Courtesy Macphail Woods

Hidden Life of Trees

The Nature of PEI | by Gary Schneider

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Books have always been a big part of my life. And though I read a lot of fiction, I am forever beholden to books that help me gain a better understanding of nature.  It could be a field guide that leads me to finally identify that mysterious warbler, or a forestry book that unlocks more of the mysteries hidden in these complex ecosystems. They’ve been constant friends, and I owe a huge debt to all the libraries, bookstores and friends that have fueled this passion to learn.

This Christmas, I received a new version, complete with wondrous photographs, of Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees. The original book was published in 2015 and is a fairly quick read, despite being full of complexities. I’ve been wanting to read the book again and this is a great opportunity.

Wohlleben is a German forester who along the way developed a keen understanding and appreciation of forests.  And this understanding goes far beyond just the trees—it encompasses the wildlife, the soils, and all the ecological processes that exist in healthy forests.

Much like Seeing the Forest for the Trees, BC forester Herb Hammond’s excellent book, The Hidden Life of Trees brings great knowledge of a specific area and forest type. Yet the insights contained within these books are applicable to forests in any locale. Wohlleben’s book is subtitled “What they Feel, How they Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World,” and he really does unlock some of nature’s secrets.

And just what are these discoveries? Some are fairly simple concepts developed during the over 20 years Wohlleben worked for the German Forestry Commission. He writes about trees in a forest creating their own climate, moderating extreme heat and cold, storing large amounts of water and generating lots of humidity.

Wohlleben enlightens readers on the water cycle within a forest, why some trees last for centuries (or longer), and why hurricanes generally flatten conifer stands and leave the mixed wood stands relatively unscathed. Again, much of the book has a direct connection to our own Acadian forest and why restoration is so important.

He also draws on the work of other experts in the field of forest ecology. Much of his writing on how trees communicate stems from a Canadian researcher, Dr. Susan Simard, Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Simard was one of the first people to talk about the interconnectedness of forests. Many people knew about this, but she actually carried out the experiments and used science to prove her theories. Working in the Pacific Northwest, Dr. Simard looked at the fungal networks that connect trees in a healthy forest, how carbon is shared between species, how “mother” trees are connected to their children, how trees actually stay healthier by rationing water.

The fungal connection is especially interesting, as it is a critical contributor to forest health. Bear with me on this. Mycorrhizal fungi are mushrooms—including our own chanterelles—that grow on tree roots. This symbiotic relationship benefits both organisms. With the greatly increased surface area of the root system as a result of the colonization by the fungi, the trees have more access to water and nutrients. At the same time, the fungi—which cannot photosynthesize —gain access to vital carbohydrates.

What I especially liked about The Hidden World of Trees was the author’s ability to tell stories that help paint a picture of how complex forests really are. When we treat them as corn crops, only taller and longer lived, we show how little we know about healthy forest ecosystems.

Gary SchneiderThe Nature of PEI
Gary Schneider

Gary began writing for The Buzz in the May 2018 issue. He co-chairs ECO-PEI and started the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project in 1991. The project demonstrates ecologically-sound forest management, with a focus on environmental education, conservation of rare plants, and the restoration of PEI’s native forest. He is an avid birder and lives in Tea Hill.