So there are still a few remnants of snow on the ground here in Stratham, and, as I hope is the case with most of you, we are self-isolating. Besides cleaning the basement, two things to do to make the time pass, (things I like to do) are reading and hiking in the adjacent trails through the nearby woods. The latter affords me the benefits of exercise and fresh air, with ample room to maintain my social distance from the occasional folks I meet. I have always loved hiking in the woods which, in addition to their salubrious gifts, also provide the solitude necessary for thinking. Yet lately, these two pastimes have converged for me with respect to the subject of trees, abundant in “the woods,” of course. Now I find that, after reading The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben (Greystone Books), I will never again look at trees the same way. I found this fascinating discussion of the life of trees filled with revelations and insights into nature and life itself that I had not sufficiently considered ever prior.
Wohlleben is a forest manager in the Eifel region of Germany. His concern is primarily beech trees, and thus much of his information is somewhat limited to that genus. But he covers several others, as discussed below. Another trait of his writing is that it can tend to be a bit too anthropomorphic, especially his chapter titles, such as: “Forest Etiquette” and “Tree School.” And I confess I found the latter half of the book less filled with wonders than the first. All that being said, however, this is a genuinely intriguing book and well worth a full read.
Where Stefano Mancuso dealt with plants on an evolutionary, kingdom level, citing examples on as individual basis, in The Revolutionary Genius of Plants (reviewed by me some months ago), Wohlleben discusses trees as members of an interconnected community. He points out how they are mutually supportive and, as a result, interdependent. He cites an abundance of instances; here are some highlights:
- Some species of Acacia trees, when attacked by giraffes, quickly generate a toxic substance that drives the animals away, AND they are deterred from going to adjacent acacia trees. The mechanism? In addition to the toxin, the trees emit a gas that warns adjacent acacias to produce the same toxin.
- Some Elms and Pines can recognize the saliva of the species of insect attacking them and then release pheromones that summons species-specific predators to attack their foes.
- Stumps of trees harvested long ago have been found to have inner parts still alive. They get their photosynthetic nourishment from adjacent trees still standing, trees that transmit nutrients through the interconnected root system and the abundant fungi beneath the soil.
- Indeed, where I thought roots only provided moisture and some chemicals, they play a far more significant, albeit invisible role in the welfare of trees. There is some much more to a tree than previously imagined. You could say I’ve looked at trees from both sides now.
And I learned that the fungi beneath the soil (they exist in a staggering quantity) are as much a part of the forest as the trees. In fact, without fungi, forests could not endure. I could go on for as long as the book itself does on the roles and functions fungi perform. Suffice it to say they are an underground highway for nutrient transmission as well as chemical information. There is so much more in this book: how coniferous trees clean the air, how trees perform the vital function of carbon storage (adding even more urgent justification for saving the forests), and finally the effects of climate change. If you have even remote interest in trees and or nature, this book is a must read. And the next time you visit Bedrock Gardens, be sure to look up. To paraphrase Abigail Adams: Remember the trees and be more favorable to them.
As a corollary to the book review I want to add some notes on a movie I recently saw at the Music Hall. Having my interest in fungi piqued by The Hidden Life of Trees, I was excited to see that the documentary “Fantastic Fungi” by Louie Schwartzberg was showing. It was truly fantastic: informative, very entertaining, visually stunning, and filled with new (to me) insights. Again I feel the need to provide one caveat: its celebration of hallucinatory mushrooms was a little overdone and came across as a commercial break. Nonetheless, I recommend this film without reservations. The time lapse cinematography shows fungi slowly decaying life forms as well as blossoming forth from them—the continuation of life. I learned that fungi are now considered their own kingdom—neither plant nor animal (maybe not news to you, but it has been over five decades since I took biology!). Study of fungi has discovered roles for these life forms in natural pest control of carpenter ants, and use in attacking the microbes which kill bees, thus helping to preserve our most important pollinators. I hope this film gets wider circulation; it is not yet on Netflix, but you may be able to find it somewhere in live stream. This one gets my personal Academy Award for Best Documentary.
I think as a final comment on both of these works, I gained a deeper appreciation of the interconnectedness of all life forms. Nature indeed exists in a balance. Both the book and the movie underscore not just that balance and interconnectedness, but the interdependence of all life forms. Both offer a lesson of which we should be especially appreciative in our current time of pandemic and climate change.