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Trees have a life and a chat as two recent Australian books reveal

Book review

The Hidden Life of Trees
Peter Wohlleben, Black Inc 2016

The Songs of Trees
David George Haskell, Black Inc 2017.

In The Lord of the Rings, Treebeard the Ent (a sort of sentient tree) is shocked when the hobbits reveal their names and their quest all in a single sentence. “A hasty folk,” he observes.

And it seems that Tolkien was right. Left to themselves, trees are a talkative lot. It’s just that a conversation may take centuries.

Hidden-trees-coverGerman tree scientist Peter Wohlleben has written a fascinating account, The Hidden Life of Trees (in German, Geheime Leben, ‘Secret Life’) in which he describes in scientific detail how trees communicate.

Trees don’t have brains, or a central nervous system, so there’s no way in which they can be called “conscious”. But are they sentient? Certainly it seems that in some strange botanical sense they are social beings, who do communicate with one another and even look after their own kind.

There’s a foreword by Tim Flannery, who describes the behaviour of mimosa trees as they are nibbled by giraffes. First the tree ‘recognises’ what is happening, and rapidly produces giraffe-repellent in its sap, then – and this is the surprising detail – the tree produces an anti-giraffe scent which warns other trees in the vicinity, so they can get busy producing their own giraffe-repellent.

Other trees, as described by author Wohlleben, have similar strategies, such the ability to recognise the particular saliva of an attacking insect. Instead of repelling the insect, the tree’s response is to produce a pheromone which attracts insect predators. Gotcha!

In some strange botanical sense they are social beings

Does any of this support the notion of trees as “social” beings? And how would this operate?

The answer is fungal networks (called the “Wood Wide Web”) which link all the trees in a forest, and are used to pass nutrients inwards and outwards, sustaining the trees as well as sustaining the fungi. Trees will even use these networks to support one of their number that has been logged, by supplying the nutrients to keep it alive.

This is a fascinating book, whether or not you accept Peter Wohlleben’s full argument. It should certainly make you think twice before starting the chainsaw.

tree-song-coverSongs of trees

In the same vein is David George Haskell’s The Songs of Trees. Not quite as ambitious in its claims, perhaps more scientific, a fine collection of serious but readable bio-history, occasionally very disturbing (as in the destruction of the Amazon forests.) Haskell is quite happy, too, with the idea of trees as social beings, with fungal networks delivering the neighbourhood news.

As WH Auden wrote: “The trees encountered on a country stroll / Reveal a lot about a country’s soul … / A culture is no better than its woods.”

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