The Hidden Life Of Trees | What They Feel, How They Communicate, Discoveries From A Secret World by Peter Wohlleben

15 July, 2022 - 13 min read

I. Brief Summary

After reading this book, I recognize how misunderstood trees and forests are. Humanity has always struggled to understand things that reside in a slow lane or cannot be seen through our own eyes. Modern urbanization and reforestation might seem to be optically working, however, what forests need is—uninterrupted growth time for a very long period of time. To restore what we have ruined on this planet goes beyond an average human lifespan. Peter Wohlleben clearly shares his deep love of woods. He is a student of forestry. He explains the amazing processes of life, death, and regeneration of trees which he has studied deeply that most are unaware of.

II. Big Ideas

  • Trees are mostly misunderstood because they live on a different timescale than us. One of the oldest trees on Earth, a spruce in Sweden, is more than 9,500 years old. That is 115 times longer than the average human lifetime.
  • The most astonishing thing about trees is how social they are. Trees establish friendships with their surrounding neighbors via their root systems. Assistance is delivered via fungal networks around the root tips which facilitates nutrient exchange between trees. A tree is not a forest. The give and take is vital for working together. This helps in creating consistent local climate that moderates extremes of heat and cold. For this to happen, the community must remain intact no matter what. Every tree is valuable to community and worth keeping around as long as possible. The sick are supported and nourished until they recover. There are loner trees who are incapable of working with one another.
  • How do trees communicate? They use scent. When trees are in danger from being abused by Giraffes, they start pumping toxins. Other surrounding trees start to get message as well. Chemical signals can also be found through the fungal networks.
  • Trees struggle with each other for local resources. But only with different species. Trees synchronize their performance so that they are all equally successful. The equalization of producing same levels of sugar, photosynthesizing takes place underground through the roots. Whoever is running short gets help. It's a social security system for forests to ensure individual members of society don't fall far too behind. Forest is more productive when the trees are packed together. This is because a tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
  • Reproduction is planned at least a year in advance. Wind and bees come into play equally.
  • An easy way to estimate the age of a young beech tree is to count the small nodes on its branches. These nodes are tiny swellings that look like a bunch of fine wrinkles. The number of nodes corresponds with age of the tree.
  • Young trees are so keen on growing quickly, but their own mothers do not approve of rapid growth. They shade their offsprings with their enormous crowns, and the crowns of all the mature trees close up to form a thick canopy over the forest floor. This method used in this upbringing is light deprivation. Wouldn't parents want their offsprings to become independent as quickly as possible? Trees would answer with a resounding no. Scientists have determined that slow growth when the tree is young is a prerequisite if a tree is to live to a ripe old age. The patience is being tested. If the tree is wider than its tall, then the young tree is in waiting mode.
  • The large crowns of mature trees are exposed to turbulent winds, torrential rains, and heavy loads of snow. To prevent impact of these forces, the roots cling to earth and to rocks. It is only with increasing age that the trunk thickens and becomes solid enough that a normal amount of snow can no longer wreak havoc. Only the pine has the cheek to greedily redirect its crown toward the light. This is why the pine has the highest rate of breakage because of snow.
  • Thirst is harder for trees to endure than hunger because they can satisfy their hunger whenever they want using photosynthesis. A mature beech tree can send more than 130 gallons of water a day coursing through its branches and leaves.
  • Wound and tear can be destructive for trees as they become portals for fungal spores and other unwanted guests.
  • If trees are capable of learning, where do they store, and how do they access information? Fungi! Getting into a partnership with them has a price. Fungi demand sugar and carbohydrates as a form of payment.
  • Water moves up through capillary action and transpiration. The narrower the vessel, the higher the liquid can rise against gravity.
  • Skin is to human as bark is to trees. They gradually age. Without bark, a tree would dry out. An open wound in bark can cause damage to trees. More light can be harmful. More light, more sun, more ultraviolet radiation.
  • Can trees think? When a root feels its way forward in the ground, it is aware of stimuli. The only difference between us and them is the amount it takes to process the information.
  • Erosion is one of the forest's most dangerous natural enemies.
  • The assertion that burning wood is climate neutral is based on misunderstood concept. The forest is a gigantic carbon dioxide vacuum that constantly filters out stores this component of the air. When trees die, most of the carbon dioxide remains in the ecosystem. Today's fossil fuels come from trees that died about 300 million years ago. Just because trees are growing more rapidly than they used to does not mean carbon dioxide is being balanced out. Growth fueled by hefty additions of excess nitrogen from agricultural operations is unhealthy. Remember if you are a tree, slow growth is the key to growing old.
  • Forests are good at creating microclimate for the same reason people do. When we run, we sweat which allows us to cool down. The same goes for trees. Evaporation leads to cooling, in turn leads to less evaporation. This is why forests should not be disturbed. Whoever sweats a lot must also drink a lot.
  • How does water go to forest? The essential characteristics of land is that it is higher than water. Gravity causes water to flow down to the lowest point, which should cause the continents to dry out. The only reason this doesn't happen is supplies of water provided by cloud which form over the oceans are blown over land by wind. This mechanism works only closer to coastal areas. The more inland you go, the drier it gets. Each summer, trees use up to 8,500 cubic yards of water per square mile, which releases into the air through transpiration. The water vapor creates new clouds that travel farther inland to release their rain. This helps get water to most remote areas. Amazon basin is a perfect example of this water pump system. But there are requirements for this system to work. From ocean to the farthest corner, there must be forest. And more importantly, the coast forests are the foundations for this system. Researchers have found this system breaks when forests are cleared. The fallout of Amazon in Brazil is already apparent because coastal forests are cleared out for urban cities. This is why forest ecosystems are critical in slowing down climate change.
  • Rain can put you in the most wonderful mood while you are walking. Just need the right clothes, so it is not unpleasant.
  • The forest ecosystem is held in a delicate balance. Every being has its niche and its function, which contribute to the well-being of all. Every species want to survive, and each takes from the others what it needs. All are basically ruthless, and the only reason everything doesn't collapse is because there are safeguards against those who demand more than their due. This is why forest have an innate behavior that protects itself from overexploitation.
  • Wood fibers conduct sound well which is why they are used for violins and guitars. But this has an underlying function in a forest. Whenever there is a danger, the residents of forest use this acoustic feature as an alarm system.
  • Planting trees in urban areas is challenging because the mechanics of planting, transferring and trimming makes these trees act like street kids. When the roots are pruned while transferring them from a nursery to its final destination, the brain-like structures are cut off along with the sensitive tips. Trees then lose their sense of direction underground. Irrigating giant trees takes an enormous amount of water and time. One day, the pampering stops. Living high on the hog for decades spoils them. There are no family members who can rush to help these urban trees. So they go out and establish in their new territory, and many times, they'll find underground wastewater pipes. And when it storms, the streets get filled with water. The culprit is sentenced to death. The offending tree is cut down, and its successor is planted. Another issue with urban planting is that the urban microclimate is heavily influenced by heat-inducing asphalt and concrete keeping the temperatures elevated. And if that wasn't enough, salt during winter and unsolicited fertilizer from dogs cause injury to trunks and kill roots.
  • There are species of trees that like to grow far from forests. What's surprising is how much betulin there is in birch bark. It has antibacterial and antiviral properties. These species are on constantly in defensive mode which causes them to overproduce these toxins. They can't balance between sustainable growth and producing healing compounds. Species that live in social groups don't entertain this option because every individual belongs to a community that look after one another. Overtaxing on resources due to lack of community can eventually these isolated species out.
  • Forest air is the epitome of healthy air. People who want to take a deep breath of fresh air or engage in physical activity in a particularly agreeable atmosphere step out into the forest. The air is cleaner under the trees because trees act as huge filters.

