timescale, some kinds of trees help one another and grow together, while others hinder and displace each other. It would make a good game, perhaps, as well as a good read, in which environmental and other external changes drive constant accommodation and negotiation.

I mentioned two things that put me off the book. The first is the writing style, which for the first half is quite pedestrian. I fully appreciate that Peter may not be writing in his native language, and the wealth of ideas kept me persevering when the writing was dull - perhaps it would have been good to have employed a co-writer to help. The second was that I would have really liked some speculation about causes, in the many areas where we don't know for sure. Peter seems committed to writing only what he is confident can be tied to evidence - which is a worthy goal in itself - but given his great experience in the field, I would have liked it more if he had included his guesses, intuitions, and suppositions.

All things considered, though, The Hidden Life of Trees is a fascinating book to delve into, perhaps as a starting point for other reading.

Comments

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    Cool! A game where a turn is a century, and humans buzz around like mayflies!

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    @clash_bowley said:
    Cool! A game where a turn is a century, and humans buzz around like mayflies!

    I've often wanted to create a game of some kind where the terrain changes in various ways through the course of action. My original thought was that the setting would be a tidal coast or estuary, where particular routes might be traversable or not at different times. But a long timescale game where the changes are from glaciation and such like would be equally cool. Has anyone done such a thing, do you know? I'm not counting Civ, where human actions might cause pollution etc, but rather natural changes that can be used for advantage or disadvantage.

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    None that I know of, Richard! That would be cool as hell though!

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