This summer I went with friends for several walks in the woods on Vancouver Island. One was the famous Cathedral Grove beside Cameron Lake near Port Alberni; the other the less accessible Avatar Grove on the Pacific coast near Port Renfrew at the southern end of the renowned West Coast Trail. The latter boasts “Canada’s gnarliest tree,” among stands of giant Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, hemlock, and western red cedar. Even a few hours in these arboreal cathedrals inspire awe. These are old-growth forests, protected intact ecosystems spared from the kind of exploitation, clearcutting being the worst, which has scarred much of the country’s forest cover.
It was good preparation to have read Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, which lives up to its promise of “discoveries from a secret world.” Wohlleben is a German forestry expert and woodland manager who writes with the passion and insight that has made the English translation of his book a bestseller. You don’t have to love trees as I do (though it helps), or be a “tree-hugger,” to be astounded by the revelations contained therein.
Trees can live vastly longer than humans, as Tim Flannery observes in a foreword, referring to a spruce in Sweden that is more than 9,500 years old. And, as importantly, in nature they are social, not solitary living things, communicating through nutrient sharing, electrical impulses and many other means. Trees in a natural forest form incredibly complex social networks among themselves and with myriad forest species — plant, fungal and animal. Wohlleben aptly calls this the “wood wide web.”
To appreciate forests and their contributions goes way beyond assessing them in terms of lumber and the commercial value of forest products. Natural forests also offer much that can never be reproduced by replanting or monoculture tree plantations. Such forests have a wealth of interconnections from root systems to crowns, to the undergrowth, the intricate fungal structures beneath the forest floor and the thousands of species that depend on trees making up symbiotic communities of mutual benefit.
Trees also have active defensive strategies even if they cannot just move location. Trees are sentient, highly sensitive to their surroundings, and have a “language” that is transmitted in its own way. As Wohlleben writes: “Trees live their lives in the really slow lane. But this slow tempo does not mean that a tree is not on top of what is happening in different parts of its structure. If the roots find themselves in trouble, this information is broadcast throughout the tree, which can trigger the leaves to release scent compounds . . . that are specifically formulated for the task at hand.”
Groups of trees form bonds that can be described as familial, as friendships or other caring relationships. They have ways to avoid inbreeding. There can be competitive struggles too between different species (for example, beeches versus oaks). Forests are ever-evolving biospheres of mutual support and rivalries, of learning and adaptation.
As amazing as are Wohlleben’s discoveries, he insists there is still much more to investigate. Little is known about the half of the total forest biomass that is below ground. There are more life forms in a handful of forest soil than there are people on the planet. Forests have a huge impact on climate and the hydrological cycle. Trees are hosts for so many species that he calls them “motherships of diversity.” Older trees or decaying logs can act as tree “nurseries.” In fact fully one-fifth of all known plant and animal species (i.e. 6,000) depend in some way on dead wood.
Tree species themselves are sources of great genetic diversity with adaptive capacities responsive to climate change. They have given us important anti-cancer compounds. They filter the air and are the lungs of the planet. In summer one square mile of forest releases about 29 tons of oxygen every day — equivalent to the daily requirement of 10,000 people. “Every walk in the forest is like taking a shower in oxygen.” Not to mention other physical, mental, and spirit-enhancing benefits.
Wohlleben laments that Europe’s old-growth forests disappeared centuries ago. However, he is heartened by an emerging political consensus as in his native Germany to protect significant forest areas in an undisturbed state of natural conservation. He also celebrates North American wilderness forest initiatives, notably the 2016 agreement to protect British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest.
Canada is fortunate to have some of the largest areas of remaining old-growth forest on earth.
Think about that and the wonders around you the next time you take a walk in the trees.