I’m not a science guy. Or at least, I haven’t been in the past. But I’ve recently been looking to expand my intellectual horizons a bit by looking into some topics that I don’t already love or have familiarity with. To that end, I’ve been looking for a specific field of science that I could dig into to help me become more engaged in science in general. After several months I’ve decided that botany and horticulture are a good place to start.
I love nature – hiking, hunting, gardening, and just being outside – so something that allowed me to understand and appreciate the things I already come into contact with seemed perfect. Also, since I am an amateur gardener, it just seemed to make sense to study an area of science that would allow me some real world application as well! Since narrowing my focus to these two fields I’ve been spending the last few months learning more about the subject and I am hooked. I’ve taught myself the names of all of the trees in my office park, learned some of the basics of plant terminology and identification, and slowly but surely built up a list of helpful resources (blogs, podcasts, and Youtube videos) that have helped me to get a feel for the study of botany and horticulture.
Peter Wohlleben in Hümmel, Germany
But nothing has been as helpful or stimulating as reading Peter Wohlleben’s incredible book: The Hidden Life of Trees. Don’t misunderstand me, Wohlleben’s book is not a botanical textbook or introduction in any way. In fact he has a somewhat narrow focus in this book. Wohlleben is a forest manager in Hümmel, Germany who has over 20 years experience as a Forester. In 2015 he wrote The Hidden Life of Trees in an attempt to connect the modern reader to the wonders of the forests in which he spends so much of his time. The book has been wildly successful and just been translated into English this year. I stumbled on The Hidden Life of Trees at a local bookstore and quickly decided to take it home. Listen to a bit of Wohlleben’s writing if you want to understand why I was so taken:
“Four decades ago, scientists noticed something on the African savannah. The giraffes there were feeding on umbrella thorn acacias, and the trees didn’t like this one bit. It took the acacias mere minutes to start pumping toxic substances into their leaves to rid themselves of the large herbivores. The giraffes got the message and moved on to other trees in the vicinity. But did they move on to trees close by? No, for the time being, they walked right by a few trees and resumed their meal only when they had moved about 100 yards away.
The reason for this behavior is astonishing. The acacia trees that were being eaten gave off a warning gas (specifically, ethylene) that signaled to neighboring trees of the same species that crises was at hand. Right away, all the forewarned trees also pumped toxins into their leaves to prepare themselves. The giraffes were wise to this game and therefore moved farther away to a part of the savannah where they could find trees that were oblivious to what was going on. Or else they moved upwind. For the scent messages are carried to nearby trees on the breeze, and if the animals walked upwind, they could find acacias close by that had no idea the giraffes were there” (pg. 7)
These short paragraphs capture what makes Wohlleben’s book so good. First, his writing is engaging and accessible. He uses a conversational style that pulls you in and writes short chapters that keep you reading. Each chapter focuses on one aspect of forest life (i.e. the hidden life of trees) and he uses anthropomorphic language to make it easy for us to relate to the rhythms of life in the forest. Second, as the example of the giraffes and the acacia trees shows, he does a marvelous job of pulling us into the action. Trees live life in the slow lane (to borrow a phrase from the book) which means it can be much harder for us to connect with them than with animals. But just because things happen slowly with trees doesn’t mean they aren’t happening at all! Trees defend themselves, send out warnings and messages, and even “talk” through the vast underground web of roots and fungi that connect the trees of the forest to one another.
There is more that could be said about the book, but I truly believe it speaks best for itself. If anything you’re read so far intrigues you and you want your own understanding of forest life deepened and developed then I’d encourage you to pick up Wohlleben’s book. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it as much as I have!