III. Quotes

  • Life in the slow lane is clearly not always dull.
  • A tree's most important means of staying connected to other trees is a “wood wide web” of soil fungi that connect vegetation in an infinite network that allows the sharing of an enormous amount of information and goods.
  • The wolves [in Yellowstone] turned out to be better stewards of the land than people, creating conditions that allowed the trees to grow and exert their influence on the landscape.
  • Forests hide wonders that we are only just beginning to explore.
  • The modern industry produces lumber.
  • When you know that trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you can no longer just chop them down and disrupt their lives with large machines.
  • Forests are superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies.
  • Trees live in the really slow lane, even when they are in danger.
  • The trees release their potential heirs into the world on tiny wings.
  • Trees maintain an inner balance. They budget their strength carefully, and they must be economical with energy so that they can meet all their needs.
  • The forest is not sick, but it is vulnerable.
  • The cares are stacked against those free spirits who think they can meander left or right as the mood takes them and dawdle before they stretch upwards.
  • The trees who don't know the meaning of restraint and are lavish in their water use, and it is usually the largest and most vigorous trees that pay the price for this behavior.
  • Nature is a strict teacher.
  • Trees are not known for their speed.
  • So many questions remain unanswered. Perhaps we are poorer for having lost a possible explanation or richer for having gained a mystery. But aren't both possibilities equally intriguing.
  • Does that mean that beings that live life in the slow lane are automatically worth less than ones on the fast track?
  • We don't know how long it will take until true forest soil is created once again, but we do know that a hundred years is not enough.
  • In a very simple, widely circulated image of natural cycles, trees are poster children for a balanced system.
  • If we want to use forests as a weapon in the fight against climate change, then we must allow them to grow old, which is exactly what large conservation groups are asking us to do.
  • As foresters like to say, the forest creates its own ideal habitat.
  • An organism that is too greedy and takes too much without giving anything in return destroys what it needs for life and dies out.
  • A single tree contains millions of calories in the form of sugar, cellulose, lignin, and other carbohydrates. It also contains water and valuable minerals. Did I say a grocery store?
  • Many trees take pains to budget carefully, alders flaunt their wealth. Ash and elders behave in a similar manner.
  • How do trees register that the warmer days are because of spring and not late summer? Trees must have a memory.
  • What good are extra provisions if you can't shed your leaves and have to spend the whole winter in mortal danger?
  • Growth speeds up, and instead of adding a few fractions of an inch each year, the tree is adding about 20 inches. This takes energy, which is then not available for fending off illness and pests. The trunk, which appears to be in the very best of health, finds itself increasingly under attack because it doesn't have the energy to mobilize a defense.
  • We like to apply our own situations to others, we overlook the fact that an intact forest has completely different priorities.
  • It takes not 1 but 150 years to grow such a mighty structure, but once it's up there, hardly any other plants—except for other trees can reach it, and the rest of its life is worry free.
  • In short, this is what we call evolution. It helps organisms to adapt to changing environmental conditions and, therefore, guarantees the survival of species. The shorter the interval before the next generation, the more quickly animals and plants can adapt. Trees seem completely uninterested in this scientifically established imperative. They simply live to be ancient on average many hundreds, but sometimes even thousands, of years old.
  • But just as people spark fires, they also rush to put them out.
  • Chlorophyll, however, has one disadvantage. It has a so-called green gap, and because it cannot use this part of the color spectrum, it has to reflect it back unused. This weak spot means that we can see this photosynthetic leftover, and that's why almost all plants look deep green to us. What we are really seeing is waste light, the rejected part that trees cannot use. Beautiful for us; useless for trees. Nature that we find pleasing because it reflects trash?
  • Only people who understand trees are capable of protecting them.