We have all heard stories of the mysterious yeti -a Sherpa word for ‘wild man’ – whose footprints have been seen by few mountaineers along the Everest route. There are those – particularly in the city of Arizona – who claim to have sighted UFOs many a time. It is also known that Arcadia trees, which grow all over the African Savannah, have a unique defence system to ward off antelopes/giraffes that tend to gobble up its leaves.
But that trees communicate with each other in their own language is a startling revelation. That is what noted forester Peter Wohlleben wants us to believe.
When I first heard of the publication of a book with an intriguing title ‘THE HIDDEN LIFE OF TREES: WHAT THEY FEEL, HOW THEY COMMUNICATE’ by Peter Wohlleben, I was reminded ofnoted American political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, who in 1990 published a book ‘The End History’- that prompted a noted critic to comment that ‘it was media hype.It was his (Francis’s) way of over dramatizing West’s victory in the Cold War.’
I entertained similar fears when I decided to buy the book in which Peter Wohlleben claims that trees talk, suckle their young, and nourish sick neighbours.He goes on to argue that trees have friends, feel lonely, and feel pain.What stands out in the book is Peter’s love of trees and the clarity and precision with which he explores trees as ‘social beings’.To the author reasons are the same that apply to human communities: there are advantages of working together. A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. Trees are very interested in keeping every member of their tribe alive.Perhaps, that explains the need for developing a language to communicate with each other.
In his foreword to the English translation,Tim Flannery, himself an environmental writer, invites readers to enter a magical place where Wohlleben will reveal to us “trees with human faces, trees that can talk, and sometimes walk.”
We are too familiar with tree worshiping in ancient times.Bodhi tree, also called Bo tree, in Bodh Gaya, Bihar, is the sacred tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment. Even today the Bishnoi community in Rajasthan worship trees; it was a practice in the community to even sacrifice lives to save trees, in not that distant past.But that trees live and behave like human beings – as a family, as friends and good neighbours, and communicate with each other -was unknown.
The book features a highly illuminating introduction by noted environmentalist PradipKrishen. He writes, “Seeing, feeling, hearing – these are sensory abilities that we find hard to think about differently from the way humans or animals use them. But break them into basic neural/molecular components and it’s not hard to accept, for example, that leaf tissue sends out electrical signals when it is nibbled, just like human tissue does when it is hurt. And that constitutes a signalling system, not just to summon up defensive compounds in the hurt plant but to also release chemical signals -molecules of scent -to warn other plants of nearby of the danger so that they can put up defenses.”
In his introduction the author confesses that when he began his career as a forester he “knew as much about the hidden life of trees as a butcher knows about the emotional life of animals”.
However, the wanton commercialization of forest wood is what led PeterWohllebento devote his life in studying these wonderful green creatures that make our living possible on this planet. He chronicles his own experiences as a forester in Germany.”Life as a forester became exciting once again. Every day in the forest was a day of discovery. This led me to unusual ways of managing the forest. When you know trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you can no longer just chop them down and disrupt their lives with large machines.”
He refers to findings of other researchers in this area in support of his argument.”We have all observed that when a domineering tree has been cut down to allow more light to another tree, the second one also dies. There is clearly something going on there’s more than just competition for resources going on. What we do to one tree has an unexpected and inexplicable effect on nearby trees.”
Petermakes a strong case that the forest is a social network in which trees live together with their children, communicate with them, support them as they grow, share nutrients with those who are sick or struggling, and even warn each other of impending dangers..
In a chapter on reproduction titled ‘Love’ the author writes that trees plan their reproduction at least a year in advance. Whether tree love happens every spring depends on the species… trees in a forest prefer to bloom at the same time so that the genes of many individual trees can be mixed. Some trees “agree in advance” not to bloom every year, so that “herbivores cannot count on them.” Beeches and oaks “take breaks” from blooming because they “fear” deer and wild boar, whereas conifers “don’t need to worry” about taking breaks.
Similarly, in a chapter on ‘tree school,’ we are told that trees “learn” to become stable by reacting to the “painful” micro?tears that occur when they bend with the wind.
There will be thosewho will question the tall claims put forward by the radical Peter Wohlleben-even though he takes pains to provide scientific evidences and sources in support of his argument. Perhaps knowing that his claims will meet disapproval and earn frowns from many in the scientific community, Peter is intelligent to include a note at the end of the book from Professor of forest ecology,Dr.SuzanneSimard, who is credited with the ‘discovery of intricate underground network of mycelium, symbiotic fungi that bind to the roots of plants.’
Dr Suzanne describes in her notehow in the 1990s she and her colleagues at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver unearthed the fact that there is a vast, secret connection between trees by way of fungi that link up individual root systems. She elaborates: “We have used new scientific tools, as they are invented, along with our curiosity and dreams, to peer into the dark world of the soil and illuminate the social network of trees. The wood wide web has been mapped, traced, monitored, and coaxed to reveal the beautiful structures and finely adapted languages of the forest network.”
Four decades ago, scientists noticed something on the African Savannah. The giraffes/antelopes were feeding on umbrella thorn acacias, and the trees didn’t like this one bit. It took the acacias mere minutes to start pumping toxic substances into their leaves to rid themselves of the large herbivores. The giraffes got the message and moved on to other trees – at least 100 yards away.
For a layman like me, not familiar with either biology and or with the finer nuances of the dance of nature, the book makes for an interesting reading though at places it gets a bit technical. Fortunately, author adopts an easy flowing prose- at times, humorous.
As expected, manyin the scientific community havechallenged these claims and started an on-line petition demanding ‘facts instead of fairy tales, science instead of Peter Wohlleben.’ The reviewer is not competent to comment whether there is some truth in what the critics are saying.
It seems the controversies surrounding the book have only helped boost its sale; it is a bestseller, translated into more than 20 languages, and has clearly struck a chord with an environmentally conscious readership.
It is a Penguin Random House publication and prized Rs.499. It is essentially meant for those interested in studying the behaviour of trees in greater depth and to unravel the unknown secrets of our nature.
It will certainly help if we gain more insights into trees that seem to recognise their roots, know who their friends / families are and can even sense the competitors.
May be that will help scientists unravel the mystery surrounding the various types of viruses that seem to afflict us in the present times.
(The author is a noted media professional/ educator and works for Apeejay Education Society.)