Book Review: The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World

As a person that has puzzled for long enough over the extent of sentience in plants and trees, the delivery of The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World formed a bright interlude in what has been an unusually bleak Canberra winter.

The English editions of this book come with a foreword by Tim Flannery which concludes by saying “Opening this book, you are about to enter a wonderland. Enjoy it.” Foresters tend not to describe their workplaces as “wonderlands”, nevertheless they do have a feeling for forest ecosystems and their complexities, and an interest in recent scientific contributions to understanding plant signalling and behaviour.

The author, Peter Wohlleben, spent 20 years managing mixed hardwood forests in Germany, gradually becoming able to see the trees as individuals rather than as potential pieces of lumber: seeing through a forest ecologist’s eyes rather than the eyes of a commercial forest manager.

The English edition of this book (published in 2016, by Greystone Books of Canada, a part of the Random House Group) is easy to read, thanks to Jane Billinghurst’s translation skills. There are some 35 chapters which tend to describe plant processes in anthropocentric ways. Probably this will upset the “plant neurology” groups, but it is difficult to see how else it could be done in a book intended for an audience of generalists as well as technicians. In these 35 brief chapters, the writers succinctly explain forest ecosystem processes of Central European forests, which are often composed of mainly beech and oak.

Under a chapter heading, The Mysteries of Moving Water, Wohlleben briefly discusses the forces that may play a part in moving watery fluids to the top of very tall trees: capillary action, transpiration, and osmosis. He concludes that none of these give a satisfactory explanation, suggesting that while we are poorer for not having a possible explanation, we may be richer for an unexplained mystery!

Under Community Housing Projects, he discusses the shelter provided by habitats in tall, lignified plants, pointing out that “even though forest scientists haven’t fully researched the relationships yet, we do know that higher species diversity stabilizes the forest ecosystem”.

Under Tough Customers, he considers the longevity of many tree species, pointing out that there is usually more genetic variation between individual trees than there is between species in the animal kingdom. As a result, tree species are better equipped to deal with climate change, for example.

A slight note of warning seems appropriate, however: of necessity, Wohlleben draws most of his examples from Central European forests, and it is essential to allow for this in order to get the most from his otherwise very-easy-to-understand style. (Do not waste time looking for anything about eucalypts!).

Dr Suzanne Simard (Professor of Forest Ecology, University of British Columbia) has provided an end-note, pointing out that much of Wohlleben’s material parallels research findings in Pacific forests, and that these make us think more deeply about the inner workings of trees and forests.


Tony Fearnside, ACT Division, Institute of Foresters of Australia

13 October 2016


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