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03:51 PM

Forest whisperer

The woodsman who's revealing the secret lives of trees

By: Allison Williams

Trees feel, talk, fight and care, according to science. A former German forestry manager is now questioning the way we manage woodlands. Spoiler alert: badly.


A tree is part of a larger life cycle.

Germans love forests so much that they even have a special word, Waldeinsamkeit, first coined by Heinrich Heine, to describe the kind of solitude people feel in woodlands. Except research shows that forests are a hive of activity. Forests aren't so lonely after all.

That's the message of Peter Wohlleben, a former forester turned tree evangelist. He spent two decades working for the state forestry comission until it became untenable, based on what he was learning.

His reading showed him that woodlands are communities; trees fight, compete, and protect their offspring. Science shows forest trees are connected by fine networks of roots beneath the soil. These transmit chemicals between trees, warning of dangers and sharing chemicals like sugar and sustaining weak or dying trees, often for centuries. In a forest, "every tree is a member of this community, but there are different levels of membership," he explained.

picture alliance / TT NEWS AGENC

Peter Wohlleben, listening to the sounds of the forest.

He wrote the book “The Hidden Life of Trees” in 2015, spelling out the communication patterns of the forest, how tree families support new generations, and their strategies to fight predators such as moss, lichen and fungi. It became a bestseller in Germany and the United States, where it landed on the New York Times Bestseller list. His message hit the limelight again last year, as protesters staked out one of Germany's last ancient forests to protect it from being cleared for a mining project. "It's a very, very valuable forest," Wohlleben said of Hambach. At last, people were starting to listen to what he had long known about woodlands.

Above ground, too, trees feel, he says. Their chemistry changes when enemies invade, whether it's beetles penetrating weak spots in their bark or caterpillars gnawing on their leaves. Trees can emit scents to warn others that danger is coming. Forewarned, other trees can produce protective chemicals or summon friendly predators who will protect them from enemies.

Trees also cooperate and make space to share the light that’s available, their crowns only growing large enough that the whole community can benefit. When their luck changes, if the environment turns hostile, trees can move to more hospitable settings, even crossing mountain ranges such as the Alps. Time just moves slowly for trees, but there is no lack of drama in their social lives.


Wohlleben said commercial forests can recover, and host more life forms.

These insights have radical implications for the way forests are cultivated, according to Wohlleben, who wants to change the way forests are currently managed. In his view, forests are little better than factory farms, run to serve to market needs. "It's all about harvesting and sales," he said. Monocultural forests are like farms that produce wood, Wohlleben points out. Forestry associations are the country's main sellers of wood.

The vast majority of trees are not allowed to mature beyond an average of 77 years, way less than 300 years they could attain. In their stunted young lives, these trees can’t form communities of knowledge or create the complex societies that forests become when plants and insects and birds make a cycle of life, in creation and decay.

Only 0.3 percent of Germany’s forests are ancient growth, including Hambach, a 12,000-year old woodland to be cleared for a coal mine, that made headlines last summer when protestors objected. For the most part, forests in this country are mostly made up of spruce and pine. These monocultures, and the trees’ relative youth, makes them vulnerable.

imago/Jan Eifert

If you go down to the woods today, you'll be in for a big surprise.

Wohlleben looks back to seminal moments in his career as a forester. He recalled stumbling upon a stump five centuries old that was still alive, thanks to the networks beneath the forest. Experiences like these led him to abandon the forestry commission where he had worked for twenty years. Looking back, he called it a dark time, saying they tried to shut him up. Now he is dedicated to spreading the word about the secret world of trees.

His success has made him into a film star, radio expert and television explainer. There's more to do, he says, so many species aren't studied, some types of beetle are barely even named. Between all these projects, he found time to write two more books, about the emotions of animals and life cycles in nature.

"I used to be alarmist. I used to warn people that terrible things could happen if we don’t change our ways. And I don’t do that anymore," he said. His latest project is an academy to teach people about trees and forests. “I want people to love the forest so they realize it is worth protecting. I want them to enjoy it.”

Allison Williams is deputy editor of Handelsblatt Today. To contact the author: [email protected]

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