I ran across the most interesting book a month or so ago. It was written by Peter Wohlleben, a lifelong scientifically trained forester in Germany. After 20 years applying the skill set of his professional training to a position with the Forestry Commission, his perspective of forestry management changed. His training was to look at forests as a lumber extracting commodity. After working in forests, and coming to a greater understanding of forest ecology, he has come to favor the return of the forest that he has been charged to manage back towards an ecologically self sufficient “primeval” forest. The book he has written that documents his transformation and provides scientific evidence to back up his conversion is entitled: “The Hidden Life of Trees”1. It is based upon the scientific studies of many who practice in the arena of forest ecology and on his personal field observations that support the scientific findings of their work..
My health care, boating / sailing / cruising, equestrian friends might look upon what follows as one of my more fanciful excursions into tree hugging. I, on the other hand look to it as an awakening. I have spent thousands of hours in the forest, mountains, deserts, riparian glades and other less traveled natural environments quite far from human habitation, yet I’ve never really understood the natural world of flora described as Peter describes it. With Peter’s guidance, I’m getting glimpses of the social fabric of the deep woods and observing the interactions between its plant-life inhabitants. Trees are alive. Trees communicate. Trees feel. Imagine that for a moment. Of course they are alive, but how do they communicate? What do they feel, and why might those characteristics matter to a healthy forest? For those of you who love to hike in the forest, or any natural, untamed environment for that matter, pick up a copy and immerse yourself in what Peter and other trained foresters have to say about the flora that we bi-pedal mammals so poorly understand. And then… take a hike.
The trees that reside within the forest alongside the Rainier Trail in Port Ludlow are by no means what one would call “virgin”. It’s been logged in past times, and for the most part is a young forest bearing the scars of human intervention. A few ancient great-grandmother trees do remain that somehow avoided the ax or the saw. Many of their children are scattered about, and glades of sword fern and salmon berry abound where trees have fallen allowing light to momentarily penetrate the forest floor. Your human understanding of “momentarily” is far different than the forests. Their “momentarily” is measured in decades, centuries and millennia. Life here lives in the slow lane.
Winter storms born in the Gulf of Alaska wrap around Vancouver Island and come screaming up the Strait of Juan De Fuca. The winds hit the Peninsula south of Port Angeles and Port Townsend with ferocity. “Windfalls”, trees that have succumbed to the wind, due to age, structural defects or positioning amongst their peers, litter the forest floor. Their remaining stumps provide a comely silhouette and sometimes tell the story of why their body did not live to a ripe old age. Their fallen bodies, in various stages of decay, melt back into the humus that becomes the base nutrients of the forest floor.
The trail and forest rest within a housing subdivision of Port Ludlow and follows the course of a crick. It is by no means a creek. The houses and lots they sit upon are spaced far apart. At times one can see the edges of houses off in the distance through the foliage, but they are quite far away and don’t intrude as you wend your way through the forest. Getting there is easy. It’s just a hop, skip and a jump away from the marina where we live. It is a special place, well thought out and preserved by the town planners.
This stately red cedar lives by the lower entrance to the trail. It presents an imposing figure. The trunk is strait as it should be to maximize stability and over the decades, in this case centuries, has eliminated it’s lower limbs which are no longer needed. Only limbs with needles, the cedars “leaves” are retained. Those limbs that are now in light that is too low to continue effective photosynthesis are discarded. It can take decades for the limb to fall off and more decades to heal the wound with bark, the tree’s outer and most important defense against insects and fungal infection. You can see the progression as you gaze up the tree.
Several maple trees surround this behemoth. And you can see their crown leaves intermingled with the limbs of the cedar. They are stealing much needed light that drives photosynthesis, and they are competing with the cedar. The cedar will win eventually. It is patient. It will grow taller than the maples. In the intervening half century it will continue to discard no longer needed limb growth, and thrive because the deciduous trees will lose their leaves in fall, leaving all the light to the cedar before it to determines that is it time to rest for the winter.
But there is a bit more… It will share resources with other cedar trees nearby through it’s root structure. And beneath the trees, their roots intertwine and they share sugar and other nutrients. They are all in it together.
Now here is an interesting specimen. It it one tree or two? Did two saplings decide that since they were so close to each other that they could symbiotically grow faster if they grew together and surrounded their lower bodies with bark. Less energy spent with bark production just might prove beneficial. Their roots would certainly have been intertwined sharing nutrients and the sugar of photosynthesis. They’ve been together a long, long time. Two centuries perhaps?
