Talking Trees: Are we listening to our forests?
In his mythical trilogy Lord of The Rings, J R R Tolkien tells the tale of a magical ancient wood inhabited by Ents—walking, talking tree herders tasked with the protection of Middle Earth’s primeval woodlands. Today, situated within middle Europe, there stands another ancient wood—but unlike Tolkien’s fantasy, this one is real.
In the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, nestled tightly along the Belgium border, sits the 4,000-year- old Ruheforst, comprised of beeches, West Germany’s indigenous tree species. A visit to this woodland entails a journey of twisting single track roads, densely bordered by monocultured forestry plantations stretching to the horizon. Even by mid-morning, the mists haven’t lifted from the road and the surrounding forests are dark in character. It’s a landscape that seems saturated with legends.
"People might think I'm a bit crazy, so it's important to have science to back things up."
Peter Wohlleben has been caring for the Ruheforst (which translates literally as “Resting Forest”) for the last ten years. The 52-year-old could easily be described as the modern-day version of one of Tolkien’s fictitious tree herders. Standing at a slender six-foot-four, he mirrors the stature and presence of his surrounding beeches. Born in Bonn, the former German Republic’s capital prior to reunification, Peter was trained as a traditional forester. Having already published quite a few titles, he struck gold in 2015 with The Hidden Life of Trees.
In his book, Peter knits together recent scientific discoveries on trees and their forest communities with his own practical knowledge as a forester in language that is accessible to the layman. The manuscript is meticulously indexed with supporting scientific research papers.
“Most things sound unbelievable when you first hear about them,” Peter admits when we meet in the forester’s lodge. “I wanted to give readers the opportunity to do their own research into what I’m saying. I was also aware that people might think I’m a bit crazy, so it was important to have the science in there to back things up.”
Peter's referring to the science that proves that there’s more to trees and their forest environment than we’ve ever imagined. Biologists have long been aware that trees can count, remember and learn from their experiences. They also pass their knowledge on in real time to the seedlings growing around them. Future seedlings receive handed-down wisdom from mother trees—the oldest and most dominant trees in a forest—while sick trees are supported by their community of tree neighbours. The sharing and redistribution of food and nutrients from one tree to the next takes place within the intertwined web of root systems throughout an ancient wood, something Peter refers to as “mother trees suckling their young.”
Communication between trees, or “talking” as Peter prefers to call it, takes place by electrical signals via the mycelium, a fungal and root network just below the ground surface. It’s referred to by scientists as the “Wood Wide Web”. This web is key to systems of communication and mutual support within the forest. When under attack from foliage-eating insects, trees can disperse warning signals as a scent (specifically ethylene), which is carried by the wind, as well as electrically circulated alarm messages produced by the roots. This warns the rest of the forest community to be prepared and activate their own defence mechanisms.
At the entrance to the forest we pass a crucifix several feet high and surrounded by wreaths. It soon becomes evident why this wood earned the name Resting Forest. As part of a wider strategy to make the community forest financially self-supporting, Peter has embarked on utilising the woodland as a burial ground. Ashes can be spread at the bases of the beeches and a plate with the family name is added to the trunk of the tree, acting as both a gravestone and marker for the burial spot. A fee is charged for this service. Alongside guided forest walks, the cemetery provision has enabled the forest to become profitable and so remain unfelled.
On approaching an old stump on the forest floor several feet away from a still-thriving beech, Peter pulls away the moss to expose fresh solid tree bark that’s devoid of rot. “This stump is still alive”, he explains.
It is this phenomenon, confirmed by scientific research from the University of British Columbia, that is so thought-provoking. “This tree was felled some 400 to 500 years ago. The inner section of hard wood has rotted but the bark is new and the layer beneath, where the essential sapwood and cambium lies, is still alive. Without photosynthesis from leaves in its canopy, it should have died. Yet it’s still here. This means that its roots are being fed a sugar solution by the surrounding beeches. Other trees—its forest friends or family—are keeping it alive!”
"I started to feel concerned. I thought, What am I doing? I'm just destroying everything."
Amazingly, these processes are only observed in ancient woodlands. Modern-day forestry plantations produce only isolated trees, devoid of the all-important fungal and root network below ground. They therefore don’t benefit from the sharing of nutrients and other types of communication. These new monocultured forestry plantations are designed for quick tree growth. But they’re silent woods and produce trees and timber that are markedly less healthy and strong than their wild forest cousins.
“On visiting private woods in Germany and Switzerland, which treat their forests more lovingly, I discovered that the timber they produced was stronger and more economically valuable,” remembers Peter. “Twenty-five years ago, my training taught me to look at the forest in a very simple way. You judged a tree in milliseconds on its economic value, never really understanding the bigger picture.”
As we walk among the towering beeches, he continues, “Traditional foresters know as much about a forest as a butcher knows about animal welfare. A tree’s well-being is only important in terms of the lumber that can be produced from it.
“At the beginning of my career, I didn’t know any better either. That was just how we were taught then.”
Recalling his own journey to understanding the forests, he says, “When I started my career in 1987, I worked like all the foresters—felling trees and spraying logs with insecticides. But then I just started to feel concerned about it all. I thought, What am I doing? I’m just destroying everything.”
“About 20 years ago I was organising log-cabin tours and survival courses for tourists in the woods. Things the visitors would notice and pick up on made me re-evaluate my own perceptions.”
He started to read extensively on the behaviour of trees and learned that, in a natural state, trees operate as communal beings. “It’s like communism,” he explains. “They support the other members of their forest community unreservedly.”
Continuing with his observational and holistic approach to forestry work, Peter decided to stop using heavy logging machinery—a cause of acute damage to woodland due to the compaction of the soil, which destroys the essential mycelium layer. Instead he reintroduced horses to the land, using old breeds such as Rheinisches Kaltblut to work the forest as in bygone times. He’s also eliminated the use of insecticides and is letting his woods develop naturally.
“Nature doesn’t always mean the survival of the fittest, as we’ve all been taught. Darwin was a revolutionary in his time, but nowadays we’ve moved forward from this thinking. We now understand that many species work together to achieve success and forests are inherently social networks.
“In a forest, fast growth is always a negative. Mother trees shroud their offspring with the huge canopies they produce, so only three per cent of light reaches the ground. Slow growth of young trees is proven to be a prerequisite for longevity. Fast growing always leads to an early demise within tree years.”
As we leave the peace and tranquillity of this enchanted space, Peter, in a philosophical fashion, comes to a conclusion about our human relationship with the “elephants of nature” that surround us.
“Time for trees is of a different order to humans. They’re operating so slowly that it seems to us that nothing is happening. But in truth, it’s us that are moving too fast.”
The Hidden Life of Trees, What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben is available now
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