When you first encounter Peter Wohlleben, either in print or interview, you could be forgiven for thinking he has partaken of the mushrooms that grow in the German forests where he is a ranger and guide, perhaps while he was reading about Treebeard the Ent in Lord of The Rings. In his bestselling book The Hidden Life of Trees, he speaks about his subjects being able to talk, feel pain, taste, suckle their young and nurture the weaker members of their community.
Yet dig down through the soft layer of anthropomorphism and you will soon hit a bedrock of solid scientific fact. All his claims are backed up by work published in respected journals or undertaken at prestigious universities.
Now 55, Wohlleben, who lives in a cabin in the tiny village of Hümmel, south west of Cologne, wrote the book at the urging of his wife, who felt he should put in writing the insights he was passing on to the people he guided through the woods.
Far from being static and passive, Wohlleben’s woodlands are more akin to an active beehive or an ant colony, involving complex communication, which means that no tree is an isolated individual. They can “talk” using chemical, hormonal and – by animal standards – very slow-pulsing electrical signals.
‘For example,’ he says, ‘When an insect or deer bites the tip of the tree, the tree may bring a poison into the leaf and then warn its neighbours via the roots and via fungal networks.’
He explains that the roots of individual trees are linked via a fungal version of a fibre-optic network. This allows the trees to not only communicate, but to move sugars to fellow trees that might be in stress via the tiny pathways. He calls this underground matrix the “wood wide web”.
There are many more insights in Wohlleben’s book that will alter your perception of trees and their dynamic relationships with each other. In fact, after reading The Hidden Life of Trees, a simple walk in the woods will never be the same again.