The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel, How they Communicate — Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben with a foreword by Tim Flannery. Available as an audio book in 2016 and through Greystone Books $24.95 250 pages plus notes. Published 2015. English translation from German by Jane Billinghurst with black and white illustrations.
For more than 14 years we have been living on 1 1/4 acres outside of Phoenix where we have as many as 30 night-blooming cereus cactus. We have often wondered why as many as 20 bloom on one evening and plants in neighboring yards also choose to open their flowers on that one night.
Biologists at Tohono Chul Park in Tucson, about 90 miles from our house, say they don’t know why, but speculate the plants send a signal to each other. On one hot night each summer, often around solstice, plants that look like dead sticks offer large white blooms. Bats visit to pollinate and bees visit in the early morning hours until the blossoms fall limply in the hot sun. Other blooms may occur in the next few nights, some the same night as the in the Tucson garden.
As I read The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, I see that author Peter Wohlleben has been gathering evidence — it’s not just a theory — that plants do “talk to each other,” assist struggling trees and even provide sustenance.
“Because a tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it,” German forester Wohlleben asserts that as trees grow together, they divide nutrients and water so each can grow to be the best possible living thing. This type of natural cooperation is destroyed when managers remove trees to take out “competition,” because as they look for help, they find only stumps. “This “Social Security,” he found through his own forms of assistance which he has ended.
While some of the author’s work is about European trees, his beliefs can be translated to other climes. The drought in the the Western United States and Canada that is giving bark beetles a head start in killing trees is discussed when he details the deleterious effects of repeated dry spells.
The writing is easy for lay people to understand, but also includes sound science for those wishing to study the author’s methods.
As E.O. Wilson notes, “To those who are steering the growth of nature reserves worldwide, let me make an earnest request: Don’t stop. Just aim a lot higher.” Wohlleben is aiming higher and encouraging everyone to look for better answers.
Deforestation and climate change are discussed, and the importance of leaving the old growth forests alone also is emphasized.
As Tim Flannery posits in the introduction: “Share with me the joy trees can bring us. And, who knows, perhaps on your next walk in the forest, you will discover for yourself wonders great and small.”
The book was written with support of the Canada Council for the Arts, the British Columbia Arts Council, the Province of British Columbia through the Book Publishing Tax Credit and the government of Canada.
Candace S. Hughes is an Arizona-based freelance writer. Her most recent work for Smithsonian.com is “How We Created a Monster in the American Southwest.”