Just finished another book that satisfies my Gaia/nature reading challenge; The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. Wohlleben certainly makes accessible the incredibly complex world of the natural environment, he makes visible the normally unseen connections that allow forests to function as complex organisms, explaining notions like the “wood wide web”, a complex system that sees fungi acting as a facilitating organism allowing for species reciprocity and communication. In this age, a better knowledge of how the natural world works is crucial if we are to survive the challenges we are currently facing. Books like this one allow us to be better informed, in order to adapt to our changing environment. He writes in direct easy to understand prose, utilising short chapters to convey complex ideas in a very accessible way.
Essentially Wohlleben draws on the groundbreaking research of Suzanne Simard who coined the term “wood wide web” and developed the notion of “mother trees”. Wohlleben is himself a forester who uses his lifetime of observation as the basis for much of what he is explaining. Perhaps the tendency to anthropomorphize leaves the author open to the criticism of bias and unscientific method but anthropomorphism is also a useful tool in explaining a life form that is indeed quite complex and in many respects very alien to us. Certainly, trees exist on a time frame we find hard to relate to, with centuries-long life spans. The idea of the “wood wide web” is itself a very tidy one, that effectively communicates the complexity of forest systems and their dependence on facilitator species like fungi.
How forests can control rainfall and weather is also explained by Wohlleben, this time drawing on the idea of the biotic pump theorised by the Russian scientist Anastassia Makarieva. Essentially the idea is that forests draw rainfall inland. Destroy forests and you undermine rainfall, as Wohlleben points out the evidence for forest-related drying is already evidenced in Brazil. I found that particular chapter fascinating and I could not help but wonder how the current destruction of east coast forest by bushfires could impact on subsequent rainfall in coming seasons here. The book did seem particularly Eurocentric or at least Northern hemisphere focused, which left me wondering about Australian Sclerophyll forest and any differences or similarities that might exist. After reading The Hidden Life of Trees, I am left marvelling at how complex and mysterious the world really is.
The Hidden Life of Trees has been on my radar since it came out but after reading the wonderful Overstory by Richard Powers last year it became a must read. Overstory won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction last year and the two books nicely complement each other. Overstory would also make a good choice for this reading challenge. Just finally, for interest sake I thought I would include one of Suzanne Simard’s TED talks: