Two New Books Reveal the Hidden Life of Trees

When you visit the library, do you have something of an agenda and head for a particular section, or are you more of a browser, embracing serendipity and wandering from one area to another?

When you go for a walk, do you aim for a certain place, or do you saunter until something piques your curiosity?

A fuller appreciation of most anything surely benefits from both approaches, and the authors of two wonderful new books about trees prove this to be true.

Peter Wohlleben is a forester who has written a small but dense book called The Hidden Life of TreesHis agenda is not to wander too much, but to look long and hard at the trees of “his” woods, a municipal forest in western Germany full of beeches, spruce, and oaks. I normally don’t much go for anthropomorphizing and/or mechanical analogies when talking about natural systems, but Mr. Wohlleben makes it work.

Divided into short chapters that include arboreal friendship, language, love, and aging, not to mention vacuums and pumps, one soon wonders if there’s any other way for the author to tell his fascinating stories. Trees hear and smell and feel. They talk and even yell. Their symbiotic subterranean network of mycorrhizal fungi, the “Wood Wide Web,” is all-important, and underappreciated. Though the book explores an entirely different ecosystem than ours and is by no means a field guide, I’d suggest it’s worth reading a few chapters and then going for a slow walk in the woods.

For additional local inspiration and information, maybe also read the “Old Growth” chapter in George Frazier’s fine book, The Last Wild Places of Kansas and consult the maps and woodland discussions in Ken Lassman’s Wild Douglas County. Then reach out to some neighboring oak and hackberry and Osage orange trees. Now is a good time, with the leaves and ticks and oak leaf itch mites out of the way, with nests visible and tree forms much more apparent.

But having done your homework, you’ve deduced that we humans have affected whatever it is you might find. What are we to make of it?

To offer some possible guidelines, eminent paleontologist and author Richard Fortey has been kicking around his woods in England and has just released The Wood for the Trees,  a comprehensive stroll which incorporates not only tree stories, but also tales of deep time and human associations. If Wohlleben’s book is the “how” of trees, Fortey’s is more of the “what.” As the author says, it’s “both romantic and forensic.”

So he writes of making beech leaf liqueur, firing clay ceramics from his forest soils, making glass from the siliceous flint of the area, crafting fine cabinetry from felled cherry trees, making walking sticks and charcoal, and exploring the local history of bodgers and turners (chair- and bowl-makers).

He also digs deep into the human history of his area– sometimes a bit too far afield from his woodland forays – which lends a certain bioregional air to the tale. After all, he can easily work back a couple thousand years to when Romans occupied his turf.

But above all that, Fortey loves his wood and the plants and animals in it. The scientist in him enthusiastically appears at frequent intervals, examining the beeches and elms and cherries and hollies, while looking at nearly everything else as well. Lichens, mushrooms, beetles, dormice, bats, moths, ghost orchids, and muntjacs: all are investigated. “Not so much an inventory,” he says, “as a catalogue leading to compelling and interlocking stories.”

Speaking of interlocking stories – a few weeks ago, a patron at the library asked me to help him find a book he had waiting on the hold shelves. It turned out to be Wohlleben’s Hidden Life of Trees, so we got to talking. I told him of my previous life as an arborist and my great appreciation for the book, and he told me that he has been working on a fictional book on trees for many years. The longer he works on it, he said, the more scientists discover, and the more non-fiction it seems.

Wait ‘til he reads these books.

-Jake Vail is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.

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