Boulder County Master Gardener
Two recent books of interest to gardeners take very different paths through the woods to get to the same place. They both prove again that trees are some pretty remarkable organisms. Some Colorado gardeners would say that they are hard to please and hard to understand.
The Hidden Life of Trees, What They Feel, How They Communicate, subtitled “Discoveries from a Secret World”, by German forester Peter Wohlleben, has been on European best-seller lists since 2015. Wohlleben goes through a profound change during his long career from forest ranger/civil servant to committed ecologist as his knowledge of the trees in his care deepens. Traditional forestry practices weren’t producing the results he wanted. He felt that the trees themselves weren’t getting the attention they deserved as social beings, so he pinned anthropomorphic labels on them: a mother tree shelters her saplings so that they develop stronger trunks, tree friends support each other, they signal through a “fungal network” he calls the “Wood-Wide Web”. Although these survival techniques are well-known in the scientific community using less dramatic terms, Wohlleben succeeds in making us appreciate even more the tools plants use in a forest. In nature, he saw trees less as individual organisms and more like a family of related beings. This is observable more in old-growth forests since it appears that when too much space is left between them, trees in modern plantations may get more sunlight and grow faster but as a result lose much of their resistance to disease or predation. The author defends his anthropomorphism this way: “I use a very human language (because) scientific language removes all the emotion.” He sends a plea for more better management of commercial orchards and plantations, analogous to giving animals more humane treatment in agricultural settings.
Family, of both the plant and the human kind are the theme of Lab Girl, A Story of Trees, Science and Love, by Hope Jahren. Winner of 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award, Lab Girl is told in chapters that alternate between her development as a scientist and her ongoing studies. Along the way, she picks up a Ph.D. at the University of California-Berkeley and three Fulbright scholarships, and sees her goal as being able “to see the world as plants do.” Jahren now directs a laboratory at the University of Hawaii. She writes poetically about a seed, once it’s anchored, “striving toward the light..to fuel the process that keeps it alive.” She grew up helping her chemist father in his laboratory at a community college where they both found refuge from a bleak home life. Science became her family at an early age. Jahren can get as anthropomorphic as the German woodsman when she asks, “Can grown trees recognize their own seedlings?”–an actual study that concludes that yes, they can. Her studies form part of the new discipline of geobiology.
Jahren states that “Every single year, at least one tree is cut down in your name…If you own any land at all, plant one tree on it this year.”
For some local interest, her chapter on a last-minute cross-country trip in a rented van can’t be missed. She and some graduate students are in a hurry to attend a conference in San Francisco. They decide against all advice to drive from Greeley through Rawlins as a blizzard is forecast. Yes, they do get to San Francisco in time after a memorable night in a Rawlins motel.
So, both authors use family as a metaphor for traits in organisms besides mammals. One author was an observer and student of trees in established forests, the other a scientist determined to find out why trees behave they way they do to achieve the results both growers and gardeners would like to see more.
Peter Wohlleben. The Hidden Life of Trees, What they Feel, How They Communicate. Greystone Books. 2016.
“German Forest Ranger Finds That Trees Have Social Networks, Too.” Sally McGrane. The New York Times. January 29, 2016.
Hope Jahren. Lab Girl. Alfred A. Knopf. 2016.
“Lab Girl, a Story of Science and Love”. Lucie Green. The Guardian. April 24, 2016.