Book Review: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

Explore the refuge during these difficult times; nurture curiosity, discover wonder and find respite. Photo by Karin Johnson
View on Onondaga Trail at Iroquois NWR. Photo by Karin Johnson

I’ve always loved trees.  I treasure my walks on the wooded trails at INWR…the Kanyoo,  the Swallow Hollow and the Onondaga. Now, since reading The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, I see the refuge trees in new ways… as living, feeling, communicating beings.  Peter Wohlleben brings the world of trees to life.  Even his chapter titles make us feel that trees are like us in many ways: ”Friendships”, “The Language of Trees”, “Love”, “Social Security”, “Forest Etiquette”, “Burnout” to name a few.   These are aspects of life we know, and so do trees in their own way.   

Peter Wohlleben is the manager of a small forest in the Eifel Mountains in Germany, and spends his days living and working among trees.   His early days in forestry were spent assessing beeches and oaks for their market value as lumber.  Organizing and leading tours for visitors, helped him see trees through new eyes, and led to a revitalization of the forest, a banning of machines, and an eye to preservation. 

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Here are just a few discoveries about trees to whet your appetite for this book.

  • Beeches, spruce and oak trees register pain as soon as a creature starts nibbling on them. Pain causes the damaged leaf to release a signal to alert the tree to send a defensive compound to the leaf; this spoils the pests meal.  (p.7)
  • Trees send signals to each other through an underground network of fungi dubbed the “wood wide web.”  (p.11)  But recent research suggests that trees may also communicate using sound.  In an experiment using grain seedlings, scientists measured the roots “crackling” quietly.  Roots of other seedlings, not directly involved in the experiment, responded.  Do trees communicate with sound as well as with scent and electrical signal? (p.13)
  • To prevent its young offspring from growing too quickly, a “mother” beech tree closes a thick canopy over it which allows only 3% sunlight to reach its leaves.  This ensures the well-being of the little one.  A strict “upbringing” indeed.  (p.32) 
  • Phytoncides, defensive compounds produced by trees, have antibiotic properties.  Boris Tokin, a Russian biologist, made these discoveries in 1956; if you add a pinch of crushed spruce or pine needles to a drop of water that contains protozoa, in less than a second, the protozoa are dead.  The air in young pine forests is almost germ free, thanks to the phytoncides produced by the needles.  In essence trees disinfect their surroundings. (p. 156)
  • Korean scientists tracked women’s walking choices over a number of years.  They learned that older women, when walking in the forest were found to have improved blood pressure, lung capacity and elasticity of their arteries.  Walking in town showed none of these changes. (p. 223)

These are just a few tidbits in a book filled with fascinating facts and insights about trees.  If you choose to read this book … you will never see a tree, or walk in a forest the same way again.  The forest will open up as a living, breathing community with lessons to teach and gifts to share; maybe lessons on how to live life in the slow lane.  That could be a good gift.  Books like this are sure to encourage us to preserve and protect our forests and imagine them in new ways, not just for our use. After all forests are crucial to the air we breathe and the water we drink.   All life on earth depends on forests for survival.