One of last year’s surprise megahits was Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees. It sold over 320,000 copies in six months when it first came out in Germany and has subsequently been translated into over 16 languages and territories. For a while, you could hardly open a newspaper without his genial bespectacled face beaming out at you from behind an elm.
The key to the book’s runaway success lies in the subtitle: ‘What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World’. Wohlleben started out as a forester in a commercially managed woodland where trees were simply viewed as raw product – vertical lumber waiting to be harvested and nothing more. At some point, he had a road-to-Damascus-like revelation which changed his view forever. “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.” When he persuaded his employers to completely rethink what the forest was for and how it was managed, the trees, he says, “breathed a collective sigh of relief.”
I wanted to love this book. I instinctively loved the idea of the ‘wood-wide web’ – trees interconnected under the earth through a dense network of roots and fungal mycelium, exchanging sugars and chemicals, nutrients and all manner of chemical messages, sparking and chattering away underfoot. It was all very Avatar, minus the blue bodypaint and prehensile tails. We are all connected.
Old models of how we humans work – as though the brain is a sort of CPU sending emails to outlying bits of the body, that we are all self-contained, homogenous individual units sealed up in our skin – no longer really hold up. Our emotions, thought and personalities are at least as much to do with our gut bacteria as they are to do with our DNA or our frontal cortex: the runaway success of books like Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes and Giulia Ender’s Gut are great examples.
Wohlleben’s book invites a similarly radical view. Trees are not inert objects, he asserts, but living, sensate beings. His latest book, The Inner Life of Animals, does the same for creatures – raising all kinds of interesting moral questions about how we use, and abuse, our co-inhabitants of the planet.
Now, I can go along with this a fairly long way. A really long way, in fact. But even I found myself baulking a bit at Wohlleben’s sappy anthropomorphism. Open the book at any page, and you’ll be tripping over sentences like this: “Young trees are so keen on growing quickly that it would be no problem at all for them to grow about 18 inches taller per season. Unfortunately for them, their own mothers do not approve of rapid growth.” Or this little gem about bark: “not every tree sheds in the same way. There are species that shed constantly (fastidious people would recommend an anti-dandruff shampoo). There are others that flake with restraint.”
I have never come across a book so desperately in need of inverted commas. If they came in a salt-shaker, I’d be liberally sprinkling each page with them. It’s fine making comparisons, Peter mate, but rein it in a bit would you?
The net effect of the book is to leave you feeling simultaneously stuffed and undernourished. There’s not enough science in there to satisfy your curiosity and thirst for knowledge, or if there is, it’s so hidden under layers of touchy-feely fluff it’s almost invisible. It’s as though Wohlleben is saying: you don’t really need biology, geology, physics or in fact any science at all if you have sufficiently large doses of empathy.
I often read two books at a time, and I found the late Oliver Rackham’s succinct and meaty little book The Ash Tree the perfect antacid to attacks of empathetic indigestion. Rackham is talked about in tree-circles (human ones that is) as the godfather of all things arboreal. What he doesn’t know about trees can be written on the back of a postage stamp, and certainly this wide-ranging, meticulously researched book on a single species bears that out. Rackham died before Wohlleben’s book came out, but I imagine him from beyond the grave snorting loudly at some of the German’s more fanciful assertions.
It’s easy to be dismissive. But if, as seems to be the case, Wohlleben’s work indicates a new view of the natural world as an interconnected ecosystem that we are all part of, a recognition of the fundamental rights of the non-human world to live, thrive and even choose their own shampoo, then this seems less like an outpouring of sentimental guff and more like a much-needed clarion call to our own rapacious species to wake up and smell the coffee.
The Hindu Business Line, 29.1.18