A Book For All Seasons

The tree’s most important means of staying connected to other trees is a “wood-wide web” of soil fungi that connect vegetation in an intimate network that allows the sharing of an enormous amount of information and goods. Tim Flannery, Scientist and Conservationist

The social network of trees

By Roger Childs

Peter Wohlleben has been a forester in the Eifel Mountains in Germany for decades, and he has put together an amazing book on what he has learnt about trees.

The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel, How they Communicate will change your perceptions of what goes on in a forest, forever.

Much of what the author reveals has been known from university research for many years, but has never been made this accessible to the lay person.

The fundamental concept that provides the basis for the book is that forests are like human communities, and that within the wood-wide web trees think, feel, smell, communicate and share.

Interacting communities

The chapter headings of the book are indicative of how the author sees trees as being families and communities. A sample:

  • Friendship
  • Social Security
  • Love
  • Forest Etiquette
  • Tree School
  • Trees Aging Gracefully
  • Street Kids
  • Community Housing Projects.

A delightful element of Wohlleben’s style is the way he draws analogies with the human experience and stages of life, and compares different species to companies eg Spruce & Co.

Tree roots are a critical element in the nutrition, growth and communication in tree communities

Compared with human existence,  life moves at a very leisurely pace in the forest and trees can live to very ripe old ages: possibly the oldest living thing on Earth is a spruce in Sweden which is over 9,000 years old!

However, forest communities are constantly busy places, as trees interact with each other and the rest of the ecosystem: soil, rock, insects, birds, animals, fungi, other vegetation, sunlight and rain.

Multi-faceted connections

In this complex social network there is competition and conflict, but also compassion and cooperation. Helping each other survive takes many forms.

Fungi on roots are a key element of tree communication

For example in the African savanna, giraffes eating from an acacia find that the next tree they come to has pumped toxic chemicals into its leaves. How so? The first tree has released a warning gas into the air for the others to pick up and take defensive action.

Fungi in the roots are key elements in linking trees of varying species, sharing nutrients and passing on vital information such as warnings of insect attacks.

The scale can be huge: there is a honey fungus in Switzerland which covers close to 50 hectares!

Highly readable and recommended

The Hidden Life of Trees is very interesting and informative. Although there is plenty of science on show, Peter Wohlleben explains thing clearly and fluently, and the 36 chapters in this 250 page book are short and to the point.

The fascinating material is drawn from Wohlleben’s own on-the-ground experience and investigation, but also draws on articles from scientific journals and research from universities in Canada, the US, Germany and elsewhere.

This is an extraordinary book and, not surprisingly, has become a world-wide best seller.