By Jane Tompkins ever read a book so fascinating and at the same time hard to get through as The Hidden Life of Trees. But if you have the slightest interest in trees, this book is a must—albeit a very slow—read. From the start I realized that I’d had no idea of how trees lived, or of how we human beings might best conduct ourselves in relation to trees if we care about their flourishing. By the end, I had learned, as the author puts it so precisely, that “only people who understand trees are capable of protecting them.”
Humans have regarded trees as commodities, things to be harvested and used for their own purposes, and not as a form of life with its own entelechy, that is, its own structure of purposes. These purposes and needs have nothing to do with ours—except in the sense that, without trees, life on the planet would be impossible. Silviculture, until recently, has been developed in order to increase the volume of timber for human use, not in order to understand trees in and for themselves. This book helps us to see trees from their own perspective, so to speak. The revelations, for me, were mind-boggling.
For instance, it turns out that trees communicate with one another directly through their root systems, which sometimes intertwine, and in a mediated way through a blanket of fungi that spreads underneath the forest floor carrying messages from root to root, and through chemical odors trees emit when attacked to warn other trees of a predator—usually some kind of insect. Trees sense it when other trees are weakened and send them extra supplies of water and sugar; mother trees support their young, supplying those that have sprung from their own seeds with extra nourishment. And sometimes trees will keep alive the stump of an ancient tree that has fallen to the ground years ago by sending it food. Is this anthropomorphism? Humans projecting their own categories onto other living beings? Probably. But what is the alternative? Behaving as if trees were just meaningless matter produces clear-cutting, the death of forests, and of entire species.
The thing is, trees like to be left alone. Their ideal environment is the forest. That is the place where trees flourish best because it provides the conditions they need—protection from windstorms, constant humidity, a soft layer of humus which allows the roots to spread and breathe, the ability to aid and be aided by other trees. The forest also provides the decayed bodies of dead trees which host needed forms of subterranean life—beetles, fungi, insects that chew up leaves—an incredibly varied and complex ecosystem composed of millions of microorganisms that exists out of sight and