In A Matchup Of Idolatry Versus Science, Science Must Win, But Idolatry Has Its Place

I posted about Peter Wohlleben twice before in these pages, both in 2016 when his previous (16th!) book was published. It would appear from both of my posts that year, and others, that I idolize trees in a way consistent with that author’s views; but plenty posts also demonstrate that for me, science is the master. Questionable science, and the very questioning of science as a worthy practice, have been divisive issues in some quarters recently, so the review below has my full attention.

That said, portions of the reviewer’s description of the author’s most recent book, and of the author himself, could easily apply to the best naturalist guides in Costa Rica, who bring the rainforest and other ecosystems alive for visitors. Interpretive guiding frequently changes perspectives, sometimes changes lives, and at best can lead to greater support for conservation. So, I am warily sympathetic to the concessions that Peter Wohlleben has made in talking about and writing about trees and forests:

The German Forester Who Wants the World to Idolize Trees

Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees” became an unlikely best-seller, and now has a sequel. Does it matter if the books are full of questionable science?

One cold afternoon in the autumn of 2018, in a forest outside the tiny village of Hümmel, in Rhineland-Palatinate, I went for a walk with the German forester Peter Wohlleben. He’s a tall man with a long head and a short gray beard; his vanishing hair was shaved close to the skull. He had the slightly stiff bearing of a person who thinks often about the importance of uprightness. (“When a structure is nice and vertical, it is difficult to upset its equilibrium,” he has written, of trees.) He wore muddy, size-15 army boots and a black fleece jacket that smelled of old woodsmoke.

We followed a logging road through a forest of beeches. Up in the canopy, the leaves were every possible hue of apple skin. Wohlleben had been managing the forest for the municipality for almost three decades, and he had cared for it with unusual gentleness. Each tree is cut individually and removed using horses, rather than heavy machinery, to avoid damaging underground networks of roots and fungi that allow trees to exchange resources and chemical signals. He has generated additional income for the forest by leading tours, teaching courses, and creating a forest cemetery, where people’s ashes can be buried in an urn made of untreated beech wood. He has long insisted that people around the world could and should manage their forests likewise. Until a few years ago, virtually no one was listening.

In 2007, to propagate his views and his know-how, Wohlleben began writing books, hammering them out at a rate of one or two a year. His first fifteen reached a modest audience. He later realized that this is likely because they were written in a “minor key.” They had titles such as “Forest Without Guardians: In the Stranglehold of Hunting Interests and Forestry” and “The Forest: An Obituary.” Following a period of depression due to overwork, he decided to change his tone. His sixteenth book, “The Hidden Life of Trees,” from 2015, was written in a major key—warmly avuncular, storybook simple, and heavily dusted with the glitter of wonderment. It focussed on new and not-so-new scientific findings indicating the sociality and sensuous interiority of trees. His publisher scheduled a print run of twenty-seven hundred copies. For reasons that Wohlleben is still trying to make sense of, the book bloomed, then exploded: it has sold more than a million copies in Germany alone, and more than three million worldwide. Wohlleben now has his own magazine, which features his face on every cover, Oprah-style; a podcast; a film documentary; and a TV show, in which he takes German celebrities on overnight survival trips. He was recently invited to speak before the European Commission, and he has consulted with Germany’s Green Party leaders about their forest policy.

“The Hidden Life of Trees” grew directly out of walking tours like the one that Wohlleben was leading me on, through the same tract of woods. “The people I guided through the forest—they were hard trainers,” he said. “Because, when I talked in a way that wasn’t interesting, they would begin talking with each other.” Eschewing technical jargon, he learned how to make them laugh and how to make them gasp.

He stooped and gently grasped a sapling between his fingers; the thickness of its trunk was somewhere between a pencil and a strand of bucatini. He asked me how old I thought it was.

“Ten years?” I guessed.

Wohlleben carefully counted the bud nodes along one of its branches.

“One hundred and twenty years,” he said.

I should have seen this surprise coming; he describes the phenomenon in detail in his book. The growth process of beech trees follows a pattern that German foresters call “education by shade”: the “mother trees” keep their offspring small for decades before finally toppling over, allowing them to shoot skyward. Wohlleben is fanatical about the virtues of slow growth. The more slowly a tree grows, he says, the tighter its grain, and the greater its chances of surviving natural threats. It pains him to see fast-growing trees in single-species plantations lost to pest infestations and storms. Given all that we now know about how forests work, to clear-cut an old forest and replace it with a monocrop is “evil,” he said.

When Wohlleben entered forestry school, in the early eighties, he did so believing that the profession was “something like a tree-keeper,” and was dismayed to learn that it was more like being an industrial farmer. In Germany, forests were regularly clear-cut, poisoned with herbicides such as 2, 4, 5-Trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (an active ingredient in Agent Orange), and then replanted with nonnative conifers. Forestry practice has changed since then—clear-cutting and the use of herbicides have been strictly curtailed—but not enough for Wohlleben.

Near the end of our walk, he led me over to a hollowed-out, C-shaped ring of mossy wood protruding from the soil. “That is the stump from an old tree,” he said. I knelt down and felt it. It had the hard, wet heft of green wood. It had been cut down at least fifty years ago, and yet, somehow, it was still alive. The tree’s roots, many of which protruded above the soil, were visibly connected to a nearby beech tree.

To Wohlleben, this was proof of the remarkable mutuality of beeches—that they will continue caring for nearby trees even after their death. “The Hidden Life of Trees” begins by describing the day that Wohlleben discovered a stump much like this one, which had been “felled at least four or five hundred years earlier.” It had likewise been kept alive all that time by its neighbors. On our walk, we had been discussing his belief that trees are intelligent—that they make decisions, feel pain, have affinities, and, perhaps, consciously experience the world. I pointed out that, in a Darwinian sense, it seemed distinctly unintelligent to keep feeding a corpse for five hundred years.

“But it’s not dead, that’s exactly it,” he replied. “Only the part with the solar cells has been cut down. Perhaps the real tree is underground.”…

Read the whole review here.

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