Beyond seeing trees as resources to cut down

Beyond seeing trees as resources to cut down

Review: The Heartbeat of Trees, Peter Wohlleben, Black Inc.

Spiders in Germany use the electrical fields of trees to fly. Static electricity makes your hair stand on end, and in vaguely similar fashion the electrical fields of trees make spider silk threads stand on end, turning them into parachutes that help the tiny spiders launch into the air. Can humans feel these electrical fields? Other animals do and though it’s not conclusive, Peter Wohlleben, in his latest book, thinks we possibly can.

Wohlleben’s bestselling book The Hidden Life of Trees was about the connections trees make with their kin. In his latest book, amongst other things, he writes about the connections animals, and in particular humans, have with trees, and the value of this for our wellbeing. He begins by arguing that human senses, despite our orientation to the modern man-made, are not as detuned to nature as we might think. And so he recommends walking in the forest, meandering, paying attention to the sights, sounds and smells.

The rest of the book is similarly meandering, from one intriguing topic to another. Writing about the sentience of trees in The Hidden Life of Trees brought on some skepticism in some readers, and the same may apply here. He asks if trees can see, hear and have memories, and his answer is yes – or more precisely, sort-of. The trick is that we have to upend our animal-centric ways. For example, he says that while we think of brains (in heads) as the central parts of our anatomy, in trees it may be the roots, which seem to show a similar ability as in animals to remember. He describes trees receiving and adjusting to sensory inputs of light and vibrations in air. This might seem a little out there, but this is exactly what seeing and hearing is.

If we wanted to describe him as a tree-hugger, he’d probably approve, and he recommends the practice for wellbeing. But don’t expect trees to hug you back. Trees are like some shy teenagers – recoiling from human touch. Stroke a young plant and it is likely to get defensive and grow shorter branches and a thicker stem. (This is because stroking it mimics the action of the wind, or animals bumping into it.)

Amongst these extraordinary bits of information is the admission that there is much that we don’t know, including exactly what’s in the soil. In New York recently, soil in Central Park was surveyed and found to contain 100,000 species of bacteria. You might have heard that trees move enormous amounts of water through their bodies via transpiration – water exiting the leaves sucks more water through the tree, ultimately from the ground via the roots. Actually, says Wohlleben, the evidence suggests this isn’t true, but it’s not known exactly how trees do this. There are mysterious processes at work.

It is one thing to know about trees, another to respond emotionally, and the argument of the book is that science only takes us so far. If we are to redress environmental problems, we need emotional connections. And so Wohlleben writes about the importance of old growth forests, and of variety in forests. In moving back to the territory of his earlier book, he explains the importance of the forest as a community containing the young, the old and the bodies of the dead, and how this community lowers temperatures, and the blood pressure of humans. And I’d like to think that attention to trees in more than economic terms – beyond seeing trees as resources to cut down – helps us to focus outwards and cultivate our capacity for caring.

Nick Mattiske blogs on books at and is the illustrator of Thoughts That Feel So Big.


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