Peter Wohlleben about trees’ friendship

Peter Wollheben (1964 -) is a German forester. As he notices countless wonders in the forest he managed, his love of nature is reignited and his role as a forester is changed: in place of a mercantile approach to trees as modern silviculture expects it, he understands the magical and yet natural aspects to forestry. In his book The hidden life of trees, Peter Wollheben shows how clever and sensory trees actually are. Half science, half philosophy, the collection of stories brought by Peter Wohllheben about trees demonstrate a wonderful parallelism between forests and human communities. In the chosen excerpt, Peter Wohlleben talks about friendships.

One day, as he roams one of the preserves of old beech trees, Peter Wollheben stumbles across the remains of an enormous ancient tree stump. Though only remains, Peter Wollheben sees a clear indication that the tree must have been cut down four or five hundred years earlier. But, what surprises him is that the stump remains are still alive as a thin greenish layer clearly indicates the presence of chlorophyll. Peter Wohlleben understands that the old tree stump is getting assistance from surrounding beeches to keep it alive. Receiving confirmation from the scientific community that has discovered that nutrient exchange and helping neighbors in time of need is the rule, Peter Wohlleben explains that Nature is more complex than a purely accidental give and take :

“But why are trees such social beings? Why do they share food with their own species and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors? The reasons are the same as for human communities: there are advantages to working together. A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old. To get to this point, the community must remain intact no matter what.”

Demonstrating that all individuals are necessary to the community, he adds:

“If every tree were looking out only for itself, then quite a few of them would never reach old age. Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy, which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer. Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover. Next time, perhaps it will be the other way round, and the supporting tree might be the one in need of assistance.”

Then, friendships among trees is possible and can even be seen by attentive forest walkers:

“The average tree grows its branches out until it encounters the branch tips of a neighboring tree of the same height. It doesn’t grow any wider because the air and better light in this space are already taken. However, it heavily reinforces the branches it has extended, so you get the impression that there’s quite a shoving match going on up there. But a pair of true friends is careful right from the outset not to grow overly thick branches in each other’s direction. The trees don’t want to take anything away from each other, and so they develop sturdy branches only at the outer edges of their crowns, that is to say, only in the direction of “non-friends.” Such partners are often so tightly connected at the roots that sometimes they even die together.”

In addition to sharing a totally new vision of the hidden life of trees with the public, the book of Peter Wollheben makes the case for a more sustainable and natural forestry. He explains that a happy forest is way more productive, and that a lonely life, even for trees, is nothing to wish for:

“Planted forests, which is what most of the coniferous forests in Central Europe are, behave more like the street kids I describe in chapter 27. Because their roots are irreparably damaged when they are planted, they seem almost incapable of networking with one another. As a rule, trees in planted forests like these behave like loners and suffer from their isolation. Most of them never have the opportunity to grow old anyway. Depending on the species, these trees are considered ready to harvest when they are about a hundred years old.”

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