The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben (2015)

There’s something magical about reading this book on the ways trees communicate and nurture each other while in Northern Michigan hiking in forests, preserves, and dunes. So many things I didn’t know, like the fact that conifers are 170 million years old whereas deciduous trees are a 100 million years old, relatively young in terms of evolution. Is that why they still go through the process of storing every bit of energy in the warm days of fall before shedding every last leaf, breaking down their chlorophyll so they can send it back to its leaves in the spring? The conifers simply fill themselves with antifreeze and then coat their needles with wax to preserve their much needed water supply. But for the deciduous, the only way they can protect themselves from the brutal winter storms is to shed the leaves that make them more susceptible to toppling over, so they’ve learned their own survival method, though it’s much more work than the conifers’ method. Plus, it gives people like me a reason to head north and view the bounty of colors emerging as the chlorophyll drains out.

Wholleben goes on to discuss the way trees communicate, raise their young, work together to stave off pests and disease (when possible), and why forests should be left alone (he used to advise on logging). He creates a magical world of the forest where trees have enough personality that when, in the fall, we see three oaks in row and one is still green while the other two are well into their reds and oranges, he attributes this to each tree’s character and level of risk. Should I wait another week to soak up more energy to store in the winter, or should I diminish my chlorophyll now so as not to take the chance of leaving too many leaves on my branches when the first big winds arrive? For this, and more, Wholleben’s book has become controversial (see review) as one based less on science and more on emotion, even fairy tale. Still, I enjoyed his stories (science?) and experiences. For example he explains why redwoods grow 2-3 times higher in California than they ever will in Europe and why trees planted in cities will always be unhappier–though they are pampered and primped for many years–than those in the forest, and why some trees are “pioneer” trees, preferring to strike out on their own rather than stay in the forest with a cozy and supportive community of parents and siblings. He’s a believer in leaving forests alone, that low intensity fires should be allowed to burn because they keep the forest in check and that when we put out these small fires, too much kindling builds up, and then a fire that should stay low, burning just the understory, will escalate instead to the canopy, producing raging infernos.

Perhaps the most important takeaway is that forest air is healthy air, so get out of the house and spend time in the forest.

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