The Whispering Trees

I’m walking in the Eifel Mountains in western Germany, through cathedral-like groves of oak and beech, and there’s a strange unmoored feeling of entering a fairy tale. The trees have become vibrantly alive and charged with wonder. They’re communicating with one another, for starters. They’re involved in tremendous struggles and death-defying dramas. To reach enormousness, they depend on a complicated web of relationships, alliances and kinship networks.

Wise old mother trees feed their saplings with liquid sugar and warn the neighbors when danger approaches. Reckless youngsters take foolhardy risks with leaf-shedding, light-chasing and excessive drinking, and usually pay with their lives. Crown princes wait for the old monarchs to fall, so they can take their place in the full glory of sunlight. It’s all happening in the ultra-slow motion that is tree time, so that what we see is a freeze-frame of the action.

My guide here is a kind of tree whisperer. Peter Wohlleben, a German forester and author, has a rare understanding of the inner life of trees, and is able to describe it in accessible, evocative language. He stands very tall and straight, like the trees he most admires, and on this cold, clear morning, the blue of his eyes precisely matches the blue of the sky. Wohlleben has devoted his life to the study and care of trees. He manages this forest as a nature reserve, and lives with his wife, Miriam, in a rustic cabin near the remote village of Hümmel.

Now, at the age of 53, he has become an unlikely publishing sensation. His book The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, written at his wife’s insistence, sold more than 800,000 copies in Germany, and has now hit the best-seller lists in 11 other countries, including the United States and Canada. (Wohlleben has turned his attention to other living things as well, in his Inner Life of Animals, newly issued in translation.)

Wohlleben sees a forest as a superorganism of unique individuals. A single beech tree can live for 400 years and produce 1.8 million beechnuts. Photo: Diàna Markosian

A revolution has been taking place in the scientific understanding of trees, and Wohlleben is the first writer to convey its amazements to a general audience. The latest scientific studies, conducted at well-respected universities in Germany and around the world, confirm what he has long suspected from close observation in this forest: Trees are far more alert, social, sophisticated—and even intelligent—than we thought.

With his big green boots crunching through fresh snow, and a dewdrop catching sunlight on the tip of his long nose, Wohlleben takes me to two massive beech trees growing next to each other. He points up at their skeletal winter crowns, which appear careful not to encroach into each other’s space. “These two are old friends,” he says. “They are very considerate in sharing the sunlight, and their root systems are closely connected. In cases like this, when one dies, the other usually dies soon afterward, because they are dependent on each other.”

Since Darwin, we have generally thought of trees as striving, disconnected loners, competing for water, nutrients and sunlight, with the winners shading out the losers and sucking them dry. The timber industry in particular sees forests as wood-producing systems and battlegrounds for survival of the fittest.

There is now a substantial body of scientific evidence that refutes that idea. It shows instead that trees of the same species are communal, and will often form alliances with trees of other species. Forest trees have evolved to live in cooperative, interdependent relationships, maintained by communication and a collective intelligence similar to an insect colony. These soaring columns of living wood draw the eye upward to their outspreading crowns, but the real action is taking place underground, just a few inches below our feet.

“Some are calling it the ‘wood-wide web,’” says Wohlleben in German-accented English. “All the trees here, and in every forest that is not too damaged, are connected to each other through underground fungal networks. Trees share water and nutrients through the networks, and also use them to communicate. They send distress signals about drought and disease, for example, or insect attacks, and other trees alter their behavior when they receive these messages.”

Scientists call these mycorrhizal networks. The fine, hairlike root tips of trees join together with microscopic fungal filaments to form the basic links of the network, which appears to operate as a symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, or perhaps an economic exchange. As a kind of fee for services, the fungi consume about 30 percent of the sugar that trees photosynthesize from sunlight. The sugar is what fuels the fungi, as they scavenge the soil for nitrogen, phosphorus and other mineral nutrients, which are then absorbed and consumed by the trees.

For young saplings in a deeply shaded part of the forest, the network is literally a lifeline. Lacking the sunlight to photosynthesize, they survive because big trees, including their parents, pump sugar into their roots through the network. Wohlleben likes to say that mother trees “suckle their young,’’ which both stretches a metaphor and gets the point across vividly.

Once, he came across a gigantic beech stump in this forest, four or five feet across. The tree was felled 400 or 500 years ago, but scraping away the surface with his penknife, Wohlleben found something astonishing: the stump was still green with chlorophyll. There was only one explanation. The surrounding beeches were keeping it alive, by pumping sugar to it through the network. “When beeches do this, they remind me of elephants,” he says. “They are reluctant to abandon their dead, especially when it’s a big, old, revered matriarch.”

To communicate through the network, trees send chemical, hormonal and slow-pulsing electrical signals, which scientists are just beginning to decipher. Edward Farmer at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland has been studying the electrical pulses, and he has identified a voltage-based signaling system that appears strikingly similar to animal nervous systems (although he does not suggest that plants have neurons or brains). Alarm and distress appear to be the main topics of tree conversation, although Wohlleben wonders if that’s all they talk about. “What do trees say when there is no danger and they feel content? This I would love to know.” Monica Gagliano at the University of Western Australia has gathered evidence that some plants may also emit and detect sounds, and in particular, a crackling noise in the roots at a frequency of 220 hertz, inaudible to humans.

Trees also communicate through the air, using pheromones and other scent signals. Wohlleben’s favorite example occurs on the hot, dusty savannas of sub-Saharan Africa, where the wide-crowned umbrella thorn acacia is the emblematic tree. When a giraffe starts chewing acacia leaves, the tree notices the injury and emits a distress signal in the form of ethylene gas. Upon detecting this gas, neighboring acacias start pumping tannins into their leaves. In large enough quantities these compounds can sicken or even kill large herbivores.

Giraffes are aware of this, however, having evolved with acacias, and this is why they browse into the wind, so the warning gas doesn’t reach the trees ahead of them. If there’s no wind, a giraffe will typically walk 100 yards— farther than ethylene gas can travel in still air—before feeding on the next acacia. Giraffes, you might say, know that the trees are talking to one another.

Trees can detect scents through their leaves, which, for Wohlleben, qualifies as a sense of smell. They also have a sense of taste. When elms and pines come under attack by leaf-eating caterpillars, for example, they detect the caterpillar saliva, and release pheromones that attract parasitic wasps. The wasps lay their eggs inside the caterpillars, and the wasp larvae eat the caterpillars from the inside out. “Very unpleasant for the caterpillars,” says Wohlleben. “Very clever of the trees.”

A recent study from Leipzig University and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research shows that trees know the taste of deer saliva. “When a deer is biting a branch, the tree brings defending chemicals to make the leaves taste bad,” he says. “When a human breaks the branch with his hands, the tree knows the difference, and brings in substances to heal the wound.”

Our boots crunch on through the glittering snow. From time to time, I think of objections to Wohlleben’s anthropomorphic metaphors, but more often I sense my ignorance and blindness falling away. I had never really looked at trees before, or thought about life from their perspective. I had taken trees for granted, in a way that would never be possible again.

An exerpt from a longer piece on Smithsonian Magazine

For more on plant and non-animal forms of communitcation we invite to listen to our podcast episode, #23 The Songs of Gaia with Evolotuionary Biologist and author of Thus Spoke the Plant, Monica Gagliano.


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