“Trees in particular were mysterious and seemed to me direct embodiments of the incomprehensible meaning of life. For that reason the woods were the place where I felt closest to its deepest meaning and to its awe-inspiring workings.”
C.G. Jung, “Memories, Dreams, Reflections”
A book The Hidden Life of Trees; What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben was to me deeply comforting and rather alarming in equal measure. The alarming part had to do with a realization that trees are too often treated by humans as objects, forests – as lumber factories. The comfort I found among the book’s pages was a certainty, a scientific fact proven rigorously by the author, that trees are receptacles of the deepest mysteries of life. Wohlleben may be a scientist but he approaches his subject with affection, even devotion. In another book I have been reading in parallel to The Hidden Life of Trees, Alexander von Humboldt is portrayed as a cold-hearted measurer of the world but when he encounters an ancient dragon tree on Tenerife, his cold heart cracks open, if only for a brief moment:
“It had been here before Christ and Buddha, Plato and Tamburlane. Humboldt held his watch up to his ear. It carried time within itself as it ticked away, while this tree warded off time: a crag against which its river broke. Humboldt touched the deeply corrugated trunk. High above, the branches opened out, and the twittering of hundreds of birds pierced the air. Tenderly, he stroked the bark. Everything died, every human being, every animal, every moment. Only one thing endured. He laid his cheek against the wood, then drew back and glanced around horrified in case anyone had seen him.”
Daniel Kehlman, “Measuring the World”
The wealth of information on trees contained in Wohlleben’s book is staggering. He starts by emphasizing the fact that most tree species are communal beings. Forests are “superorganisms” which can be likened to ant colonies. There, nutrients are ceaselessly exchanged, and no member of the community is abandoned in times of need. Why are trees so protective of each other? The author explains:
“Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy, which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer. Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover.”
The primary means of communication among trees is scent. On the Savannah, acacias warn other trees when giraffes start feasting on their leaves. This enables the trees next in line for the predator to emit toxic substances and thus keep the giraffes off. Signals between trees are transmitted by means of fungal connections. Wohlleben uses every opportunity to stress that artificially planted forests (unless they are organic plantations) do more harm than good because they seriously impair trees’ ability to communicate:
“Thanks to selective breeding, our cultivated plants have, for the most part, lost their ability to communicate above or below ground—you could say they are deaf and dumb—and therefore they are easy prey for insect pests. That is one reason why modern agriculture uses so many pesticides. Perhaps farmers can learn from the forests and breed a little more wildness back into their grain and potatoes so that they’ll be more talkative in the future.”
Communication of trees happens both below and above ground. The former is effectuated by means of roots, which for trees extend twice the spread of the crown. Apparently, roots send sound waves (220 hertz) to other roots to communicate about danger. Roots have been compared to brain-like structures; they are neural pathways that transmit both chemical and electrical impulses. How strange that still many scientists refuse to call plants intelligent. Wohlleben reflects:
“The distinction between plant and animal is, after all, arbitrary and depends on the way an organism feeds itself: the former photosynthesizes and the latter eats other living beings. Finally, the only other big difference is in the amount of time it takes to process information and translate it into action. Does that mean that beings that live life in the slow lane are automatically worth less than ones on the fast track?”
A walk through an old-growth forest reduces blood pressure and has a calming effect. Tree plantations do not have the same effect. What is more, forests that have experienced no intervention from foresters, grow more harmoniously:
“Because of the deep shade, wild flowers and shrubs don’t have a chance, so the color brown (from old leaves) predominates on the natural forest floor. The small trees grow extremely slowly and very straight, and their side branches are short and narrow. The old mother trees dominate, and their flawless trunks stretch to the sky like the columns in a cathedral. In contrast to this, there is much more light in managed forests, because trees are constantly being removed. Grass and bushes grow in the gaps, and tangles of brambles prevent detours off the beaten path. When trees are felled and their crowns are left lying on the ground, the debris creates further obstacles. The whole forest presents a troubled and downright messy picture. Old-growth forests, however, are basically very accessible.”
Within the same species, trees do not follow the principle of survival of the fittest. Rather, they “synchronize their performance so that they are all equally successful.” They make it so that they all produce an equal amount of sugar per leaf regardless of their strength or age. Again, it is the roots which are responsible for this equalization of the rate of photosynthesis, as “whoever has an abundance of sugar hands some over; whoever is running short gets help.” In a natural forest trees grow close to one another. This “huddling together” is an advantage for the whole community since “a tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it.” However, a lot of foresters remove what in their opinion in an excess of trees. Again, such acts prevent trees from communicating with each other, leaving them at the mercy of predators.
