The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

After reading Metazoa I wanted to explore a different branch of our phylogenetic tree, and so picked up The Hidden Life of Trees. It’s a bunch of short anecdotes about the ecology of European beech forests, which is an awfully niche thing to write a book about. But then it did make the NY Times bestseller list in 2016.

I knew that this book probably wasn’t written for me, but the material is definitely cool, and I wanted to compare its style with Metazoa. Both books are trying to communicate a collection of scientific findings that border on the mystical. What makes a mind? How do ancient trees communicate through a living internet? And they both end up anthropomorphizing their very non-human subjects. Peter Godfrey-Smith makes it very clear up front that he’s a materialist. Wohlleben is much harder to pin down. I was never able to tell if he literally believes the things he’s saying, or if it’s a literary device. Normally this would get some eyerolls from me, but like I said, I don’t think I’m the intended audience. Clearly the book connected with a huge audience and successfully diffused these ideas into public consciousness.

Forests are much more communicative and cooperative communities than we’d previously thought, filled with an almost social drama playing out over centuries instead of decades. Different species share both information and materials, sometimes with kin, sometimes more generally. The fungi link together different individual organisms, and extract minerals as well. Mother trees sustain their offspring in the darkness below the canopy, so they are ready to leap toward the light when the time comes. Fire clears out the underbrush and makes minerals easily available, triggering the release of seeds. Forests migrate south en masse as the glaciers advance, but some species can get trapped, unable to climb over the Alps, and are wiped out locally. It’s a seething, adaptive civilization that you can only see through time lapse eyes.

Back to the (Wood)Land

Throughout the book Wohlleben argues for a much more ecologically sensitive approach to forest management and timber harvesting. He makes the case that tree plantations aren’t really forests, because they lack the complex interactions between different species that make forests function as they do, and give them a lot of resilience to different kinds of perturbations: insect pests, pathogens, droughts, etc. In contrast, monocultural silviculture makes for fragile, barren ecosystems, that probably aren’t as productive as they could be either.

Sun shining through a dense, leafy beech forest in Sweden.
A dense Swedish beech forest by R. Henrik Nilsson CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia

He envisions something a forester’s back-to-the-land movement, where individual trees are hauled out of the woods by horses or other draft animals, and the arboreal ecosystem is left to play out its complex drama largely undisturbed.

This would be a radical departure from current practices. We consume timber and other forest products on a scale beyond almost all other materials, on the order of billions of tons a year. Only fossil fuels, iron, and cement are comparable (see Vaclav Smil’s Making the Modern World for an overview of just how much of everything we make). If anything, it seems likely that our consumption of timber for construction purposes may increase, as we (hopefully) displace energy and carbon intensive steel and concrete with mass timber in many applications (see this great overview from Dave Roberts).

“Smart” Forests?

There are other possible responses to this new understanding of how forests work. Once we start to develop models of how different species support each other and interact, why wouldn’t we use that knowledge to bend the forest more effectively to our will? What would stop timber companies from attempting to hack the Wood Wide Web to benefit themselves economically? I’m not saying this would be good, but it seems pretty consistent with our past behavior.

If you know a bark beetle infestation is spreading, and want the trees to prepare their defenses, maybe you could tell them ahead of time? Could the trees be told to activate drought-tolerant behaviors preemptively, to deal with climate change? Might we engineer mycorrhizal fungi that would only supply nutrients to the economically valuable species, and starve the others? Would it be possible to hijack the ability of trees to exchange carbon, and instead use it to deposit that carbon in the soil in some permanent form? Can we eavesdrop on the chemical messages being passed around in forests to build a picture of how pests and climate and harvesting are affecting them?

Or more prosaically, maybe we’ll just use this knowledge to make our plantations into better forest simulacra. Keep one tree in a hundred as a mother. Mix these three species in this pattern with that frequency. Inoculate the soils with a particular collection of genetically engineered fungal symbionts protected by patents owned by Georgia Pacific.

Further Reading

Suzanne Simard, the scientist behind a lot of the findings communicated in this book, has just released a book of her own “Finding the Mother Tree” if you’re interested in hearing about the science without the Wohlleben’s particular filter. She gave a talk about it at Google recently, and has several TED talks too.

I’m going to read Merlin Sheldrake’s book Entangled Life next, which gets at a lot of the topics in this book, but from the fungi’s point of view…

A copy of Merlin Sheldrake's book Entangled Life, with oyster mushrooms sprouting out of it.
Image from Merlin Sheldrake’s Instagram

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Zane Selvans

A former space explorer, now marooned on a beautiful, dying world.

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