I am slowly savoring a gem of a book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate. Discoveries from a Secret World (2015). Peter Wohlleben, the author, acknowledges that in his earlier career as a forester, he knew as much about the hidden life of trees as a butcher knows about the emotional life of animals.
About 20 years ago, Peter began to organize survival training tours for tourists in his native Germany. He then created a place in an ancient forest preserve where people could be buried as an alternative to cemeteries. These endeavors led Peter to look and listen, with fresh eyes and ears, to the secrets of trees, and learn from them. In the book, he shares the wonderland that he discovered.
Trees have an intelligence we are only beginning to understand. One reason for our ignorance regarding their intelligence is that trees live on a different, much slower, time scale than us. But maybe a bigger reason we know so little about how trees communicate is that we have been most interested in forests from the perspective of their market value and what they can do for us.
Trees are social. They communicate with each other through a variety of complex modes – for example, via electrical impulses in their roots and through chemical signals from their leaves. They stay connected by an intricate and vast web of soil fungi.
Trees are social because there are advantages to working together. A lone tree is at the mercy of the weather. Trees together, in a dense forest, can create their own ecosystems that moderate extreme temperatures, store water, and generate humidity. In this way they can grow to be very old.
Every tree under a forest canopy has different growing conditions. You would expect those with more favorable conditions to grow more quickly and robustly – to photosynthesize at a different rate. But here’s something wild: they all photosynthesize at the same rate by equalizing the difference between the strong and the weak. The equalization takes place down below in the roots. The robust trees which have an abundance of sugar donate some to those trees who need a little help. The fungi in the roots also have a hand in this. Their networks act like complex redistribution mechanisms.
It is not in a forest’s interest to lose its weaker members. Every tree is valuable to the larger community. The longer trees stay around, the healthier a forest is. The loss of any tree leaves gaps in the canopy that would disrupt the forest’s microclimate, its necessary dim light and high humidity. The weaker members also play an essential role in an annual increase in biomass that is proof of the health of a forest.
When the weaker members of a forest die, it is no longer a tight, closed unit operating at optimal health. Hot sun or extreme temperatures can now penetrate to the forest floor and disrupt the ideal climate. Under these conditions, even the strong trees get a lot sicker over their lifetimes. As the weaker members disappear, something like an otherwise harmless insect attack can potentially kill off even the most robust trees.
A healthier forest, one that is not overly tampered with by humans and is allowed to care for its own – including the most vulnerable – is a more productive forest. Because trees know this intuitively, they do not hesitate to help each other out.
Peter’s discovery of the hidden world of trees helped him rediscover his passion for forestry. He convinced his employer, the community of Hummel, Germany, to manage the forests more gently, without machinery. When individual trees need to be occasionally harvested, it is done with care using horses. The forest now is healthier, and as a result, more profitable.
Let’s learn from forests and change our understanding of how to create healthier and happier human communities. Only when we care for our own – including the physically vulnerable – will we live to our full potential. Physical vulnerability is not a measure of what an individual contributes to our communities. To not recognize this as a general fact reflects a profound weakness in our culture. In this moment in time, as we are hearing conversations about an economy that is dissociated from the reality of individual lives, let’s pause and change the conversation. We have a chance to step back from this destructive and misguided path that we are on.
Our strength is reflected in how we care for every member of our community. We will be happier, more productive, and healthier when we learn from trees and intuit this to be true.