|Posted by Author on March 17, 2019 at 4:35 PM|
A few months back, I made time to read Peter Wohlleben's widely lauded book The Hidden Life of Trees. The author, a practicing forester in the woodlands of Germany's Eifel mountains, offers a refreshing, observations-based narrative of trees, forests, and their invisible tangle of complex relationships.
Images: Solaris Girl and Peter Wohlleben
Wohlleben takes the reader through his decades of fieldwork and shares his poignant conjectures on trees and their behavior. His direct experience focuses around beech (Fagus sylvatica) and oak trees in Germany, but when relevant, Wohlleben also pulls in diverse botanical research, ranging from the cottonwoods of Wyoming to umbrella-thorn acacias in the African savanna. Having formerly implemented conventional lumber-harvesting practices himself, the tone Wohlleben establishes is not so much one of judgment as it is an earnest call to reconsider human's understanding of and interactions with trees.
Even to those familiar with trees and tree care, Wohlleben has something to offer. Professionally and personally, I have suffered over the violent gashes one finds on tree trunks, both on recently planted street-trees in my urban landscape projects and one energetic dog's damage to the largest tree in my parents' backyard. Over the years, I have watched with relief as some of these assaulted trees close their wounds, but I have also seen the simple, rapid decline of others. As I read this book, I found it answering a question that I had never taken the time to ask: "how does a tree have a shot at survival against fungal attack?"
Images: Er Win and Fred Delvanthal
After a traumatic incident, Wohlleben writes, a "tree can lengthen its life-span considerably if it at least manages to get a grip on its external wounds." At the site of a fresh wound, harmful fungi can enter "the trunk because there is no protective coating of bark—at least not yet. But the tree can change this," he writes. If the wound is not too large, "it takes just a few years for the tree to close the gap. The tree can then saturate the area with water from the inside, killing the fungi." In the case that the tree closes its bark but cannot annihilate the degrading fungi, "it will continue to rot on the inside; however, externally it will be as stable as a hollow steel pipe and can survive for another hundred years" (Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees, p128-129 and 153-154).
Though reviewers seem to mostly sing praise for Wohlleben's clear writing and fresh perspectives, some have reacted with criticism. The basis of these challenges, directed at Wohllenben's sometimes less-than-scientific word choice and anthropomorphic analysis seems fair to me. Wohlleben's words read quickly and affably, and from the first pages, I could recognize this was no rigorous arboricultural textbook.
Images: Peter Wohlleben
What I found remarkable about the book was its lightness and freshness. As a landscape architect, I deal with trees on a daily basis: researching, assessing, specifying, and designing improved planting methods for them, and yet, reading these 250 pages was something like a "refresh" button for me. In the weeks after finishing The Hidden Life of Trees, I found myself actually noticing the trees all around me. It sounds corny, but Wohlleben's writing came to me more as inspirational writing or poetry than as popular science.
Looking back now at the introduction to The Hidden Life of Trees, I was surprised to see how clearly Wohlleben stated his intentions: "I encourage you to look around where you live...This book is a lens to help you take a closer look at what you might have taken for granted." Indeed, in the first weeks after I finished this book, I was in a higher state of awareness and had an inspired curiosity to look closely and intently at trees. I am sad to admit that this effect has worn off in recent months. Maybe it's time for me to give it another read.