The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World is a nature book by German forester Peter Wohlleben, translated by Jane Billinghurst. This book is the first in a series by the author called The Mysteries of Nature. We all understand that trees are alive, but they’re so different from us that it’s hard not to objectify them, especially with how we use them as a resource. While his observations and experiences working in forestry serve as the foundation of his understanding, in this book Wohlleben brings together a wealth of modern scientific knowledge about trees that uncovers the unseen ways that they live and interact with each other, helping to make them relatable to the human experience and fostering an understanding of how we can help them flourish.
While I’ve had a low-key desire to learn about trees that pushed me to pick this book up, on it’s surface it doesn’t exactly sound like an exhilarating subject to read about. I must admit at some moments of weakness my mind would obscure the meaning of certain species names, not keeping which was being discussed straight. Wohlleben remedies this, however, by breaking information up into more digestible chapters. It’s very easy to pick this book up for a light read of a chapter or two at a time. These chapters help compartmentalize more complex subjects by breaking them up.
For example, one chapter teaches about the fungal network that connects the root systems of trees throughout an entire forest (the “wood wide web”), which helps them to communicate and share resources with one another. In a later chapter he branches off from this by explaining how trees planted in urban centres live more stunted lives because they are disconnected from this network. I can imagine a more in-depth work with page after page more deeply expounding upon these processes, but these more manageable chapters help the lay reader, like myself, in gaining a firmer understanding.
This compartmentalization of the book was a little double-edged in some respects though. The format was perfect for reading in short bursts, but for longer sessions the information felt a little too all over the place for me. Foundational information is given before being expanded upon later, so it never really felt like the book was getting ahead of itself, but there wasn’t as much cohesion between chapters as I would have liked. Ideally it would work as a book one could read in bursts, but if one wanted to read for longer there would be more of a natural flow between chapters. I thought it was a little lacking in the latter case.
The tone of the writing leans more conversational than technical, with occasional flourishes and exclamations that help to keep it more informal and fun. While this was effective most of the time, some of this tone came across a little flat to me. I do not doubt the author’s sincerity, but I felt like the syntax was a little awkward, and I wonder how much that has to do with the book being a translation.
As far as the book’s main objective goes, I think it succeeds in spades. In rather short order the book uncovers a lot of the intricacies of tree life and how they affect the world around them. One of the biggest takeaways I had was how social they are. Via the “wood wide web” I mentioned earlier, trees that fell centuries ago have been found to have trunks and roots kept alive by their neighbors. “Mother” trees stunt the growth of their saplings around them, allowing them to live longer and healthier. They know when they’re being attacked too, react in self-defense, and warn their fellows of the immediate threat. While it is likely erroneous to attached human-like thought to these processes, they nonetheless demonstrate much more complexity than we ever notice.
What I also hadn’t fully appreciated before was how different and vibrant old-growth forests are from those planted by humans in the last century or so. I wonder if I’ve ever set foot in a “true” forest at all. Trees grown in nurseries and replanted cannot connect with each other like they ought to, nor do they take root as firmly. It will take generations of trees left to their own devices to bring back more “ancient” forests and that’s really humbling. A big part of us wants to take responsibility and do something, and to an extent we can, but the best we can do is to leave the trees alone and let them sort it out themselves.
The Hidden Life of Trees almost perfectly delivers on what the title promises, giving a captivating account of lifeforms we love to cultivate, equate with growth and fertility, and often take for granted. It presents the complex lives of these plants in easy to read, succinct chapters that don’t always flow perfectly into each other, but are packed with of knowledge on their own. I’m excited to check out the books that follow in the Mysteries of Nature series.
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5