When I was a child I picked up the notion from somewhere that the roots of a tree always exactly mirror the canopy, in both extent and depth. Well I’ve seen enough blown over trees to know that isn’t quite the case, but this year I’ve found out that what trees get up to underground is far more amazing than those imagined doppelganger roots.

We now know that there’s a whole world of interaction – nurturing, attacking, defending, sharing food – going on between trees, all in the darkness of the ground. This revelation is largely thanks to the persistent, quiet observations of a forest worker in the Eifel mountains in Germany.

So this blog is really more of a book review than anything else, and the book I’m talking about is the wonderful and wondrous The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben, published Greystone.

This book hit hard and fast, on it’s publication becoming an international best seller, and going on to spawn many articles and competing claims for the discovery that trees have a secret underground life.

Wohlleben’s career started out as a conventional forester. He was basically a tree farmer, tending the forest in his care to produce the best lumber for industry. ‘I knew about as much about the hidden life of trees as a butcher knows about the emotional life of animals.’ But Peter Wohlleben is not a conventional person and he slowly gained a deeper appreciation of trees, one that transformed on discovering that what he thought was a pile of stones in a stand of ancient beech trees was actually a living tree stump. He was completely confounded, the stump had no leaves or branches, how could it live? There was only one possible explanation, it was being fed by the surrounding trees.

 

It was already known that trees interconnect via their root systems, but little else was widely known. Peter set off to discover all he could about this interconnectedness and he has done an amazing job pulling together research from all over the globe to paint an extraordinary picture of trees as highly social beings with their own ‘language’, who communicate via a complex and highly sophisticated mesh of roots and fungi dubbed the ‘wood wide web’.

Mother trees nurture their young, hostile trees (like the Black Walnut) attack nearby trees, trees warn each other of insect attack and deploy a stunning range of chemical warfare to ward off attack. The fungal mycelia that enable all this communication, nurture and warfare also have their own agendas. Whilst one species of tree may wish to dominate and exclude all other species in the forest the fungi prefer to hedge their bets by having a variety of trees the better to contend with changes in weather and climate. A tussle can break out between mycelia and a tree which is trying to send food to its offspring and the mycelia, who are part of the delivery system, divert some to the trees competitors.

Trees that are isolated, or who can’t develop proper root systems (such as plantation conifers) display abnormal behaviours, acting for all the world like messed up street kids, growing up too quickly and dying young.

This is a compelling and fascinating book, Peter Wohlleben co-ordinates a mass of information with ease, never overwhelming the reader, and our understanding and appreciation of trees and their complex, social life enacted in the soil beneath our feet is transformed.

 

 

 

When I was a child I picked up the notion from somewhere that the roots of a tree always exactly mirror the canopy, in both extent and depth. Well I’ve seen enough blown over trees to know that isn’t quite the case, but this year I’ve found out that what trees get up to underground is far more amazing than those imagined doppelganger roots.

We now know that there’s a whole world of interaction – nurturing, attacking, defending, sharing food – going on between trees, all in the darkness of the ground. This revelation is largely thanks to the persistent, quiet observations of a forest worker in the Eifel mountains in Germany.

So this blog is really more of a book review than anything else, and the book I’m talking about is the wonderful and wondrous The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben, published Greystone.

This book hit hard and fast, on it’s publication becoming an international best seller, and going on to spawn many articles and competing claims for the discovery that trees have a secret underground life.

Wohlleben’s career started out as a conventional forester. He was basically a tree farmer, tending the forest in his care to produce the best lumber for industry. ‘I knew about as much about the hidden life of trees as a butcher knows about the emotional life of animals.’ But Peter Wohlleben is not a conventional person and he slowly gained a deeper appreciation of trees, one that transformed on discovering that what he thought was a pile of stones in a stand of ancient beech trees was actually a living tree stump. He was completely confounded, the stump had no leaves or branches, how could it live? There was only one possible explanation, it was being fed by the surrounding trees.

 

It was already known that trees interconnect via their root systems, but little else was widely known. Peter set off to discover all he could about this interconnectedness and he has done an amazing job pulling together research from all over the globe to paint an extraordinary picture of trees as highly social beings with their own ‘language’, who communicate via a complex and highly sophisticated mesh of roots and fungi dubbed the ‘wood wide web’.

Mother trees nurture their young, hostile trees (like the Black Walnut) attack nearby trees, trees warn each other of insect attack and deploy a stunning range of chemical warfare to ward off attack. The fungal mycelia that enable all this communication, nurture and warfare also have their own agendas. Whilst one species of tree may wish to dominate and exclude all other species in the forest the fungi prefer to hedge their bets by having a variety of trees the better to contend with changes in weather and climate. A tussle can break out between mycelia and a tree which is trying to send food to its offspring and the mycelia, who are part of the delivery system, divert some to the trees competitors.

Trees that are isolated, or who can’t develop proper root systems (such as plantation conifers) display abnormal behaviours, acting for all the world like messed up street kids, growing up too quickly and dying young.

This is a compelling and fascinating book, Peter Wohlleben co-ordinates a mass of information with ease, never overwhelming the reader, and our understanding and appreciation of trees and their complex, social life enacted in the soil beneath our feet is transformed.