Reimagining Trees

TREES-master675

“When I say, ‘Trees suckle their children,’ everyone knows immediately what I mean.” PETER WOHLLEBEN Credit Gordon Welters for The New York Times

There is an article in the Saturday Profile section of the New York Times this weekend that catches my attention for reasons made obvious in these pages since 2011. Thousands of posts about community, collaboration and conservation, many of which have dealt with the importance of forests. But it most importantly reminded me of a conversation I had with a couple who visited Xandari Costa Rica last year. We had trekked together in the forest reserve, all the while discussing our mutual interest in the concept of biophilia, which has been covered plenty in these pages.

Among other things I recall from that strolling conversation was each of us sharing experiences from years earlier that had caused us to rethink the simple pleasure of a walk in the woods, to consider “what a walk in the woods does for us.” Of course, the simple pleasure is still there, but understanding biophilia can intensify the pleasure of a walk in the woods. And then, if we take it a step further, or deeper, it then causes us to consider the importance of forest conservation, and our prospective roles with regard to conservation.

Those conversations with guests are essential components of our work, so (shout out to Andrew and Holly included) I recommend this article for reminding me…:

…After the publication in May of Mr. Wohlleben’s book, a surprise hit titled “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries From a Secret World,” the German forest is back in the spotlight. Since it first topped best-seller lists last year, Mr. Wohlleben has been spending more time on the media trail and less on the forest variety, making the case for a popular reimagination of trees, which, he says, contemporary society tends to look at as “organic robots” designed to produce oxygen and wood.

PRESENTING scientific research and his own observations in highly anthropomorphic terms, the matter-of-fact Mr. Wohlleben has delighted readers and talk-show audiences alike with the news — long known to biologists — that trees in the forest are social beings. They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the “Wood Wide Web”; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.

“With his book, he changed the way I look at the forest forever,” Markus Lanz, a popular talk show host, said in an email. “Every time I walk through a beautiful woods, I think about it.”

Though duly impressed with Mr. Wohlleben’s ability to capture the public’s attention, some German biologists question his use of words, like “talk” rather than the more standard “communicate,” to describe what goes on between trees in the forest.

But this, says Mr. Wohlleben, who invites readers to imagine what a tree might feel when its bark tears (“Ouch!”), is exactly the point. “I use a very human language,” he explained. “Scientific language removes all the emotion, and people don’t understand it anymore. When I say, ‘Trees suckle their children,’ everyone knows immediately what I mean.”

Still No. 1 on the Spiegel best-seller list for nonfiction, “Hidden Life” has sold 320,000 copies and has been optioned for translation in 19 countries (Canada’s Greystone Books will publish an English version in September). “It’s one of the biggest successes of the year,” said Denis Scheck, a German literary critic who praised the humble narrative style and the book’s ability to awaken in readers an intense, childlike curiosity about the workings of the world.

The popularity of “The Hidden Life of Trees,” Mr. Scheck added, says less about Germany than it does about modern life. People who spend most of their time in front of computers want to read about nature. “Germans are reputed to have a special relationship with the forest, but it’s kind of a cliché,” Mr. Scheck said. “Yes, there’s Hansel and Gretel, and, sure, if your marriage fails, you go for a long hike in the woods. But I don’t think Germans love their forest more than Swedes or Norwegians or Finns.”

MR. WOHLLEBEN traces his own love of the forest to his early childhood. Growing up in the 1960s and ’70s in Bonn, then the West German capital, he raised spiders and turtles, and liked playing outside more than any of his three siblings did. In high school, a generation of young, left-leaning teachers painted a dire picture of the world’s ecological future, and he decided it was his mission to help.

He studied forestry, and began working for the state forestry administration in Rhineland-Palatinate in 1987. Later, as a young forester in charge of a 3,000-odd acre woodlot in the Eifel region, about an hour outside Cologne, he felled old trees and sprayed logs with insecticides. But he did not feel good about it: “I thought, ‘What am I doing? I’m making everything kaput.’ ”…

Read the whole article here.

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