Trees Are Social Beings, Too ; Ranger's Book Says Forest Communication Is like 'Wood Wide Web'

By Mcgrane, Sally | International New York Times, February 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Trees Are Social Beings, Too ; Ranger's Book Says Forest Communication Is like 'Wood Wide Web'


Mcgrane, Sally, International New York Times


Peter Wohlleben, a career ranger, has topped best-seller lists with his book describing trees as social beings that communicate on the "Wood Wide Web."

In the deep stillness of a forest in winter, the sound of footsteps on a carpet of leaves died away. Peter Wohlleben had found what he was looking for: a pair of towering beeches. "These trees are friends," he said, craning his neck to look at the leafless crowns, black against a gray sky. "You see how the thick branches point away from each other? That's so they don't block their buddy's light."

Before moving on to an elderly beech to show how trees, like people, wrinkle as they age, he added, "Sometimes, pairs like this are so interconnected at the roots that when one tree dies, the other one dies, too."

Mr. Wohlleben, 51, is a very tall career forest ranger who, with his ramrod posture and muted green uniform, looks a little like one of the sturdy beeches in the woods he cares for. Yet he is lately something of a sensation as a writer in Germany, a place where the forest has long played an outsize role in the cultural consciousness, in places like fairy tales, 20th-century philosophy, Nazi ideology and the birth of the modern environmental movement.

After the publication in May of Mr. Wohlleben's book, a surprise hit titled "The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate -- Discoveries From a Secret World," the German forest is back in the spotlight. Since it first topped best-seller lists last year, Mr. Wohlleben has been spending more time on the media trail and less on the forest variety, making the case for a popular reimagination of trees, which, he says, contemporary society tends to look at as "organic robots" designed to produce oxygen and wood.

Presenting scientific research and his own observations in highly anthropomorphic terms, the matter-of-fact Mr. Wohlleben has delighted readers and talk-show audiences alike with the news -- long known to biologists -- that trees in the forest are social beings. They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn one another of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the "Wood Wide Web"; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.

"With his book, he changed the way I look at the forest forever," Markus Lanz, a popular talk show host, said in an email. "Every time I walk through a beautiful woods, I think about it."

Though duly impressed with Mr. Wohlleben's ability to capture the public's attention, some German biologists question his use of words, like "talk" rather than the more standard "communicate," to describe what goes on between trees in the forest.

But this, says Mr. Wohlleben, who invites readers to imagine what a tree might feel when its bark tears ("Ouch!"), is exactly the point. "I use a very human language," he explained. "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."

Still No. 1 on the Spiegel best-seller list for nonfiction, "Hidden Life" has sold 320,000 copies and has been optioned for translation in 19 countries (Canada's Greystone Books will publish an English version in September). "It's one of the biggest successes of the year," said Denis Scheck, a German literary critic who praised the humble narrative style and the book's ability to awaken in readers an intense, childlike curiosity about the workings of the world. …

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