Book Review: The Hidden Life Of Trees

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 37 No. 6, June 2017
By Peter Wohlleben
First published in India by Penguin Random House India 2016
Hardcover, 320 pages,
Price: Rs. 499/-

Reviewed by Purva Variyar

Caring, sharing, thinking, communicating, socialising, nurturing, despairing and manipulating are not attributes you would ever assign a tree. For that matter, many of us wouldn't attach any ‘living attribute to a tree, except that they photosynthesise and provide us with oxygen'. However, new, path-breaking observations and studies are uncovering the hidden world of trees, and forcing us to rethink the way we look at them.

This book takes you on one such journey. German forester Peter Wohlleben's fateful discovery of ‘dead stone-like pieces of wood', still carrying traces of chlorophyll, 400-500 years after the tree was felled, changed his relationship with trees. On his realisation of the intricacy of a forest, with all the trees and fungi in it, he rightfully began to perceive it as a superorganism. Wohlleben's love for trees is so evident in The Hidden Life of Trees, so pure, so tender, that I just wanted to step out and hug the next tree I came across. More than that I am in awe of how spectacularly intelligent trees are! Though one can accuse Wohlleben of excessive anthropomorphism, it is also our limited spectrum of comprehension of the world of non-human beings that has kept us so far from understanding what is so simple and evident.

The author uses scientific research and his own observations to highlight how trees in a forest are social beings. They can nurse sick neighbours, warn of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the ‘Wood Wide Web and even keep ancient stumps of long-felled trees alive by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.

Wohlleben has managed to strike a strong chord with millions of people, including me, to appreciate and respect all that trees are capable of. No wonder then that this book, originally written in German as Das geheime Leben der Bäume in 2015, has been published in more than 17 different languages! As much as I admired the beauty of a tree, and the colours of the flowers and their importance in any given ecosystem, I couldn't empathise with a tree like I did with a dog or a spider. But now, after reading this enlightening masterpiece, I know I do. Scientifically sound, with engaging prose and an earnest story of all that Wohlleben has learnt from and about trees over two decades of forestry service, this book is destined to be one of the greats. Every world leader, politician and industrialist needs to be infected by this book so they will think a thousand times before felling a tree for development and commercial gains. The Hidden Life of Trees lifts the veil off what was hidden from us in plain sight!

Purva Variyar is a conservationist, writer, and editor. Her true passion lies in science communication. She currently works with the Wildlife Conservation Trust. Purva has previously worked as a Senior Editor and Science Communicator with Sanctuary Asia magazine. She has also worked on human-snake conflict mitigation and radio-telemetry of Russell’s vipers under The Gerry Martin Project.

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