Or… was it one tree that decided that two apical meristems were better than one, only to suffer the notch between them splitting in its early life? If so, the split took decades to repair, and now looks quite solid and able to ward off insect and fungal intrusion.
Imagine. You are a young sapling growing in the shade of your mother. What better thing to do than grow sideways and out. It made so much sense when you were supple and able to perform tree yoga. The mother tree is now long gone and you are now surrounded by other young offspring with their own growing issues.
In your case, the structural damage has been done. What was an early ploy when you were young and limber to get more light is now a decided structural liability. Just imagine the weight of the trunk and crown pulling against the root system. A future “Norwester” will take its toll… It might be decades. It might be a century. It might be two centuries. But your fate is sealed. You will not live to be 500 years old like others around you with strait trunks.
Here we can see a tree strategy that works for the short term, but is catastrophic in the long term. Using the nutrients of a stump makes a lot of sense when you are a mere sapling. It makes no sense if you are planning to live for 500 years. Perhaps they weren’t… they’d heard the rumors of the axes and saws. Live for today! Tomorrow may never come. Then again… it might… but not for them.
OK… so trees most likely do not communicate with a vocabulary that we as humans might understand. Their communication is chemical and pheromone in nature. Let’s just say for a moment… that you are an acacia tree on the savannas of central Africa. Life is good. Plenty of sun and nutrients. All is good with the exception of those pesky giraffes… who happen to be quite fond of acacia leaves. Hmmm… So there you are minding your own sedentary business and a pesky giraffe comes along and starts to munch on your leaves. What to do… what to do… It takes a bit of time being in the slow lane, but you muster up a bitter tasting chemical and pump it to your leaves which gives them an undesirable bitter taste2. It is a taste that giraffes just can’t abide by. What else do you do, being the fine citizen of the acacia community that you are? Well… you also release a gas, ethylene, from your leaves. The gas wafts towards other trees downwind and warns them that marauding giraffes are eating leaves. What to those downwind trees do? They begin pumping the bitter chemical to their leaves. The gas (ethylene) is something they can “read”. They can’t see the giraffes or feel them chomping on their leaves, but they heard the message loud and clear. Giraffes are on the prowl. They are ready to fend them off.
Now this is all fine and dandy for all the acacias downwind. But the giraffes, being the erudite intellectuals that they are, are used to this chemical game and have an advantage over the trees. They are mobile. All they do is motate on their immensely long legs to trees upwind and keep on munching away, knowing that downwind all of the trees have been warned. So yeah, trees communicate. There are other communication networks between plants. Google the “Wood Wide Web” and read about mycorrhizal (fungal) networks.3,4,5,6 The fungal networks at work underground, symbiotically link plant life together to share nutrients and information. The mere production of bitter leaf chemicals and warning gas pale in comparison. Similar to bats who sometimes get a bad rap, not all fungus is bad…
Now this is a repetitive scene that appears to be quite common with the maple in this little forest:
A mother tree falls down or meets her demise via ax or saw… Seeds that had fallen close to what is now a stump become siblings that grow around the stump. There is plenty of light and Mother stump provides nourishment. The siblings provide nourishment to the stump. Yes Virginia, that happens. Other trees have been known to keep certain stumps alive for a long time sharing nutrients through their root systems1. Perhaps they were ancient well respected trees. We may never know, but we do know that it happens. In this case the sapling trees grow bound together, sibling rivalry tossed rambunctiously into the wind as it were. It seems to be a common enough strategy to suggest that it is a great way to get the most sunlight and keep the crowns of other tree species out of the light. Interesting stuff, whot?
And then there are the areas where trees have fallen creating space and light for the undergrowth to thrive:
Salmonberry, and digitalis purpurea fed by the increased sunlight and the abundant water. When the tree canopy opens up they thrive. When it closes they wait. Patiently. It will open up again. It might be a century, but it will open up again. It is timeless here… far removed from the hectic pace that mammals must keep to stay alive.
What’s in your nearby forest?
References / Further Reading 1. Wohlleben, Peter, "The Hidden Life of Trees, What they Feel, How They Communicate; Discoveries from a Secret World", David Suzuki Institute, Greystone Books, Vancouver / Berkeley, 2016 2. The Private Life of Plants, August 21, 1995, David Attenborough 3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mycorrhizal_network 4. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/05/wood-wide-web-underground-network-microbes-connects-trees-mapped-first-time 5. https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/the-secrets-of-the-wood-wide-web 6. https://www.positivenewsus.org/trees-communicate-with-each-other.html