In order for a tree to live a long life, it needs to grow slowly. To that effect, older trees purposefully deprive the young of light so that the rate of their growth becomes restricted. Modern forestry with their eyes on the profit margin does not promote steady and slow growth of trees. Trees are felled before they reach maturity in Europe, where we have lost almost all of true old-growth forests. One example is the primeval Bialowieza Forest on the border of Poland and Belarus, the exclusive refuge of the lowland bison. The Polish government has started logging parts of the forest in recent months, which was met with a public outcry over a destruction of the 10 000- year-old ecosystem.
Ancient trees are crucial for the ecosystem, explains Wohlleben:
“…Dr. Zoë Lindo of McGill University in Montreal researched Sitka spruce that were at least five hundred years old. First of all, she discovered large quantities of moss on the branches and in the branch forks of trees of this advanced age. Blue-green algae had colonized the trees’ mossy cushions. These algae capture nitrogen from the air and process it into a form the trees can use. Rain then washes this natural fertilizer down the trunks, making it available to the roots. Thus, old trees fertilize the forest and help their offspring get a better start in life. The youngsters don’t have their own moss because moss grows very slowly and takes decades to get established.”
Old trees are stronger than young ones; they also grow faster. Thus, they are our most powerful allies in the fight against the climate change. Even dead trees have an important role to play, as a fifth of all animal and plant species depend on them for survival. A felled tree trunk can even serve as a cradle for young trees, especially in the case of young spruces. This process is called “nurse-log reproduction.”
On other continents, the pivotal role of ancient trees is recognized and respected; in fact, it is only in Europe where ancient forests do not receive adequate protection:
“In the United States, forest preserves, such as the Adirondack and Catskill parks in New York State, keep economic interests out of the forests. According to the state constitution, the preserve ‘shall be forever kept as wild forest lands,’ and the timber shall not be ‘sold, removed or destroyed.’ In the wilderness areas of these preserves, most structures are not allowed, power vehicles are banned, and chainsaws require special permits. What started as a measure to ensure that excessive logging in the nineteenth century didn’t lead to soil erosion and silting up of the economically important Erie Canal has turned into a resource dedicated to the forest itself and visitors who ‘leave no trace’ as they pass through. Even more remote is the Great Bear Rainforest in northern British Columbia, which covers almost 25,000 square miles along the rugged coast. Half of this area is forested, including about 8,900 square miles of old-growth trees. This primeval forest is home to the rare spirit bear, which although it is white, is not a polar bear but a black bear with white fur. First Nations in the area have been fighting since the 1990s to protect their homelands. On February 1, 2016, an agreement was announced to keep 85 percent of the forest unlogged, though it does allow for 15 percent of the trees, mostly old growth at low elevations, to be removed. After a long hard struggle, some progress, at least, has been made in protecting this very special place. Chief Marilyn Slett, president of Coastal First Nations, is well aware of the forest’s importance: ‘Our leaders understand our well-being is connected to the well-being of our lands and waters… If we use our knowledge and our wisdom to look after [them], they will look after us into the future.’ The Kichwa of Sarayaku, Ecuador, see their forest as ‘the most exalted expression of life itself.’”
It is no wonder that trees are happiest in the balmy forest. An especially eye-opening chapter of the book was dedicated to “street kids,” that is the trees which live in cities. They suffer very harshly because of the temperature being too high for them, due to the dryness of the air and its pollution. Their bark gets burned and their roots rot because of dogs’ urine. They get damaged heavily by winter salt. Some species of trees suffer more than others when they are torn away from the protective forest. Others, such as poplar, quaking aspen, silver birch and pussy willow are born pioneers and actually enjoy striking out on their own and colonizing new territories. Their seeds can fly longer distances. They often grow alone in wide-open spaces. Therefore, their bark is often lighter in colour to protect them from sun scald. Birches and other lonely wolves among trees typically live more intensively and shorter than oaks, beeches or redwoods which prefer the familial atmosphere of the forest.
I found Wohlleben’s book awe-inspiring. It made me think how it seems that we humans cannot help applying our short-term thinking to beings, which are radically different from us. Trees are slow, still, majestic and, at least compared to us, eternal. They were here before us and will outlive us. Their symbolic meaning is vitally connected with the totality of life processes in the universe: “its consistence, growth, proliferation, generative and regenerative processes,” as Cirlot wrote in his Dictionary of Symbols. The tree represents “absolute reality” positioned at the centre of the world. It is a world-axis connecting the above with the below. There were two trees in Paradise: the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. Living and knowing, notices Cirlot, are two distinct and parallel processes. The tree of Life is usually depicted in full bloom, the tree of Knowledge, which brought people death and awareness, is shown as dry or on fire. It is a marvellous coincidence that in scientific taxonomy the endings of the names of trees are masculine whereas their gender is feminine. The tree is a central symbol of totality that connects microcosm and microcosm, the feminine and the masculine, life and death, change and permanence, and other opposites.
Hermann Hesse offered the following beautiful reflections on trees:
“A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.
A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.
When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. . . . Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.”
Hermann Hesse, “Bäume” (Trees)