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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.
It appears that nutrient exchange and helping neighbors in times of need is the rule, and this leads to the conclusion that forests are superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies.
Trees, it turns out, have a completely different way of communicating: they use scent.
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from A Secret World (The Mysteries of Nature, 1) Hardcover – September 13, 2016
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“Warmly avuncular, storybook simple, and heavily dusted with the glitter of wonderment.”
—The New Yorker
“The matter-of-fact Mr. Wohlleben has delighted readers and talk-show audiences alike with the news — long known to biologists — that trees in the forest are social beings.”
—Sally McGrane, The New York Times
“This fascinating book will intrigue readers who love a walk through the woods.”
“If you read this book, I believe that forests will become magical places for you, too.”
“In this spirited exploration, [Wohlleben] guarantees that readers will never look at these life forms in quite the same way again.”
“A paradigm-smashing chronicle of joyous entanglement that will make you joyously acknowledge your own entanglement in the ancient and ever-new web of being.”
—Charles Foster, author of Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide
“Soon after we begin to recognize trees for what they are — gigantic beings thriving against incredible odds for hundreds of years — we naturally come to ask, 'How do they do it?' This charming book tells how — not as a lecture, more like a warm conversation with a favorite friend.”
—Hope Jahren, author of Lab Girl
“A powerful reminder to slow down and tune into the language of nature.”
—Rachel Sussman, author of The Oldest Living Things in the World
“Charming, provocative, fascinating. In the tradition of Jean-Henri Fabre and other great naturalist story-tellers, Wohlleben relates imaginative, enthralling tales of ecology.”
—David George Haskell, author of The Forest Unseen, Pulitzer finalist
“Wohlleben’s book is at once romantic and scientific, beautifully articulating his personal relationship with the trees he has dedicated his life to. His view of the forest calls on us all to reevaluate our relationships with the plant world.”
—Daniel Chamovitz, PhD, author of What a Plant Knows
“With colorful and engaging descriptions of little-known phenomena in our natural world, Wohlleben helps readers appreciate the exciting processes at work in the forests around them.”
—Dr. Richard Karban, University of California, Davis, author of Plant Sensing and Communication
“You will never look at a tree the same way after reading Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, which reveals the mind-boggling properties and behavior of these terrestrial giants. Read this electrifying book, then go out and hug a tree — with admiration and gratitude.”
About the Author
Tim Flannery is a scientist, explorer and conservationist. He is a leading writer on climate change and his books include Atmosphere of Hope and The Weather Makers.
Jane Billinghurst’s career has been in book publishing in the UK, the US, and Canada, as an editor, publisher, writer, and translator. She is the translator of the New York Times-bestseller The Hidden Life of Trees by German forester Peter Wohlleben.
- Publisher : Greystone Books; First English Language Edition, 8th Printing (September 13, 2016)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 288 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1771642483
- ISBN-13 : 978-1771642484
- Lexile measure : 1110L
- Item Weight : 14.5 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.5 x 1 x 8 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,587 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Top reviews from the United States
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Let's please grow up. A grey and dour, soulless "scientific" approach to a subject will not engage average mortals, and those are the ones who need to know. The wish for such an approach doesn't identify you as a scientist either; it identifies you as a grey and dour, soulless person with no interest in mystery. This book is not written for you.
This book is written for normal people, who are interested in trees and nature and not afraid of learning facts that upset their worldview, and who are willing to accept that there are things we cannot, yet or fully, explain. This relatively recent field, of the interconnectedness of trees and of the forest as a giant organism, is unbelievably interesting and will, no, must, have far reaching consequences for our thinking about the environment, and by extension for our thinking about ourselves. I am not a scientist, and I don't care for a purely scientific approach to life. I am also not afraid of anthropomorphism - it is a valuable tool for us humans (anthropoi) to understand the world around us. Already 2,500 years ago Protagoras revolutionized philosophical thinking by positing that "man is the measure of all things". For most of us, that will remain the norm for a long time to come.
Also, trees are not aliens, they are more like us than we think. There is a lot in the trees' behavior that they share with us. The need to survive powerfully and procreate is common between man and tree.
Wohlleben writes beautifully and lyrically. That is not a sin and doesn't take away from his being a consummate scientist. One can be a scientist and at the same time be in awe of mystery.
In a very recent interview with The Guardian, Wohlleben said "scientists over the last 200 years have taught us that nature works without soul.” This book successfully discredits that approach, which has been ready for the scrap heap for too long.
This is a terrific book that can be fascinating to scientists and non-scientists alike. It has enough footnotes to allow for wider study of the subject for the intellectually adventurous.
The collaboration of Wohlleben and Dr Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada has led to a TV documentary on the subject, "Intelligent Trees". The DVD is available on Amazon.
Wohlleben is a smart and sensitive man, and over the course of decades he got to know the tree people very well. Eventually, his job became unbearable. Luckily, he made friends in the community of Hümmel, and was given permission to manage their forest in a less destructive manner. There is no more clear-cutting, and logs are removed by horse teams, not machines. In one portion of the forest, old trees are leased as living gravestones, where families can bury the ashes of kin. In this way, the forest generates income without murdering trees.
