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From counting and learning to communicating and caring for each other, the secret lives of trees are wildly deep and complex.
"They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the 'Wood Wide Web' – and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots."
These are just a few of the secrets that Peter Wohlleben, a German forest ranger and best-selling author, has learned about trees.
Upon coming across a duo of soaring beeches in the forest, Wohlleben, the author of the runaway hit book “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries From a Secret World,” observes:
“These trees are friends. You see how the thick branches point away from each other? That’s so they don’t block their buddy’s light.”
“Sometimes," he adds, "pairs like this are so interconnected at the roots that when one tree dies, the other one dies, too.”
For someone (me) who has can’t help but to anthropomorphize trees, these words ring deep and true. And Wohlleben’s work could be changing the way we think about trees. Putting the German forest back in the spotlight, notes The New York Times, Wohlleben is making the case for a popular reimagination of trees – which the modern world seems to think of as “organic robots,” designed for little more than to supply us humans with oxygen and wood.
With a mix of scientific research and his own observations – the 51-year old Wohlleben studied forestry and has worked in the forest since 1987 – the man who speaks for the trees does so in decidedly anthropomorphic terms. Which has rankled some German biologists who question his use of language to describe life in the forest.
But Wohlleben says this is exactly the point. “I use a very human language. Scientific language removes all the emotion, and people don’t understand it anymore. When I say, ‘Trees suckle their children,’ everyone knows immediately what I mean.”
And while the book remains a runaway best-seller and is kindling, so to speak, a new appreciation of trees, Wohlleben’s hands-on work with trees themselves is nothing short of an inspiration.
After years working for the state forestry administration in Rhineland-Palatinate and then as a forester managing 3,000 acres of woods near Cologne, he began to understand that contemporary practices were not serving the trees, or those who depend on them, very well.
“By artificially spacing out trees, the plantation forests that make up most of Germany’s woods ensure that trees get more sunlight and grow faster,” notes The Times. “But, naturalists say, creating too much space between trees can disconnect them from their networks, stymieing some of their inborn resilience mechanisms.”
After researching alternative approaches to forestry he began implementing some revolutionary concepts – he replaced heavy machinery with horses, stopped using insecticides and let the woods become wilder. The forest went from loss to profit in two years.
But even with the successes the responsibility to the trees became a burden and he began to see a therapist to treat burnout and depression. “I kept thinking, ‘Ah! You only have 20 years, and you still have to accomplish this, and this, and that.’” But he learned to understand that he can’t do everything … but what he could do was write a book. And now even a tree-loving writer in New York City is singing the praises of a German forester and his profound understanding of the humble and majestic neighbors who we share this planet with.
As Dr. Seuss' tree-loving Lorax says, “I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues.” And now trees have found another articulate spokesperson working in the German forest.
For more on the science of how plants and trees communicate:
• Trees communicate with one another, connected by fungi (Video)
• Plants can actually talk to each other, say researchers