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The Hidden Life of Trees: An Interview with Peter Wohlleben

Posted on 21st September 2017 by Martha Greengrass
A forester, ecologist and author of our Non-Fiction Book of the Month for September, The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben is also known as the Tree Whisperer so comprehensive is his knowledge of how trees grow, adapt and communicate. In this interview he discusses his love of woodland, explains how trees really communicate and examines what we might gain by learning to listen to them.
Why have you decided to write The Hidden Life of Trees? What was the 'trigger' and how long have you been writing it?

The trigger was my wife: She asked me to write down all the things I tell the people who take part at my guided tours. The book took six months to be finished.

In your book you claim that trees have feelings and can communicate with each other and animals. How long did it take you to reach these conclusions and what impact has your research had on your work?

The first contact I had with knowledge like this came whilst I was studying forestry. During those years I got more and more information about the hidden social life of trees. I have always felt that trees are more than just a kind of bio-robot. Within the last 20 years I have changed how we manage forests; I’ve created protected areas and manage without harvesters but instead with woodworkers and horses to avoid heavy damage. 

Why is it so hard for people to understand that trees are alive and that they have feelings? What can be done to change that perspective?

Scientists have divided the living world into three categories: human (first and foremost), animal and, lastly, plants. This third category was for a long time regarded as something like a raw material without feelings or a soul. Now it turns out that plants are, in many ways, very near to animals. There is wonderful research but very little literature aimed at non-specialist readers. I hope that gap of understanding has been closed a little with my book.

What first made you fall in love with the woods, what’s the appeal of trees for you? 

I have always loved nature, whether it is animals or plants. And trees are something like plant-elephants, they are so impressive! With their complex social life they remember even more, so perhaps they really are something more akin to elephants than other plants. The thing I love most about trees is that they help each other without condition. Without condition! When we look at the political situation around the world then emulating trees seems to be a good solution, even for us.

Your book has become a bestseller, both in your native Germany and beyond; what has that experience been like for you?

I never expected the book to become so successful but it gives me hope for the future: so many people are interested in trees and nature and are willing to help.

Why do you think we are so much more concerned about animal protection than about our woodland and forests? What is the global impact of mass deforestation?

Forests are not only necessary to the earth as a regulative for climate or biodiversity but for us. Our blood pressure sinks in intact forests and our immune system gets better and stronger. So the protection of trees is also the protection of people. And to understand this means that there should be every possible effort made to help forests.

In your book you write about the ways trees communicate describing the 'electric' vanes that are built through the trees, that the roots are like the brain, and that every part of the tree has its own ‘homework’ to do. How do you see the tree when you think about that?
In the book you mention the fact that it is very possible that trees are communicating in many different ways and you suggest that this mode of communication will be opened up to the world in the future. On what grounds do you base that assertion?

We understand that trees are able to communicate using chemicals, electrical signals and sound but so far we only what is going on while they are being attacked by insects or other animals. Wouldn’t it be great to discover what they “talk” about while feeling good?

What is the situation with wooded areas in Germany and Europe in general? What are the biggest challenges where these issues are concerned?

The biggest issue is to protect a certain percentage where no forest management is allowed. We always look to Brazil with its endangered rainforests but we haven’t any primeval forest left in Germany and just a few small forests in other European countries so really we should concentrate on our own backyard.

You’ve been called 'the tree whisperer'. If you could talk to trees (in a conventional way) what would you say to them? 

I think I just would love to listen to them. What could I say to a being that is several times older than I am? 

I love the way you write about how trees don't like being alone, how they need a friend that is usually close by, and how they help each other in the times of need. What else can we learn from the inner life of trees?

Trees work slowly because slowness is the key to staying healthy and becoming very old. I think it is a nice thought that we might reduce our speed every now and then to tree speed. Then perhaps many of our problems would become a little smaller.

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