Environment » Nature

The Secret Life of Trees

Author Peter Wohlleben reveals the hidden life of trees and forests in his compassionate and fascinating new book.

Before we share our interview with Peter Wohlleben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World (Greystone Books), let us preface it by saying that he doesn’t want you to give up books and nights by the fire. Rather, like animal rights activists before him who campaigned for the humane treatment of animals, Wohlleben would like us to find a better balance between what we need and what we use, and to see trees as “more than just a commodity.”

“Firewood is made from trees,” says Wohlleben. “I am sitting on a chair made of wood, and that’s OK. All I want is, on the one hand, for people to have more fun with trees and, on the other hand, that all things that we do come with a better balance. All I want is that we come to a better balance with all things. It doesn’t mean that you’re unhappy afterward or that you have less money or that jobs are lost. But we have a choice to make things better without losing anything, so why not change direction?”

Wohlleben’s book draws on scientific discoveries as well as his own observations as he shares the complex life of trees and shows how “a happy forest is a healthy forest” with economic and environmental benefits.

HIddenLifeOfTrees_coverIn Toronto to promote The Hidden Life of Trees as a guest of the Goethe-Institut, the city’s German cultural centre, the soft-spoken German forester tell us that he fell in love with forests at an early age.

“Since I was a child, about six years old, I always wanted to do something with nature,” he says. “I remember I even wanted to be something like a nature protector. After high school, I wanted to study biology. Then I saw in the newspaper a posting for students of forestry. [That’s how] I started my relationship with trees.”

With 20-plus years working for the forestry commission in Germany, Wohlleben realized early on that farming trees the “common way,” with heavy machines and chemicals, was destroying nature. “Someone said yesterday I was a deforester, not a forester. And that’s what it was,” he says.

After visiting forests that were managed in an eco-friendly manner, Wohlleben tried to make a change. When the forestry commission that he was working for insisted on the traditional way, he left.

Fortunately, he didn’t have to go far. Wohlleben was about to move his whole family to Sweden, when a village mayor asked him to stay, promising he could build their own forest commission where he could put his environmentally friendly forest management practices to work. “From then on, I had more time to discover things,” he says.

Today, Wohlleben’s passion for forests and enthusiasm for returning them to their primeval state (left to their own devices, with little or no interference from humans so they can become the old-growth forests of tomorrow) is evident and contagious. “The return to primeval forests is important for many reasons,” he says. “First and foremost, for me, because you can discover all these amazing things and have more fun. I think the protection of the environment is most important for us, not other species. The forest will recover when we are long gone. It’s not a problem for nature—it’s a problem for us, now. That’s our environment that is going to break down.”

Despite Canada’s feel-good reputation, our forestry practices don’t rate high on Wohlleben’s who’s-been-good list. “Germans are concerned about what’s going on in Canada, with those clear cuts and shrinking primeval forests,” he explains. “Though in Germany, we don’t have a square metre left of primeval forest. We have a bigger problem than Canada—I think most industrial nations are behind. We have perfected industrial forest management, with heavy machinery. We can buy more expensive machinery. They are so heavy that they compress the soil, and then the soil is not able to store much water from winter rainfall; therefore, the soil will dry out in summer very fast, and then you have those dry forests that burn easily. The trees don’t have enough water to grow. The soil will recover after the next ice age, according to geologists. Wherever we can reach the forest by machinery, we are going to destroy the soil. That’s what most concerns us right now.”

By contrast, in the environmentally friendly woodland in Germany that he runs, “We don’t work with heavy machinery—we work with wood workers and heavy horses,” he says. “We have nearly undisturbed forest. We don’t have any primeval forest, but we have forests that are thousands of years old, very near to primeval forest, and we have made reservations for them. There’s no tree being felled for the future. That’s 15 percent of the forest. In the other part, we have plantations. We’re trying to bring them back to primeval forest. That will take about 100 to 500 years to recover those forests and bring them back to primeval forest. I won’t see it in my lifetime, but many generations after.”

For those who think all this “forest-friendly” goodwill comes at a cost, Wohlleben sets a shining example of economic feasibility. “Before we changed direction, we lost €75,000 every year,” he says. “Now each year we earn €300,000. Being careful with nature doesn’t mean that you can’t earn money or that we will lose jobs. It’s vice versa. When you have more healthful forests, you don’t have so much damage from storms or insects. Every time you have a storm or insect attack, you don’t get as much money from the timber, because it may have holes or it’s breaking, but the timber is much more healthful now. A healthier forest produces more timber, so you have the possibility to leave some part of the forest untouched. More timber than before means more jobs, which creates new ideas. For example, now we’re making guided tours and seminars, which we’re being paid for. We’re also getting sponsors to pay for forest that remains untouched. Altogether, we have much more money, we have protected areas and we have more jobs. That’s a really great thing for this little village.”

Despite his extensive experience, Wohlleben still comes across surprises in his work. “There was a moss-covered stone that turned out to be a tree stump that was 400 or 500 years felled,” he says. “The stump was still alive, without any leaves, which could only mean it was being kept alive by root connections to other trees that were pumping sugar solution to this old stump. They were keeping it alive. It was amazing for me, because we learned in school that each living being is competing against each other to survive. Now I found in the forest that trees help each other, that they are living in social and family groupings and, yes, that makes sense because a single tree is not a forest.”

Of particular interest for many will be the book’s chapter on “woody climate control.” “A forest can create a special climate, which is more humid, more cool,” says Wohlleben. “There’s research being done at the University of Aachen. They found that our village forest cools down in summer an average of three to 10 degrees lower than managed forests. That’s very important in times of climate change.”

While some may dismiss Wohlleben’s work as a touchy-feely, hippie pipe dream, a closer read will reveal a solid case for environmental and economic benefits. For Wohlleben, however, the moral of the story is simpler still.

“It’s not about trying to tell people how to treat trees, or teaching anyone,” Wohlleben says. “It’s more interesting for me that people see trees from another view. When we look at an elephant, we don’t ask what benefits it gives us. We see a wonderful being, and we have fun just watching it. When we look at a tree, everyone thinks, ‘Ah, that’s an oxygen producer, or timber producer. We can make something out of it.’ In reality, they’re wonderful beings, with a real family life and feelings, like every being on this earth. When you take a step out the door and you see plants and trees, no one recognizes it. And that’s what I want to change, so that the people have more fun.”