The Hidden Life of Trees

It is easy to suppose that mammals and other animals have feelings, emotions and intelligence. At the risk of projecting our humanness, one has only to interact, or attempt interaction, to come to such a conclusion. Indeed, it is such hubris to suppose that we humans are uniquely endowed with any of these attributes.

It is quite another matter to credit plants with a similar kind of sentience. Yet this is what Peter Wohlleben, a German ecologist and arborist, explores in his recently published The Hidden Life of Trees (Black Inc. 2016). He goes as far as describing trees as highly social beings interacting with other sentient beings and experiencing friendship, love and concern for the greater good of their shared ecologies. Trees don’t speak in ways we can easily hear, but Wolleben describes a tree world that is fundamentally communicative – among trees of the same kind, other species of trees, and with various other animals, plants and fungi. This network of interaction has been described as a ‘wood wide web’.

Trees deploy chemicals to both repel and attract insects; trees use electrical impulses to (slowly) send information throughout their cellular constituents; trees may share carbohydrates with neighbours via soil fungii – even supporting stumps produced by logging (and presumably other causes); trees regulate their rates of photosynthesis for mutual advantage, adjusting leaf production and growth rates . . . the list of intelligent, co-operative, sentient behaviours goes on. Trees also compete for space and light in conflicts that can result in death. While all this is social behaviour, involving self interest, co-operation, conflict and a ‘language’ of signs, two qualifying remarks should be made: who knows what it is that trees and plants ‘feel’; and, a language of chemical signals and nervous impulses does not appear ‘symbolic’ like human language.

Nonetheless, as Wohlleben shows, trees are obviously reactive, self interested and communal. They must be feeling something; Wohlleben speculates that trees probably feel pain, fear and other emotions (as one might assume any social organism must), but he is careful to say that he, for all his time amongst trees, is only speculating. But, as for intelligence, and ability to learn and remember . . . absolutely.

These observations may not be surprising to survivors of the 1960s. For whatever reasons, there was a recent time in European culture when thinking like a mountain or a tree was a serious sub-cultural goal. However, for my tastes, if we look back to books of the period that were reinventing an earth-centred mysticism, like those of Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird (e.g. The Secret Life of Plants, 1973), they now seem too mystical to bear. Putting Rudolf Steiner, Madam Blavatsky and Alice Bailey in the company of modern scientists (as Tompkins and Bird did) was really a project destined to fail. Critically important as the idea that plants are seriously sentient is, without sufficient credible scientific evidence, the idea can just meander off into fantasy. Plant sentience may have appealed to some – but others were prepared to catalogue Tompkins and Bird as merely ‘new age’ or ‘cult’ journalists. And consequently another important and plausible ecological idea languished in scientific and popular culture.

Largely thanks to David Attenborough, all is not lost. Who, in the present context, could forget images in Attenborough’s BBC documentary series (The Life of Plants) of plant tendrils apparently invading their environments. Speeded up, some plants appeared very sentient and very aggressive, exemplifying Darwin’s maxim of ‘survival of the fittest’ (and vindicating Darwin’s assumptions about the intelligence of creatures as lowly as earthworms). Undoubtedly if Attenborough had footage demonstrating compassion among plants he would have used it - but that’s really the point: today we tend not to see other species as civilised in ways that might cause us modern humans to sit back and think. Attenborough may have pioneered a new genre of ecological popular science that championed wild ‘nature’, but works like The Hidden World of Plants are also pioneers in the larger project of allowing human beings to re-connect with ‘the’ natural world.

The incorporation of extensive and plausible scientific evidence into the narrative grounds Peter Wohlleben’s book. What might otherwise appear a charming but anecdotal work gains important credibility at a critical time in human and planetary history. The rapidly deteriorating natural (and non-human) world requires humans to re-appraise their place in a global ecology.

It is important that previously ‘magical’ thought, can reach out to large audiences. Part of that process requires biological fieldwork to rank with clinical trials and laboratory tests as acceptable scientific evidence. Trees and forests are too big and too important to wait for either the religious world to become more mystical or the laboratory world to spend more on insights gained from fieldwork. Humanity is, after all, only part of a much bigger ecological whole; we need to expand the field of vision.

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