“The Hidden Life of Trees” brings the complex world of the woods to life

If you’re familiar with what environmentalists, conservationists, and world nature documentaries are talking about these days, or if you just think plants are rather interesting, you’ve probably heard of Peter Wohlleben. The hidden life of trees: what they feel, how they communicate, the international bestseller that acts both as a naturalist’s handbook on German forestry and as an exhilarating and illuminating body of knowledge about some of nature’s oldest and most complex organisms.

We don’t think of trees as feeling, or smelling, or hearing, or experiencing emotions – and why would we? They are content to stay upright, dropping their greenery once a year and growing back a little more lush, a little bigger a few months later. But Wohlleben, through his work managing a forest in western Germany, came to understand the forest as a superorganism, constantly exchanging information, nutrients, and generational traits among its sylvan members. , an endless network of connections that humans are just beginning. understand. Wohlleben and his first book are the subjects of Jörg Adolph’s documentary The hidden life of trees, in theaters now, which follows Wohlleben and his efforts to educate audiences about the richness of life found in the most unexpected places.

“These trees are a couple,” Wohlleben explains to a group of tourists at the start of the film, pointing to the twin crowns of two huge trees that seem to be moving away from each other, so as not to block sunlight. of their companion. . He shyly changes “couple” to “group,” a less romantic and unemotional term that biologists tend to prefer (it is generally unwise to attribute human traits to non-humans), before repeating that he prefers his previous word. How else would you describe two living beings who seem to be helping each other intentionally?

This is how Wohlleben tends to shape his descriptions of what he sees in the woods: not with the sterility of a scientist but with a sense of familiarity and kinship with the world around him. The “mother” trees will “suckle” their “children” which grow at the base of their matriarch’s roots sending additional nutrients to help them grow; a stand of three oaks will choose different times to drop their leaves for the winter, depending on their “sensitivity”; plants communicate via root systems connected by fungal mycelial networks collectively called the “Wood-Wide Web”. A spruce tree in the middle of a desolate plain in Sweden, nicknamed Old Tjikko, is estimated to be over 9,000 years old.

The documentary accompanies these revelations with stunning views of ancient forests and lush timelapses of mushrooms, mosses and seedlings growing roots and unfolding their first leaves, as well as devastating shots of clearcut land crisscrossed by the tracks of earth’s wheels. huge industrial machines. The only time the soft-spoken Wohlleben seems truly upset is when he examines the damage left when the aquifers and nutrient-rich trunks of a forest fire, the perfect breeding ground for a new generation of plants. healthy, have been completely cleaned. of the landscape, wasted.

At a time when the natural world is at the forefront of our concerns – climate change makes devastating headlines every day, with overheating cities encouraging city planners to plant more green spaces to cool us naturally and sustainably, practices millennia-old natives of maintaining species populations and monitoring migratory paths are only now considered worthy of the term “science” by the West – a film like this, and the work it drew upon, and the new era of understanding that it encourages, is a source of hope, the knowledge transmitted within indisputable and valuable.

About Victoria Rothstein

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