Review: Stepping Deep in the Woods with The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, Discoveries from a Secret World
This review is part of our Love Yourshelf Goodreads bookclub and our ongoing Book Reviews project.
Stepping into the book The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohllebn is enchanting. For a moment, he transports the reader if not to a forest, at least to a place where the reader can learn how a forest thinks. Originally written in German in 2015 and then translated into English in 2016, the book then found a home on The New York Times bestseller list. Wohlleben has been a Forest Ranger for just over thirty years, in western Germany, within the Eifel mountains. Over his lifetime, he has spent day after day with the ability to observe and notice the trees and forest he manages.
Wohlleben uses this experience and Forestry education and knowledge, as well as scientific evidence (there is a nice long endnotes section within the book) to simply explain and explore how trees grow, drink, interact with one another and other organisms, and die. Wohlleben is primarily focused on the social nature of trees, and neatly woven into their social interactions within the same species, different species, fungi, and different organisms, the biological and ecological functionings of the trees are explored.
The full title of the book includes the words "What They Feel" and Wohlleben takes that to heart. Wohlleben is not a scientist; he is a Forster. And a Forester who has looked deeply into the social lives of trees and has seen parallels between them and walking, moving, breathing animals. He doesn’t explicitly say this, but the language he uses and the way he describes trees make this abundantly clear. The sentences “Whereas most deciduous trees leap at chances to grab more light, most conifers stubbornly refuse. They vow to grow straight or not at all,” makes it seem as if the trees are actively choosing, or are setting their minds to something. Wohlleben even suggests the trees may scream or express an “ouch!” when feeling pain.
Why does he anthropomorphize so much? Perhaps because it is his way to both connecting to his human readers, and to more effectively get his message across. That is, that trees are social creatures, just like you and me. Some scientists may scoff or raise a few eyebrows at his language choice. But it is clear Wholleben believes in what he writes. As he says about roots avoiding critical areas,
“The majority of plant researchers are skeptical about whether such behavior points to a repository for intelligence, the faculty of memory, and emotions. Among other things, they get worked up about carrying over findings in similar situations with animals and, at the end of the day, about how this threatens to blur the boundary between plants and animals. And so what? What would be so awful about that?”
One of the greatest joys of reading the book is how I have come to look at trees not differently, but certainly with more interest and greater respect. The dark scars, the leaning of a tree, or the small clusters of trees underneath a large one of the same species;
I now know that trees are far more connected and social than I imagined, and perhaps much more feeling. Thinking back to the three oak trees in the yard of my parents, I can imagine their interconnected webs; recall their crowns and branches and now better understand why they grew the way they grew.
The Hidden Life of Trees isn’t exclusive to anthropomorphizing. Wohlleben does usee a good amount of scientific language, ecological terminology, and biological explanations throughout the book. It is simplistic language nonetheless and written alongside Wohlleben referring to the trees as mothers and children, and the possibility of them having something akin to brains. The book was translated into English from German and topped The New York Times bestseller list for weeks, not for nothing. Step into this book with a love and curiosity about trees and forests, and an eagerness to learn more about them. You’ll be enchanted with just how deep the forests are.