A recent family trip to Muir Woods National Monument came at a perfect time. I’d recently finished reading a book recommended by a friend and former colleague, and it was my first chance to walk in the woods and reflect on what I’d learned.
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate is a fascinating 2016 English translation of the 2015 work by German forester Peter Wohlleben. It is a controversial book on several fronts, and for those who want to criticize his science, there are plenty of experts available to make that case.
What is clear is that Wohlleben loves the forest as he explains the processes of life, death, and regeneration he has observed in the woodland. There is much to appreciate here, including his emphasis on the benefits of slow growth and the connections trees make with each other when in a forest that has not been extensively altered by humans. He is, however, quick to anthropomorphize the trees, as one way of building support for their care from humans. It can be over the top and many in the academy simply dislike that approach to science. Nonetheless, he makes a compelling case that we not look at trees just as commodities, but as important partners in our entangled natural environment.
Forests are not first and foremost lumber factories and warehouses for raw material, and only secondarily complex habitats for thousands of species, which is the way modern forestry treats them. Completely the opposite, in fact.
Wohlleben encourages his readers to understand that a happy forest is a healthy forest. He believes that “eco-friendly practices not only are economically sustainable but also benefit the health of our planet and the mental and physical health of all who live on Earth.”
I came to read The Hidden Life of Trees for several reasons. My friend had read my review of Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life — a vibrant and vision-changing book that pushes the reader on virtually every one of its 200 pages to understand why we should care so deeply about fungi — and felt I would appreciate Wohllleben’s perspective. I was also intrigued with the fact that David George Haskell, who wrote one of the best natural history/science books I’ve read in years, had penned the lead jacket blurb for Wohlleben’s book.
In The Forest Unseen, Haskell — who teaches at the University of the South at Sewanee — notes that
We need a new metaphor for the forest, one that helps us visualize plants both sharing and competing. Perhaps the world of human ideas is the closest parallel: thinkers are engaged in a personal struggle for wisdom, and sometimes fame, but they do so by feeding from a pool of shared resources that they enrich by their own work…Our minds are like trees — they are stunted if grown without the nourishing fungus of culture.
I suspect that Haskell appreciates the story-telling nature of Wohlleben’s book. He’s helping to build new metaphors beyond those used by traditional science. And he is doing so to inspire a public that too-easily forgets what every schoolchild knows: plants are living beings.
Storytelling is an important way to share information. Humans learn and remember through stories. I see this every day in the study of history. There are some historians who bristle at what they see as looseness with facts that one encounters in some stories. As I wrote recently about a new work by Clint Smith and our understanding of difficult, hard and misunderstood histories, we need stories to help us understand our past. We need to listen intently to the stories of the historians and guides at places where that history happened and ask meaningful questions that draw out conversations. We must work to understand what these places mean today, what we’ve told ourselves about them, and how that impacts the way we live.
It strikes me that something similar is happening with the writings of Wohlleben, Haskell, and Sheldrake. They are using their gifts for storytelling to set the stage for further education and to encourage their scientific colleagues to understand there is value in how the public grasps ideas and turns that into understanding and action.
More to come…
For further information, check out these More to Come posts:
- The importance of roots (November 28, 2016)
- Eleven ways of smelling a tree (February 18, 2020)
- Our entangled life (January 5, 2022)
Image: Forest floor at Muir Woods National Monument by DJB
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