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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Forest Speaks

"These trees are friends. You see how the thick branches point away from each other? That's so they don't block their buddy's light."
"Scientific language removes all the emotion, and people don't understand it anymore. When I say, 'Trees suckle their children', everyone knows immediately what I mean."
"For a forester, this tree is ugly, because it is crooked, which means you can’t get very much money for the wood. It really surprised me, walking through the forest when people called a tree like this one [tree with a curved trunk] beautiful. They said, 'My life hasn't always run in a straight line, either'. And I began to see things with new eyes."
"I kept thinking, 'Ah! You only have 20 years, and you still have to accomplish this, and this, and that.' I learned to be happy about what I’ve done so far. With a forest, you have to think in terms of 200 or 300 years. I learned to accept that I can’t do everything. Nobody can."
Peter Wohlleben, German forest ranger

“When I say, ‘Trees suckle their children,’ everyone knows immediately what I mean.” PETER WOHLLEBEN Credit Gordon Welters for The New York Times

For people who love nature and feel a kinship to all within nature in a natural surrounding, trees in a forest are almost representative of a natural cathedral. They are tall, towering over us, broad and elderly, and their canopy shelters us. Their life span is far longer than that of the human species and they are beautiful to look at and to contemplate. Resting under a canopy of old trees, looking at their massive trunks, the sky above, hearing the birds that shelter in them, seeing the moss and lichen growing on their trunks, gives us a sense of peaceful repose.

Mr. Wohlleben was a forest ranger living in Germany where he was born. He began to think of trees and the presence of trees in the natural world somewhat differently than the detached way in which many of us regard a forest. In the forest he was familiar with he recognized trees as individuals of their species and he found them to be social creatures, with a regard for their neighbours' well-being. This is not the kind of fey thought that might occur to those who fancy elves living in a forest. But it is the realization of someone who comes to understand that nature is even more complex than we imagine it to be.

Living creatures like animals have sentience, the ability to think and to be aware and to act. Without quite anthropomorphizing trees, it is conceivable that they have developed over aeons of time their own social networks where consideration for the welfare of the other denizens of a forest is a type of survival mechanism that nature has imprinted trees with, as improbable as that may seem to those of us who imagine only human beings to be capable of such thoughts and considerations.

Peter Wohlleben found himself much quoted and admired on the publication of his book The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel,  How They Communicate -- Discoveries From a Secret World. He hypothesizes and he also presents research along with his own observations of trees and how a forest represents an interconnected network of socialization and practical survival. Some of his ideas may not be entirely original since botanists often consider forest trees to exist within a social network.

Trees and other plants are linked underground (Credit: All Canada Photos / Alamy)
Trees and other plants are linked underground (Credit: All Canada Photos / Alamy)

Sending electrical signals throughout a forest-floor's buried fungal network known as the "Wood Wide Web", trees convey messages  to one another, their communications warning of danger, and through the network nursing ill neighbours, and remembering what they have learned. Mr. Wohlleben read extensively about the behaviour of trees, concluding from his own observations and what he had read that trees in a forest habitat behave as communal entities. He realized that the forestry he had studied was not beneficial to those trees.

That reforestation -- for example, where trees are spaced too wide apart when they are planted while ensuring trees have more exposure to sunlight enabling them to speed up growth -- naturalists point out that too much space is capable of disconnecting trees from their natural networks so that their resilience mechanisms are impaired. In the Eifel forest the idea occurred to Mr. Wohilleben that heavy logging machinery damages forest soil, and that by substituting them with horses the soil and the trees would benefit. When his idea was dismissed by authorities he decided it was time to retire.

The Eifel municipality a decade ago was intrigued with this forester's plans, however, and a decade ago failed to renew its contract with the state forestry authority and and moved instead to hire Mr. Wohlleben and his ideas directly. By eliminating expensive machinery and chemicals the forest was better managed, going from loss to a profit margin, and his theory was  validated. This is an extension of respect by mankind toward the natural order of things, recognizing special qualities that exist within other species.

Nearly all forest trees live in symbiosis with underground fungi, and the type of fungus in a forest location can now be identified in satellite images. Credit: Malene Thyssen/CC BY-SA 3.0

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