‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ by Peter Wohlleben (Published in 2017)

Having spent his life as a forester, growing trees for their timber, one day, Peter Wohlleben made a discovery.  He found some tree stumps, covered in moss but not decayed.  The bark was still living, and he realised that neighbouring trees must have been keeping these stumps alive, as the stumps had no means of photosynthesis.  Peter was intrigued and began a journey to find out more.

This book represents Peter’s journey to date.  It is conversational in style, and his wonder as he explores this unveiling world is evident.  Peter does not consider himself to be a scientist, but someone reviewing the work of others.  This enables him to apply a lightness of touch.  The work of people such as Dr. Suzanne Simard, who has explored the chemical signals that plants share, is celebrated.

The way that trees communicate is an area of pioneering research, where, as Peter finds, the more we discover, the more we realise how little we know.  We are also appreciate how some of the explanations we have been given are not the full picture.  Peter explores how trees are able to absorb sufficient water to sustain activity, even during water loss on a hot summer’s day.  One can almost see his questioning raised eyebrows!

Peter seeks to compare aspects of the life of trees to those of humans.  In some places, such as the tole of nurturing, this works.  On bark, the analogy is less successful, as human skin can heal a wound, and trees are unable to do this.  He also tries to apply emotion to trees, which I feel doesn’t fit as well into the narrative.  For example, he has heard bark snapping when trees are suffering drought stress, and pictures this as a cry for help from a thirsty tree.  This could actually be explained by desiccated by wood fibres reacting to the conditions.

One scenario Peter explores is: what would happen if trees had preferable conditions of unlimited light, good soil, an abundance of moisture and nutrients.  He suggests that the Beech tree, which thrives in these conditions, would probably dominate, because it can shade out competitors…..

This is a unique and refreshingly thoughtful text expressing the curiosity of the author, and inviting the reader to imagine what might be possible.  So often, important discoveries remain in the scientific arena.  In this book, Peter makes the subject accessible and allows potential ideas the freedom to grow.

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