ECOS 38 (1)
THE WOOD FOR THE TREES
The Long View of Nature from a Small Wood
Hardback RRP: £22
THE HIDDEN LIFE OF TREES
What they feel, How they communicate, Discoveries from a secret world
Hardback RRP: £16.99
Reviewed by Simon Leadbeater
Woodland owner in Hertfordshire
Communing with the Wildwood
These are two very different books, one that provides a wealth of detail about one woodland and the local area, and the other which provides a completely new perspective into the world of trees.
Professor Richard Fortey is a Fellow of the Royal Society and distinguished author and broadcaster. His latest work, The Wood for the Trees, essentially frames a month-by-month observational narrative about the author’s four-acre component of a larger beech wood, based near Henley Upon Thames, within an historical context for the area. To people who know the Chilterns well this background is probably very interesting and I think it should be recorded. But Fortey’s outlook is rather conventional, in which he essentially considers trees as human resources and states that felling trees is best for the woodland’s biological richness, to allow new light to flow in. In the same vein he talks of thinning self-generated beech saplings having selected a ‘winner’ as otherwise the trees will all grow too spindly. I now view this approach to woodland management as a cliché and in a good number of circumstances plain wrong, which Fortey would learn from reading Peter Wohlleben’s work.
In contrast to Professor Fortey’s distinguished scientific career Peter Wohlleben’s background is that of practical forester, managing 3,000 acres of woodland in the Eifel region, about an hour from Cologne. His book, The Hidden Life of Trees, should make people radically re-apprise how they view trees and forests. Writing in layman’s terms but referring to established science, particularly that of Professor Suzanne Simard, Wohlleben asserts that trees are sentient, because they communicate with and nurture each other, form friendships, mother trees nurse their offspring, and trees are even capable of learning. So, for example, beech trees will support each other, so much so that when Wohlleben once ring barked some to thin them as proposed by Fortey, the other beeches sustained the damaged trees and they continued living. In a similar way Wohlleben found a live tree stump some hundreds of years old being kept alive by neighbouring trees. How do trees achieve all of this? Partly through what Simard has called the wood-wide-web based on mycorrhizal connections that build up within woodland over centuries.
I cannot do justice to The Hidden Life of Trees here except encourage people to read it. This book is genuinely iconoclastic and should force us to look at the world of trees in a completely new light. I do, however, have two observations. In Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel (2015) Carl Safina made the point that it is easier to exploit animals if we assume they have no feelings. But if we know animals suffer, and are sentient, is it sufficient to say ‘let’s treat them better?’ No; if we learn that, for example, farm animals possess feelings comparable to us, we cannot stop at giving them bigger cages, instead we should cease farming them altogether. In Wohlleben’s forest he selectively fells trees using horses rather than heavy machinery and says we can use wood so long as trees live ‘appropriately to their species’ and we can do this with ‘no qualms of conscience’. Given the evidence Wohlleben presents the corollary must be rather than treat trees better while they live but still kill (his word) them young, we should not be killing them at all. My second observation is that Wohlleben focuses his discussion on old growth forests in which trees can live for hundreds of years, and like Fortey he centres most of his observations on beeches. However, it is likely that his woodland in the Eifel region has been significantly shaped by human exploitation so that while there will be natural processes at work these would not be as natural as those found in ‘uhrwald’ – original forest, of which Wohlleben might have to look to Białowieża Forest in Poland to attain the closest approximation. In short, some of the wonderful insights Wohlleben presents may still be pale imitations of how original forests once thrived and functioned.
 Leadbeater, SRB (2016) ‘Animal suffering calls for more than a bigger cage,’ Animal Sentience 2016.071. Commentary on Ng, Y-K. (2016) ‘How welfare biology and commonsense may help to reduce animal suffering,’ Animal Sentience 2016.00: http://animalstudiesrepository.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1081&context=animsent