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The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate


Communicating via a dark web, marching north at the rate of a quarter mile a year, releasing alarms when under attack, and throwing up extra shields to protect against invaders, these are a few of the survival techniques of trees.

The Hidden Life of Trees, a new book by German forester Peter Wohlleben, fills in many of the details you probably didn’t know about your quiet neighbors which, while casting a shadow on your garden, dropping leaves and needles on your roof, and blocking your views of the lake, are speaking to one another underground, sensing pain when damaged, emitting the essential oxygen you breathe, and providing housing for various creatures. Why, you might wonder, are folks so keen on chopping them down?

Whether you look at Eden or East Africa, if you think about it, the earliest humans were born among trees. It somehow seems fitting then to learn from Wohlleben that trees have social networks, that they talk to one another, and many have an overbearing mother that doesn’t want them to grow up too soon. Trees take care of one another and even supply food to aging stumps. While most of the examples in this book come from observations of forests—and lack thereof—in Central Europe, much of the information will make you look at our local sentinels in a new light.

And speaking of light, why do we see leaves as green? Because this is the part of the chlorophyll that can’t be converted by trees from sunlight to sugars and so is refracted back to our eyes. The green, which we find so soothing and beautiful, is a tree’s leftover lunch!

Much of Leschi is blessed to host a variety of deciduous trees and conifers. But every year many of them are lost to development and indiscriminate trimming. Perhaps we need a new scale to weigh the losses and gains from current practices. Recent reports have linked tree cover and conditions such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes. According to a 2015 New Yorker article, “For the people suffering from these conditions, an extra eleven trees per block corresponds to an income boost of twenty thousand dollars, or being almost one and a half years younger.”

But of course, recreating Nature is never as simple as planting street trees. Wohlleben reminds us that trees thrive in communities and their roots need vast amounts of space underground to spread out horizontally They are stymied by the compacted soil under roads, which is one of the reason they like to spread through the looser soil around pipes. Forests remain the optimal environment for tree communities. Thank goodness for our natural areas and Leschi and Frink parks.

~Anne Depue

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