Readers Write In #565: Book Review: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

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Readers Write In #565: Book Review: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

By G Waugh

Kamal Haasan in one of his interviews where he expresses his disaffection with growing calls for vegetarianism, if I remember correctly used a term called “Green Blood”. It was a reference to the substance thatthe plants are assumed tolet outwith pain when we pluck their leaves or mutilate them for our own benefit. I found this reference a bit hyperbolic since I had never considered plants any higher than lifeless things such as tables and chairs.

In a recent book introduction I came across in Facebook, it was mentioned that the forest is one giant organism with individual trees serving as separate organs but still working in concert with one common purpose. The book released in 2016, was titled The Hidden Life of Trees written by a German researcher and a former lumberjack named Peter Wohlleben. Kindled by Kamal Haasan’s intriguing hyperbole about trees and their assumed ‘inner’ lives, this introduction I read pushed me towards purchasing the book.


In one of many intriguing passages in the book, there is a place where he describes how trees can actually warn each other or adjacent ones during an attack from deer or giraffes. Some tree species Wohlleben says, emanate some special chemical whose smell might be pungent to the attacker – the deer or any other herbivore in question. The herbivore is instantly repelled by the smell but the ‘victim’ tree does its best to warn its neighbours through an electric signal that is passed on with the help of an underground ‘wood wide web’. The wood wide web is nothing but a network of root interconnections beneath the soil among separate trees forged with the help of tiny, microscopic fungal intermediaries. These fungal organisms make sure the electrical signals are passed on from the first tree to the next one which in turn alert the latter about the approaching ‘attacker’ so that it makes necessary, precautionary ‘arrangements’almost immediately.

But what was even more exciting about the ‘social’ life of trees was another startling fact. But to verify that fact, you need to cut all the branches of a tree in a forest and leave only a stump standing.Come back to the same place in the forest after a few months, you will realize that the stump has started growing once again and that it is only a matter of time before the tree regains its old size and structure. If you think what is so surprising about this, let us wake up to the fact that such an act of ‘truncating’ a tree and allowing only a stump to survive will according to conventional scientific logic, kill the tree completely eliminating all chances of such a revival. A stump ideally doesn’t possess leaves for photosynthesis which are critical for the production of food and energy and hence a leafless tree should end up something like a zombie or an imminent corpse.

When you perform the same act in a ranch or a plantation, in other words, truncate a tree to its stump alone and come back after a few months, you would see no such revival that you witnessed in the forest.The tree you shall find out is completely dead. Why? Trees in a forest according to Wohllebenare all natural,long-time allies and hence they reportedly had had more than enough time to interact among themselves and forge what humans may like to call a‘society’. These trees through their fungal interconnections between their root systems, over the years have had decided to ‘take on’ their environment ‘together’ by co-ordinating among themselves on how to share minerals, chemicals and nutrients crucial for their growth that are found in the soil and bydevising ways and means to confront and survive ‘enemies’ in their eco-system. This kind of inter-tree association allows the trees in the network to care for mutilated or victimized members which directly result in the trees deciding to limit their daily nutrient intake in order to reallocate the resources for one who needs them the most.

This kind of social bonding is absent in man-made plantations or recently afforested areas and hence a stump in such cases is very much an orphan condemned to confront and survive the environment in helpless isolation, of course in vain.

Wohlleben also throws light on how trees in the coastal areas make surethat landlocked areas located miles away from the coast in the same country or the continent also receive sufficient rainfall every year.  Trees in coastal forests form some sort of a canopy with their leaves and branches that directly interact with the clouds above. This canopy doesn’t allow the rainfall to be too overwhelming or destructiveon the forest soilby absorbing a considerable amount of moisture on the top layer itself. This directly benefits the trees forming the canopy by preventing floods which could potentially erode away the much-needed nutrients in the soil. The canopy not only allows the water from the rainfall to enter the interior of the forest in a regulated and a controlled manner but also makes sure that the absorbed moisture is often recycled back by transpiration through leaves. The recycled moisture interacts with the cloud system and replaces the moisture content in the clouds that was lost through the last spell of heavy rain in the forest. Through winds and cyclones, these clouds still pregnant with sufficient moisture received back from the trees, move across the coastal forests and enter cities and towns that are located miles away from the seas and oceans, thereby drenching these areas with showers of rain and love.

Wohlleben also gives details about how the forests of yesteryear were directly responsible for the formation of fossil fuels which are nothing but layers and layers of deeply buried, long dead trees accumulated beneath the soil over millions and millions of years. Without these trees that had died silently over the course of the Earth’s long history, we wouldn’t be having cars, trains and modern machinery that run on today’s fossil fuels. On a side note, it took me by surprise to note that according to various reliable sources, we humans are also on the verge of exhausting almost all of our fossil reserves for fuel in the next few decades or so, which means that we have effectively taken much less than just three centuries to exhaust all theburied wealth that the Earth has bestowed on us, a treasure of a great sizethat might have taken a timescale of unimaginably gargantuan proportions to form and accumulate.

Wohlleben gives instances of where some plants in the forest when attacked by caterpillars have the habit of immediately releasing some odorous substances that are instantly attractive to wasps. These wasps are invited by the plants not only because they know pretty well that wasps love to devour these caterpillars for lunch but also to defend their leaves from these voracious pests.

There are places where even Wohlleben mentions how certain large trees by shedding their seeds beneath themselves allow their ‘children’ to germinate and grow. Until the phase where these children grow tall enough to receive and make use of sunlight themselves, these ‘parent’ trees supply them with food and energy through sub-soil root interconnections mentioned above. Just like how before I saw Finding Nemo, I had absolutely no idea how fishes too might have filial connections and social bonds, Wohlleben’s book by the time I finished reading gave me plenty of stuff to think about for the next time I step into a forest or even a vegetable market.

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