Each Boxing Day, during the 2am walk home from our family gathering, we Turners cut through our local park to give the trees a festive hug. We refuse to believe that the resultant warm feeling is solely founded on the consumption of a crate of Spitfire and two bottles of Captain Morgan, and have longed for an explanation that will ensure our tales of yuletide tree-hugging are met with understanding, rather than a frown which threatens a tip-off to Channel 4 and the Turner clan starring in a documentary about strange nighttime proclivities.
So, we are most grateful for German forester Peter Wohlleben’s book about the ‘daily dramas and moving love stories’ that take place in the tree world, as it proves that the wonder and spiritual connection many of us feel towards trees is based on science rather than one too many rum ‘n’ cokes at Christmas.
Yes, all that jazz about how trees grow is fascinating – the complex ways in which trees protect themselves from predators; why and how they know precisely when to shed their leaves; and the surprisingly individual characteristics which promote or jeopardize their growth (some greedily gobbling up all the tree-grub, others being sensibly frugal). But to be blunt you’d have to be a few sandwiches short of a forest picnic not to appreciate how clever nature is at that whole growing palaver, eh?
The real mind-blowing stuff, which will make you wander in wonder next time you go down to the woods, is the evidence that trees are sentient beings who communicate with each other and live together in a community. I know I sound like I’ve been on the rum ‘n’ cokes again but I’m not making this up. Wohlleben explains how trees both feel and communicate pain – ‘screaming’ at ultrasonic levels when they are thirsty, for example; how fungi functions as ‘the forest internet’ by aiding inter-tree, danger-warning communications (and demanding a third of the tree’s food production in return #shouldhavegonetoPlusNet); and how trees support their weaker neighbours to ensure their collective survival:
On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate…but together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold…And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old….regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy…the heat of summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out…Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community…And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover.
This rethink of the nature of trees lays the foundation for a radical environmentalist reappraisal of how we treat them. Brace yourselves, book lovers:
The paper in the book you are holding in your hands right now is made from the shavings of spruce, and birches were expressly felled (that is to say, killed) for this purpose. Does that sound over the top? I don’t think so. For if we keep in mind all we have learned in the previous chapters, parallels can definitely be drawn to pigs and pork…Does that make our behaviour reprehensible? Not necessarily…we are also part of Nature, and we are made in such a way that we can survive only with the help of organic substances from other species…The real question is whether we help ourselves only to what we need from the forest ecosystem, and – analogous to our treatment of animals – whether we spare the trees unnecessary suffering when we do this.
Wohlleben describes this book as ‘a lens to help you take a closer look at what you might have taken for granted. Slow down, breathe deep, and look around. What can you hear? What do you see? How do you feel?’ I think next time I walk through the woods, I will imagine walking amidst some very tall, aged ladies and gents, who are all chattering away, and looking after each other in a way the human world sadly does not. Thanks to Wohlleben, I will feel extremely comforted by our tree friends without worrying that I am losing my mind. Terry the Tree will be getting even more Turner Tree Hugs in the future. (Tess The Tree, on the other hand, needs to lay off the constant grumbling about her various arboreal ailments. ‘Oh my fungal infection!’ she laments. Give it a rest love. The rest of the tree crew will do their best to sort you out if you give the blah blah blah a break.)
PS The Turner family is still happy to be the subject of a Channel 4 documentary. We do crave the fame and are not getting any younger. Dad will regrow his moustache if that is what the people want.