“The Hidden Life of Trees”, Book Review and Interview with Author Peter Wohlleben

(pictures: Greystone Books)

by Meike Siegner

If we came so far in the 21st century as to credit animals with complex emotional lives and passed laws that extend rights to them; and if the decades long struggle of environmental movements has helped to unleash a broader move towards organic farming practices, can we also shift our perspective on trees to pave the way for more sensitive forms of forest management? In his bestseller “The Hidden Life of Trees” German forester Peter Wohlleben gets to the bottom of this idea by offering an alternative view on trees as social beings. By drawing from findings in research and his own experience working in forests, Wohlleben uses human analogies, such as friendship and the acts of sharing and caring, to break down complex interactions in forest ecosystems. And his approach seems to be successful. While the fact that trees “talk” to each other through spreading electrical signals across fungal networks may surprise neither biologists nor keen forestry students, the phenomena described in the book have caught the enthusiasm of a broad audience of readers. “The Hidden Life of Trees” made it to the top of German bestseller lists and author Wohlleben has been portrayed in reputable newspapers even before the English version of the book was released in early September[1]. But Wohlleben doesn’t stop at the attempt to draw the attention of laypeople to the subject of forests. “The Hidden Life of Trees” provides a range of insights on recent findings in forest ecology research and contains a plethora of examples for holistic approaches to forest management that are as inspiring for graduate students in search for research topics as they are for practitioners working in forests.

In an exclusive interview with IFSA online editorial, author Peter Wohlleben revealed  details about his perspective on the current forestry education system and where he sees potential for students to spur change toward sustainable forest practice.

Your book has received strong positive reactions across Germany and beyond. What do you think are reasons for this excitement in the light of environmental problems and climate change?

Awareness about environmental issues has already been around in the 60s and particularly young generations are increasingly aware of them. The interest for books like this one  is rooted in the fundamental human need to be in harmony with nature. People are uncomfortable with the view of nature as a “mechanic entity” which was formed during the Enlightenment, led by figures such as Descartes, and has prevailed throughout the 20th century. In this view, nature can be controlled by humans and studied like a machine. Even though it has been somewhat corrected by a body of scientists, this perspective still dominates policy and public perceptions. In part also due to the increasing awareness of global environmental destruction, many people are no longer comfortable with this mechanistic view and look for alternative perspectives. And while more recent findings in science may actually be able to please this desire to regain harmony with nature, scientists have done a rather poor job in communicating this knowledge in a way that is understandable to the people.

You collaborated with Professor Suzanne Simard from the University of British Columbia to promote the English version of “The Hidden Life of Trees” in North America.  From your background as a forest practitioner, how would you generally describe your relationship with scientists?  

I believe that it is very important to bring scientists on board. But interdisciplinary! Germany in particular is characterized by a traditional body of forest authorities that show limited appreciation for alternative views. In fact, many scientific reports that I base my work on are not from traditional forest sciences but from related fields such as biology and environmental sciences. I welcome interdisciplinary research in forestry faculties. We need more lateral thinking in linking practice and science and allow for more alternative experimenting in forest practices. One such example for such alternative approaches is research done on growth depression that occurs after soil compaction caused by harvesting activities. There are remarkable studies done in this area, many in North America actually. Aspects such as forest expansion and density are also well suited for monetary assessment. This is something we are currently processing together with students here in our forest. However, I don’t see this knowledge translated into practice anywhere here yet. Although forest sciences have the reputation to be planning for centuries, in my context I have actually been observing the contrary.

You make it very clear in your book that trees are much more than just raw material suppliers. Looking back at your own study experience, do you think that current curricula in forestry schools are offering such a broader perspective on forestry as you describe above?

I would wish for a stronger free spirit in forestry schools. Forestry is more than just wood science, but I am observing in my context that candidates for forest services are often leaving universities with a mindset that reflects a narrow view on forestry. And it is hard for them to get beyond this perspective. That frightens me to some extent. Managing forests for other services beyond just wood, for example for carbon, is considered a side business. But who says that this should be a side business? And this is really a global phenomenon. Countries like Canada could benefit from orienting their forest management more strongly towards tourism. Privately owned Haliburton Forest in Ontario, Canada, is a great example how forests can be managed sustainably and marketed in an integrated manner. With respect to curricula in forestry programs, there should be stronger emphasis on conveying a picture of trees as living beings, in an objective and non-judgemental manner, by presenting the current state of research on what we know about social aspects of trees. This would allow to broaden the perspective beyond trees as raw material suppliers or ecosystem service providers. If we offer such an objective perspective to students about the interactions of trees and their “social lifes”, they may get a deeper understanding on how trees can be taken care of. Also, research activity in undergraduate forestry programs should receive stronger emphasis. This would provide students with the opportunity to study complex phenomena in forests more in-depth, discuss results and thus broaden their horizon.

What can you recommend IFSA with our attempt to strategically foster diverse views and perspectives on global forestry issues?

Travelling is my best advice for your organization. I would highly welcome people from other cultural contexts in our forest here in Germany. Activities that strategically support students in gaining professional experience abroad are a step in the right direction.

The Hidden Life of Trees

by Peter Wohlleben, with a foreword from Tim Flannery and a note from forest scientist Dr. Suzanne Simard

Greystone Books/ David Suzuki Institute

ISBN: 9781771642484

288 pages

[1] The New York Times Online (January 29, 2016). German Forester Finds that Trees have Social Networks, too. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/30/world/europe/german-forest-ranger-finds-that-trees-have-social-networks-too.html?_r=0, accessed on November 13, 2016.

For comments or questions please contact the author: meike.siegner.ifsa(a)gmail.com

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