It Takes a Village to Raise…a Tree?

The depth of connection on our planet extends root deep.

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Photo by Sebastian Unrau on Unsplash

When Peter Wohlleben began his career as a forest manager, he quickly realized that his one job was to cultivate the gold mine that is timber. Harvesting the trees for industrial use was his primary goal. But when the added responsibility of giving tours to visitors was dropped in his lap, Peter had the opportunity to shift perspective and see the trees in a whole new light.

Wohlleben penned, The Hidden Life of Trees, a fascinating journey into the life of a tree, how they communicate and what they feel. His conversational style is relaxed as if you are having a deep discussion with an interesting friend. And the story he has to tell is incredible. Some of the oldest living things on our planet are far more sentient and connected than we ever believed.

He opens the book with a story about finding some moss covered stones in the forest amongst a collection of old beech trees. As he carefully pulled back the moss, he discovered the stones weren’t stones at all, they were tree bark. His curiosity peaked, he took a knife and cut into the bark and found green. No part of a tree which is laying on the ground with no leaves to make chlorophyll should be alive. Peter looked up and saw the stones were arranged in a circular pattern. He was in the middle of a giant tree stump, rotted from years of decay. By his estimate, this tree “died” four or five hundred years ago.

So how in the world was it staying alive?

Peter concluded that the surrounding beech trees were feeding the old stump. There was no other conclusion to form without disturbing the ecosystem to figure it out. And that day his perspective on trees began to shift.

“But the most astonishing thing about trees is how social they are. The trees in a forest care for each other, sometimes even going so far as to nourish the stump of a felled tree for centuries after it was cut down by feeding it sugars and other nutrients, and so keeping it alive.”

More examples follow like the Acacia tree of Africa has a defense mechanism that gives off a bitter toxin when giraffes start to munch on their leaves. Not only do the trees defend themselves, they emit a gas which sends the message to other trees in the area to step up defences. The trees work together. They communicate. They mount a joint effort to preserve their lives and those of their neighbors.

“Trees, it turns out, have a completely different way of communicating: they use scent.”

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Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

The most implications of Peter’s book extends well beyond trees. There is a interconnected thread to every system on this planet. Trees behave the same way humans do. They protect, they communicate and they feel pain.

“When you know that trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you can no longer just chop them down and disrupt their lives with larger machines.”

Peter closes his book with the next logical arguement. What about the logs burning in your fireplace or the book you are holding in your hand? They are made of trees we cut down. From the text, “Not to put too fine a point on it, we use living things killed for our purposes. Does that make our behavior reprehensible? Not neccessarily. After all, we are also part of Nature, and we are made in such a way that we can survive only with the help of organic substances from other species. We share this neccessity with all other animals. The real question is whether we help ourselves only to what we need from the forest ecosystem, and-analogous to our treatment of animals-whether we spare the trees unneccessary suffereing when we do this.”

The beauty in this book comes from Peter’s sympathetic narrative. Thinking of trees in anthropomorphic terms may be a polar shift for many. But as the story unfolds, you cannot help but sympathize right along with the author. One man slowed down enough to look at a long dead tree stump and to figure out how it was still alive. And what did he discover? A completely new perspective.

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