German forester Peter Wohlleben wants to change the way we think about trees. Seated beneath a hazel tree outside the offices of his “Waldakademie,” or Forest Academy, in the village of Wershofen, Germany, he pauses to peer up into its branches. “I just think we can have much more fun when we look at trees not just as producers of oxygen or producers of raw materials, but as wonderful living beings,” he says.
This is the gist of Wohlleben’s international bestselling book, “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries From a Secret World”, in which he argues that trees, much like humans, are social beings that have families, friends, feelings, and memories. They suckle their young, care for the elderly, and can speak to one another by emitting chemical signals or electrical impulses that travel through vast underground fungi systems known by scientists as the mycorrhizal network and colloquially dubbed the Wood Wide Web. It may seem like a 19th Century Grimm fairy tale, but Wohlleben insists that his book is purely non-fiction and backs up his claims with scientific research as well as personal observations made during the course of his career.
The 52-year-old forester remembers the moment he first glimpsed this hidden social life unfolding in the woods. “I saw what seemed to be stones and it turned out to be remnants of an old stump that was still alive. I thought how could it be that this stump could still be surviving without any green leaves for centuries?” he says. “Now it is scientifically proven that the neighboring trees were supporting that stump.”
Dressed in a muted tan and green forester’s uniform, the tall Wohlleben exhibits a sense of grounded composure reminiscent of the trees he speaks about. “I have to say I don’t know why the trees are doing this,” he muses about the older tree on life support. “Perhaps it is without condition. Nowadays, we are not used to giving something to someone without condition, but perhaps trees know better than we that a healthy social system means also to support weak members because they are also useful.”
Wohlleben is fond of anecdotes like this, and his book is full of them. Undoubtedly, it’s this ability to tell the stories of the forest in relatable, straightforward language that has made the book such an international hit.
First published in Germany in 2015 and released in English last September, “The Hidden Life of Trees” has topped bestseller lists in countries around the world and propelled Wohlleben out of the woods and into the limelight. He admits that he never expected his little book to be so popular. “I am not a professional writer,” he says a little bashfully. “Really it was just a favor for my wife.” Nevertheless, the book has captured the imagination of millions of readers and remains on Der Spiegel’s bestseller list today, suggesting an innate desire in so many of us to reconnect with the slower rhythms of the natural world all too often lost in our fast paced, everyday lives.
Wohlleben confesses that he’s wanted to be a conservationist since the age of six. After graduating from forestry school, he took a job as a ranger with the state forest administration in Rhineland-Palatinate in 1987. “I thought a forester is something like a tree keeper and that should be okay for me,” he says. “But when I started the job, I found a forester is something like a tree butcher. They usually regard the trees as sources of raw material and themselves as timber producers, and that is not what I dreamed of.” Disillusioned with the practices of modern forestry—the use of big machines and pesticides, clear cutting, and plantation style planting—Wohlleben left the security of the state forestry administration after 23 years and took a position managing five square kilometers of forest in the municipality of Hummel where he was free to experiment with eco-friendly forestry methods.
Taking much of what he writes about into account, today Wohlleben manages the forests of Hummel in a different way, leaving them as undisturbed as possible. Large harvesting machines that he believes destroy the soil are not used. Rather, trees are felled by wood workers with horses and chosen carefully so as not to disturb family bands. Large tracts of the forest are left undisturbed, protected under an adoption program run through the Waldakademie website where with the click of a mouse and four euros anyone can protect a square meter of ancient beech forest for the next 50 years. Another part of the forest has been converted into a burial ground where trees can be chosen to serve as living tombstones.
“You get healthier forests and healthier forests produce more timber and better quality of timber,” says Wohlleben of his methods, which has turned the forests of Hummel from loss to profit in a few short years largely due to the elimination of expensive harvesting equipment. “It’s okay to use timber,” he admits. “But I think it’s more important to indicate what we are doing to forests. It is important to think about how you deal with them and care for them before using them. What we are discussing now about industrial animal keeping, I think we will be discussing in the next years about plants.”
Beyond producing better timber, Wohlleben claims that undisturbed forests are also more resistant to the effects of climate change. When trees are artificially spaced out, as they are in the plantation style forests that make up most of Germany’s woods, there is less competition with their neighbors. They get more sunlight and grow faster, but naturalists like Wohlleben say that this plantation system severs trees from the social networks important for maintaining inborn resilience mechanisms like the ability to warn each other of predators or to sustain cooler temperatures.
Walking through the burial forest just outside of Wershofen it is hard to perceive the difference Wohlleben’s practices have made, but look closely and you can see young beech saplings sprouting through the foliage that covers the forest floor, look closer and you may notice the older trees growing together in family bands, close your eyes and you may even imagine them talking to one another. “Change will take centuries,” says Wohlleben who hopes that one day his forest will resemble the primeval forests of old, “but that is exactly how it works. That is tree speed.”
However, for the veteran forester things are moving rapidly, and following the book’s success, Wohlleben finds himself playing new roles beyond that of the forest manager. After being flooded with requests from people wanting to visit the woods he writes about, Wohlleben started the Waldakademie last December where he offers guided tours, workshops, and seminars based on the book. He admits that now he only works part time as Hummel’s forest manager, and spends the other half of his time running the academy, and working on new projects, including a documentary film and a children’s version of “The Hidden Life of Trees”.
As one of Europe’s last primeval forest is being cut down in Poland and globally natural forests are being cleared for timber, agricultural expansion, and livestock grazing land, Wohlleben’s hands-off approach to forest management is for many an attractive counterpoise to the status quo. Nearly 2,000 people visited Peter’s Waldakademie last year, and he hopes that with every visitor his ideas will spread and take root in the pubic psyche. Not everyone is thrilled with his theories though, and a growing number of scientists have come forward accusing Wohlleben of being too loose with scientific data and too utopian in his vision of a forest in which trees take care of one another.
“In my view and the view of many of my colleagues it is pure pseudo-science,” says Jurgen Bauhus, a professor of silviculture at the University of Freiburg whose online petition protesting Wohlleben’s book has garnered over 4,000 signatures. According to Bauhus, the views expressed in “The Hidden Life of Trees” are a “conglomerate of half-truths, biased judgements, and wishful thinking derived from very selective and unrepresentative sources of information.”
“Even in the forest you need fact not fairy tales,” says Bauhus.
Wohlleben shrugs though. “I’m okay with hearing those criticisms. The things I tell are scientifically proven, and my sources are mentioned at the end so everyone is welcomed to have a closer look,” he says. “Most of the time the problem is with the language, that I use too much emotion, compare trees too much to our human society, but that is exactly the point. I can’t write a book in tree language, and our language, our body, our brain, works on emotions. Scientists have made such wonderful discoveries, but lay people can’t understand it, so I try to be something like a translator.”
Despite his critics, Wohlleben is just happy if his work helps people get out and enjoy the woods again. “I think we have a strong genetic connection to forests,” he says. “We are not made for sitting at a desk and working at a computer. I mean that’s okay, I am also doing that. But we also need a little bit more time to sit in the sunshine beneath a nice old tree, to hear the water running, and to slow down a little bit to tree speed.”