Review of ...
The Hidden Life of Trees
By Peter Wohlleben, 2015
Translation from German by Jane Billinghurst, 2016
Publisher Black Inc.
260 pages, incl notes
Forward by Tim Flannery
36 short chapters
76 references (English & German, published & unpublished)
Forest Scientist note
Printed on FSC paper
The Hidden Life of Trees’ central premise is that trees feel, respond, nurture others, communicate with each other and other species, have memory, can learn new behaviours - essentially they have dynamic emotional lives.
This concept challenges what we are taught from a young age that such things are only possessed by us and the higher animals.
When us or such animals are deemed brain-dead, it’s medically known as a vegetative state - devoid of feeling, volition, memory, sentience.
Ethically, on this belief, it is then acceptable to treat trees and plants how we wish without any guilt or afterthought.
The author, Peter Wohlleben, vocationally was an industrial forester, who changed tack in line with his convictions emerging from a lifetime working with trees.
Wohlleben walks the reader through deconstructing the base assumption that trees do not feel, and explains his rationale for arriving at his understanding of the emotional life of trees.
The concepts presented are supported by selected research, making it difficult to dismiss such a paradigm shift in understanding the reality experienced by plants.
The prose is narrative, reflective with selected supporting evidence from academic literature which is referenced. But it’s not heavy on the academics - the science lends a supporting act to the narrative which itself is based on an individual’s extensive experience, observation and reflection.
Easy to read, even technical concepts are explained in layman’s terms. You certainly enter the mind and thoughts of the writer and see the forest through his eyes and paradigm. Astute upper primary schoolage children could read this book, and I’d certainly give it to budding young naturalists.
Reading this book progressed my thinking that anthropomorphisation is itself an increasingly empty anthropocentric construct - the arrogant belief that humans alone possess emotions - which in mechanistic reality are the hormones, neurotransmitters, and other cellular messengers, electrophysical currents and pathways and capacity for stored memory, largely dictated by genetics and operating in a complex, open, environmental milieu (that is, epigenetic).
Using anthropomorphic arguments against the sentience of ‘lower’ life forms ignores this science of emotion and memory. The reality (generally oblivious to most lay people) is that scientists, physicians, veterinarians etc can measure and manipulate what is collectively known as emotions, in the lab, clinic, or operating theatre.
What seems as cold, hard science is in fact wondrous, beautiful and creates such a profound flow of energy that I find it impossible to not be endlessly fascinated by what happens in the minute details of nature.
Yes, it’s true we can certainly misinterpret interspecies emotions, but heck we barely manage to understand other human’s communication! So logically, based on our current knowledge, we cannot disprove nonhuman life emotion. And, it seems more evidence is pointing to its existence.
This is a paradigm shift in how modern understanding of life must now impact on our behaviour toward it. Yet people since time immemorial appear to have had this understanding, intuitively.
What I appreciate about this author is that he challenges, and convincingly refutes, forest doctrines with not just evidence from what he has literally seen, but with what is emerging from the latest rounds of forestry and arboreal research. This takes guts as anyone who challenges the status quo in a knowledge base is sure to have their opinions and ideas scrutinised to the highest degree.
I found that this book reminded me of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, in that the author joins the dots to arrive at a profound and deep-reaching conclusion.
It will ring so true with many readers looking to validate their feelings.
It will be vehemently dismissed as drivel by those committed to traditional beliefs about the value of non-human life.
Yet others may discover a completely different world around them, and as a result, develop empathy for a diminishing naturalness.
It is my hope that readers realise not just the obvious facts that we are losing precious forests at horrific rates, not just the ecosystem services that trees and all vegetation communities provide, but, they make excellent company and healthy companionship as well.
*Dr Nicole Anderson has probably spent more time in her life communicating with nonhuman life than actual humans. That is despite seeing 30-40 patients a day in her Smithton Medical Practice for the last 10 years. Anyway, all humans’ own body cells are outnumbered 10 to 1 by bacteria on the same body. So understanding interspecies communication is a medical necessity! As a GP Nicole has experience and expertise in Wilderness & Environmental medicine, genetics/epigenetics, Sports medicine and nutrition. The rest of her time is spent running, studying anything from archaeology to DIY renovation, or outside enjoying, exploring & learning about the great known and unknown.
• Australian Geographic: People are ‘blind’ to plants, and that’s bad news for conservation Plant blindness is more than an interesting quirk of human perception. It impacts on our efforts to care for and understand plant species.
• Late Night Live Legend Phillip Adams interviewed Forester Peter Wohlleben on Wednesday night on his astonishing global smash-hit, which has already been translated into 19 languages ... here’s an extract: … Unmanaged forests can cool down up to three degrees more than managed forests … trees have to deal with climate change … nowadays we are cutting a lot of timber for example for biomass power plants … we fire climate change by hurting the forest … therefore it would be better to reduce our consumption and leave a bigger percent of the forest alone …
• John Hayward in Comments: Even if, like most of us, we don’t give a stuff what other people, much less other life forms, are feeling, you should be shaken by discoveries about what plant sentience tells us about how little we know about the complexities of the ecosystem …
• Ted Mead in Comments: Fantastic review Nicole! – This book should be a mandatory read at primary school because as a child we are far more receptive to the laws and attractions of our natural world.