Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees”

Until recently I was quite sure that a broad difference between animals and plants was that animals, because they are mobile, readily interact with each other (flocking, pursuing, etc.) while plants, anchored to the ground, don’t do so because they can’t. Except to attract insect pollinators, plants, I thought, live a life of exquisite solo struggle, seeking only the sun and water.

I’ve been steadily learning how far off I was. German forester Peter Wohlleben’s popular book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, is the most compelling lesson yet.

Among his many descriptions of communication and mutual assistance is Wohlleben’s account of how trees defend not only themselves but also each other. Observers have noted, for example, that umbrella thorn acacias in the African savannah pumped toxins into their leaves when they felt giraffes nibbling on them. “The giraffes got the message and moved on to other trees in the vicinity. But did they move on to trees close by? No, for the time being, they walked right by a few trees and resumed their meal only when they had moved about 100 yards away.” They passed by the nearest trees because the trees being nibbled, in addition to pumping a repellent, “gave off a warning gas that signaled to neighboring trees that a crisis was at hand.” The giraffes knew these trees would not taste any better and kept walking.

hidden life of trees (pri.org)

pre.org

Many trees also have the ability to call in the air force. Reacting to bites from hostile insects, such trees emit scents that attract predators that devour the pests. “For example, elms and pines call on small parasite wasps that lay their eggs inside leaf-eating caterpillars.” The growing larvae devour the caterpillars from the inside.

The book brims with information and appreciations of this kind. Three more examples:

  • Trees that spend their lives in the forest fare much better than trees raised in one place and then transplanted to the forest. “Because their roots are irreparably damaged,…they seem almost incapable of networking with one another.” Like “street kids,” they “behave like loners and suffer from their isolation.”
  • Time for trees is slow and long. Internally, they, like animals, send alerts to parts of their body via chemicals and electrical impulses. But in a tree the electrical impulses move only about a third of an inch per second. (In our bodies, pain signals move  through our nerves about two feet per second, muscle impulses a hundred times faster.) No wonder it seems to us that plants are unresponsive.
  • Conifers (evergreens) “keep all their green finery on their branches” throughout the winter and have been doing so for 270 million years. Then deciduous (leaf-bearing) trees came along 100 million years ago, growing and discarding annually millions of delicate green solar panels. Was this an improvement? Why go to all that trouble? Wohlleben asks. Because “By discarding their leaves, they avoid a critical force—winter storms.” Between high winds, muddy soil, and a surface area equivalent to that of a large sailboat, tall evergreens take a battering in European winters. Growing and then dropping their huge surface area every year proved well worth while for the leafy new comers.

Wohlleben’s liberal use of human descriptors to explain the actions of trees delights many readers and annoys others. Andrea Wulf, in her review of the book, has both reactions.

I’m usually not keen on anthropomorphizing nature—and here trees are “nursing their babies” and having “a long, leisurely breakfast in the sun” while…fungus mushrooms are “rascals” who steal sugar and nutrients. These cutesy expressions make me cringe….But I have to admit that Wohlleben pulls it off—most of the time—because he sticks with scientific research and has a knack for making complex biology simple and thoroughly enjoyable.

I agree. While the vocabulary may bestow on trees a dignity and affection that we usually reserve for our own kind, it is scientists’ growing understanding of trees that creates the real story here. At a time of rapid environmental change, the book is as fascinating a revelation as one could ask for that life is even more intricate and purposeful than we knew.

No Pain, No Sympathy

Which living things merit our sympathy? Our pets? Certainly. What about human embryos? And plants? Is it consciousness or complexity or being human or the capacity for pain that makes an individual life worth our empathy?

The debate over animal rights has reinforced one ancient measure of an organism’s worth. An organism that shows signs of experiencing pain is said to be entitled to live without that pain. These sentient beings include cats and dogs and most of the animals that we eat or use for clothing or experiment on. Insects, with their minimal nervous systems, are on the margin of the sentience line.

Below the line are the simplest animals such as sponges and jellyfish, along with plants and single-celled bacteria and other microbes. These don’t experience suffering and have no awareness of a kind that we would recognize. They may have value collectively as part of the environment, but a single jellyfish or an individual plant has no standing for human commiseration.

diseased tree (skylinetreesvc.com)

slylinetreesvc.com

Although I understand its role in the cause of animal rights, I find this sentience distinction unsatisfying. If an organism appears to be “feeling” a disease or injury, we give its condition more weight and urgency than we would if the organism—a plant, for example—were one that did not consciously experience such a condition. A tree may be attacked by insects or suffer other life-threatening conditions, but if we are accustomed to imagining the terror of a pig going to slaughter, we probably won’t empathize much with the stress on the tree as chemical messages sweep through it.

When we feel compassion for another being that is in dire straits, what are we feeling sympathy for, exactly? Is it for the possible loss of an individual life? Is it for the dangerous condition that is attacking the organism? Or is it for the pain that the organism is enduring? I think it is the last, if only because the evident pain in an animal reminds us of our own capacity for suffereing. Perhaps we should remind ourselves that non-sentient beings, though without visible torment, may struggle, crave, and weaken as relentlessly as sentient ones.

The uniqueness and persistence of life over 3.8 billion years endows all living things, both with and without awareness, with value. I’m not recommending the ludicrous extreme of not killing plants; we, like all animals, can not survive without eating other living things, either plant or animal. But I am suggesting that we heighten our awareness of the sentience distinction that cleaves the living world in two and can diminish our connection with non-sentient life.