The astonishing science of what trees feel and how they communicate

“A tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it.”

Trees have been the silent companions of human beings right from the beginning of evolution. Trees – from time immemorial – have been spreading humankind’s enduring tales.

They are the eternal muse of cosmogonies.

According to Hermann Hesse, trees are the most penetrating preachers. An English gardener from the 17th century wrote about trees and how they are capable of speaking to our minds, informing us and providing us with life’s lessons.

Trees are known to have a silent language of their own – more on the sophisticated level. They communicate vital yet complex information through taste, smell, electrical impulses, and senses.

It was the brilliance of trees that compelled Peter Wohlleben – a German forester – to explore and write The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate.

He learned from his experience of forest management in Germany’s Eifel mountains about the amazing language of trees.

Wohlleben’s work speaks about trees as our oldest companions and provides us with a window into their remarkable lives on this planet.

“Life as a forester became exciting once again. Every day in the forest was a day of discovery. This led me to unusual ways of managing the forest. When you know that trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you can no longer just chop them down and disrupt their lives with large machines.”

Wohlleben had to optimize the output of the forest for the lumber industry. During this period, he experienced the result of transforming a living being into a work of art of commodity. It was after two decades he started to organize log cabin and survival training tours in the forest. The tourists were left mesmerized by the majestic and enchanting trees. It was at this time of his career, scientists started to conduct research and studies in the same forest, providing him the opportunity to look beyond the static structure of trees.

The interaction of trees between each other is different from the ecosystem. They function on time scales and as a result, operate slower than humans. Their electrical impulses move at a speed that is one-third of an inch every second.

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Wohlleben talked about how it’s possible that trees are social, which led him to amazing wisdom about our own human communities:

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. 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.

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A tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it.

These relationships are rather crucial to the ongoing life of trees:

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.

He also talks about the incredible importance of trees to our own ecosystem:

It all starts with the wolves. Wolves disappeared from Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, in the 1920s. When they left, the entire ecosystem changed. Elk herds in the park increased their numbers and began to make quite a meal of the aspens, willows, and cottonwoods that lined the streams. Vegetation declined and animals that depended on the trees left. The wolves were absent for seventy years. When they returned, the elks’ languorous browsing days were over. As the wolf packs kept the herds on the move, browsing diminished, and the trees sprang back. The roots of cottonwoods and willows once again stabilized stream banks and slowed the flow of water. This, in turn, created space for animals such as beavers to return. These industrious builders could now find the materials they needed to construct their lodges and raise their families. The animals that depended on the riparian meadows came back, as well. The wolves turned out to be better stewards of the land than people, creating conditions that allowed the trees to grow and exert their influence on the landscape.

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