Rachel Vellenga: A new perspective on trees

Rachel Vellenga: A new perspective on trees

By RACHEL VELLENGA

"The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries from a Secret World" by Peter Wohlleben was an absolutely fascinating read, especially if you feel an affinity with trees.

This book was written by a German forester who manages a community forest and contains his observations as well as research about trees and how they are able to communicate with each other.

I have seldom read a book in which I said "wow" so many times. You will never walk through the woods in the same way again. It makes you question everything you took for granted about trees and plants.

Wohlleben describes how trees, particularly within their own species, can communicate to warn other trees about danger. In one instance, he describes how the acacia tree, found in the African savannah, is able to summon a toxic substance to its leaves within minutes of a giraffe beginning to eat them.

Not only does the tree do this to preserve its own safety, but it also releases a scent into the air to warn other acacia trees in the area; the neighboring trees then immediately begin to produce the same bitter substance.

Giraffes know of this effective communication method, so once the tree they are munching on turns bitter, they know to not sample any more trees within a particular radius of the original tree (unless they are downwind).

The book also contains particularly moving sections such as when Wohlleben describes coming across the buried trunk of a very large, old beech tree. The trunk was covered in moss, and under normal circumstances, such a trunk would be soft and decaying, but the author realized that this wood was still hard and green inside and therefore — inexplicably — alive.

Wohlleben puzzled over how a trunk could still be alive with no leaves for photosynthesis, especially one that had clearly fallen hundreds of years ago. He then realized that the other trees around this fallen giant were feeding the trunk in order to sustain it. They were giving some of the energy they created to this old, hobbled friend.

Wohlleben also spends a great deal of time discussing the symbiotic relationship between trees and underground fungal growth. Trees give some of the energy they create to the mycelium (fungus) in order for the mycelium to help them get nutrients from the soil. The beings know that they require each other to thrive.

And finally, Wohlleben talks about his own journey as a forest ranger. He began his career by seeing trees as commodities, but his view has completely changed in light of his experiences and research. He no longer uses chemicals in the forest, and he avoids using heavy machinery to remove trees, which can compact the soil; instead, he uses horses and wagons.

This was my favorite book of 2017. Check it out, then take a (newly fascinating) walk in the woods with new understanding.

Rachel Vellenga is a youth services librarian at The Urbana Free Library. She loves reading (surprise!), working with families and international travel, and is pretty handy with scissors and construction paper.

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