NEW YORK—A crowd composed of Germans and Americans alike was drawn to New York University’s Deutsches Haus last week by the idea that trees possess a “hidden” life, a life somehow more complex than merely resting in place and living off photosynthesis.
Peter Wohlleben, the author of the book Das Geheime Leben der Bäume, translated into English as The Hidden Life of Trees, launched into the complexities of tree life and communication systems. The man knows just about everything you could ever want to know about beech trees: from how many beech nuts a tree might have to produce before another tree finally begins to grow (a million), to how long it takes a beech tree to grow and why. But just as importantly, years in forestry and studying trees has developed his knowledge of the symbiotic and ecological relationships between tree species and other plants. For instance, various fungi are interconnected to trees and transfer what Wohlleben refers to as “news” to trees, making fungi a sort of botanical “world wide web.”
Wohlleben conversed that night with Richard Karban, a Professor at the University of California, Davis, who focuses on entomology, field ecology and community ecology. Karban’s questions oriented the discussion on the ethics of human’s interactions with trees, and other plants, now that Wohlleben tells us that trees do feel. One example is the impact of insects: when an insect “pinches” a tree, the tree experiences pain, Wohlleben says. Emotions are just as difficult to measure in trees as they are for human beings, but we should recognize that the emotion exists, Wohlleben argues.
So if trees are this receptive, should we change how we treat them? Should we go a step further than vegetarians and vegans, and begin to treat trees as we treat humans and animals?
The fact that trees can feel “makes things complicated,” Wohlleben said. Then again, we all need to survive, so it’s probably alright to eat something that was at one time alive.
Wohlleben is not asking us to stop eating lettuce or nuts, but is emphasizing that we should be more “gentle” with forests and avoid mass industrial systems of production that are exploitative of trees. The trees’ feelings aren’t the only thing to consider: we should also understand how our use of trees impacts the entire ecosystem. Here is where animals became, again, a part of the discussion: without wild animals, forest health declines, rivers flow without direction and humans eventually feel the strain— At that point the entire ecosystem is out of balance and we are all involved in that cycle.
“In South Africa we say ‘trees are teachers,’” remarked one audience member. Wohlleben agrees. One thing we can learn from trees, he suggested, is how trees “are so social, they care about each other.” Trees know they can’t live alone. Perhaps if humans realized that we cannot live alone either, we would treat one another and the other organisms in our ecosystems with the same respect and care that trees do.
Convincing people to pay attention to the feelings of trees, particularly others in the field of forestry, has not been easy for Wohlleben. It is truly difficult to ask people to apply their morals to living organisms that have long been treated as inanimate objects and inherently less complicated than humans. But Wohlleben strongly believes that we need “to change our way of life” and our treatment of the forest. After 20 years of trying to convince fellow foresters of these ideas, he says, “I realized my mistake—I should be trying to convince you, because the forest belongs to you.”
Photo: Peter Wohlleben talks to the crowd at Deutsches Haus NYU. Courtesy of Deutsches Haus NYU