Wohlleben wrote The Hidden Life of Trees, a smash hit in Germany. It will be translated into 19 languages. The book is built on a foundation of reputable science, but it reads like grandpa chatting at fireside. He’s a gentle old storyteller explaining the wondrous magic of beautiful forests to befuddled space aliens from a crazy planet named Consume. He teaches readers about the family of life, a subject typically neglected in schools.
Evergreen trees have been around for 170 million years, and trees with leaves are 100 million years old. Until recently, trees lived very well without the assistance of a single professional forest manager. I’m serious! Forests are communities of tree people. Their root systems intermingle, allowing them to send nutrients to their hungry children, and to ailing neighbors. When a Douglas fir is struck by lightning, several of its close neighbors might also die, because of their underground connections. A tribe of tree people can create a beneficial local climate for the community.
Also underground are mycelium, the largest organisms yet discovered. One in Oregon weighs 660 tons, covers 2,000 acres (800 ha), and is 2,400 years old. They are fungi that send threads throughout the forest soil. The threads penetrate and wrap around tree roots. They provide trees with water, nitrogen, and phosphorus, in exchange for sugar and other carbohydrates. They discourage attacks from harmful fungi and bacteria, and they filter out heavy metals.
When a limb breaks off, unwelcome fungal spores arrive minutes later. If the tree can close off the open wound in less than five years, the fungi won’t survive. If the wound is too large, the fungi can cause destructive rot, possibly killing the tree. When a gang of badass beetles invades, the tree secretes toxic compounds, and sends warnings to other trees via scent messages, and underground electrical signals. Woodpeckers and friendly beetles attack the troublemakers.
Forests exist in a state of continuous change, but this is hard for us to see, because trees live much slower than we do. They almost appear to be frozen in time. Humans zoom through life like hamsters frantically galloping on treadmill, and we blink out in just a few decades. In Sweden, scientists studied a spruce that appeared to be about 500 years old. They were surprised to learn that it was growing from a root system that was 9,550 years old.
In Switzerland, construction workers uncovered stumps of trees that didn’t look very old. Scientists examined them and discovered that they belonged to pines that lived 14,000 years ago. Analyzing the rings of their trunks, they learned that the pines that survived a climate that warmed 42°F, and then cooled about the same amount — in a period of just 30 years! This is the equivalent of our worst-case projections today.
Dinosaurs still exist in the form of birds, winged creatures that can quickly escape from hostile conditions. Trees can’t fly, but they can migrate, slowly. When the climate cools, they move south. When it warms, they go north, like they are today — because of global warming, and because they continue to adapt to the end of the last ice age. A strong wind can carry winged seeds a mile. Birds can carry seeds several miles. A beech tree tribe can advance about a quarter mile per year (0.4 km).
Compared to trees, the human genome has little variation. We are like seven-point-something billion Barbie and Ken dolls. Tree genomes are extremely diverse, and this is key for their survival. Some trees are more drought tolerant, others are better with cold or moisture. So change that kills some is less likely to kill all. Wohlleben suspects that his beech forest will survive, as long as forest miners don’t wreck its soil or microclimate. (Far more questionable is the future of corn, wheat, and rice, whose genetic diversity has been sharply reduced by the seed sellers of industrial agriculture.)
Trees have amazing adaptations to avoid inbreeding. Winds and bees deliver pollen from distant trees. The ovaries of bird cherry trees reject pollen from male blossoms on the same tree. Willows have separate male trees and female trees. Spruces have male and female blossoms, but they open several days apart.
Boars and deer love to devour acorns and beechnuts. Feasting on nuts allows them to put on fat for the winter. To avoid turning these animals into habitual parasites, nuts are not produced every year. This limits the population of chubby nutters, and ensures that some seeds will survive and germinate. If a beech lives 400 years, it will drop 1.8 million nuts.
On deciduous trees, leaves are solar panels. They unfold in the spring, capture sunlight, and for several months manufacture sugar, cellulose, and other carbohydrates. When the tree can store no more sugar, or when the first hard frost arrives, the solar panels are no longer needed. Their chlorophyll is drained, and will be recycled next spring. Leaves fall to the ground and return to humus. The tree goes into hibernation, spending the winter surviving on stored sugar. Now, with bare branches, the tree is far less vulnerable to damage from strong winds, heavy wet snows, and ice storms.
In addition to rotting leaves, a wild forest also transforms fallen branches and trunks into carbon rich humus. Year after year, the topsoil becomes deeper, healthier, and more fertile. Tree plantations, on the other hand, send the trunks to saw mills. So, every year, tons of precious biomass are shipped away, to planet Consume. This depletes soil fertility, and encourages erosion. Plantation trees are more vulnerable to insects and diseases. Because their root systems never develop normally, the trees are more likely to blow down.
From cover to cover, the book presents fascinating observations. By the end, readers are likely to imagine that undisturbed forests are vastly more intelligent than severely disturbed communities of radicalized consumers. More and more, scientists are muttering and snarling, as the imaginary gulf between the plant and animal worlds fades away. Wohlleben is not a vegetarian, because experience has taught him that plants are no less alive, intelligent, and sacred than animals. It’s a wonderful book. I’m serious!
Top reviews from other countries
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.
One of those books which in a subtle way alters your perception of reality and deepens your understanding of nature and thus of humanity itself.
Profound without any attempt to be so.
I wish I had read this when I was younger.