The Hidden Life of Trees


Trees are the silent guardians of our society; they’ve given us life, supported our livelihood and become deeply settled within our culture. From the ancient stories to the modern-day industry, we’ve fed on the fruits that trees have given to us.

But it appears that our watchful protectors are not as speechless as they seem. We’re learning now that trees are far more similar to humans than their stillness has led us to believe. They can communicate with each other using a silent but sophisticated language, they are being found to be quite social and have even developed methods to warn others about the dangers in the wild.

Forester Peter Wohlleben’s career began with the responsibility of ensuring a high output of lumber from the mountainous forests of Eifel in Germany. He too admits in carrying the natural mask: “We have been looking at nature for the last 100 years like [it is] a machine.”

His first discovery came in a routine checkup of a cluster of beech trees in his forest. He’d passed by a circular patch of mossy stones that he’d seen numerous times before - but this time he felt drawn to them. Bending to look at them more closely he discovered that they weren’t stones at all:

"The stones were an unusual shape: they were gently curved with hollowed-out areas. Carefully, I lifted the moss on one of the stones. What I found underneath was tree bark. So, these were not stones, after all, but old wood. I was surprised at how hard the “stone” was, because it usually takes only a few years for beechwood lying on damp ground to decompose. But what surprised me most was that I couldn’t lift the wood. It was obviously attached to the ground in some way. I took out my pocketknife and carefully scraped away some of the bark until I got down to a greenish layer. Green? This color is found only in chlorophyll, which makes new leaves green; reserves of chlorophyll are also stored in the trunks of living trees. That could mean only one thing: this piece of wood was still alive! I suddenly noticed that the remaining “stones” formed a distinct pattern: they were arranged in a circle with a diameter of about 5 feet. What I had stumbled upon were the gnarled remains of an enormous ancient tree stump. All that was left were vestiges of the outermost edge. The interior had completely rotted into humus long ago — a clear indication that the tree must have been felled at least four or five hundred years earlier.”

Trees need leaves to survive - how was this stump still receiving the nutrients it needed to survive? Wohlleben was on to an exciting and new frontier of the biological world. It was found that neighbouring trees intertwine their roots by growing a fungal network - similar to an extended nervous system - that Wohlleben dubbed this the “woodwide web”. Trees are able to send electrical impulses to communicate with each other… it seems as if we’re getting one step closer to the movie Avatar becoming a reality.

But if that wasn’t enough, we learn that trees are even able to tell the difference between those of another species, and decide to help who they choose to be friend and family. But why would trees want to help their neighbours, when in a dense canopy of leaves it’s the tallest tree that wins the right to the sun? Wohlleben thinks aloud:

“Why are trees such social beings? Why do they share food with their own species and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors? The reasons are the same as for human communities: there are advantages to working together. A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old. To get to this point, the community must remain intact no matter what. If every tree were looking out only for itself, then quite a few of them would never reach old age. Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy, which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer.

Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover. Next time, perhaps it will be the other way round, and the supporting tree might be the one in need of assistance.

[…]

A tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it.”

It’s easy to see the similarities between human and tree society. Just as humans are stronger in groups, so too are our watchful protectors - and according to Wohlleben the proof is in the pudding. Species like beeches and oaks tend to treat each other like family and are capable of forming large forests that last for thousands of years. Sometimes these species will even harass invading tree species to the point where they drive them out. By contrast, willows and birches prefer living in isolation - and as a result they might only live up to 100 years old. 

What’s even more interesting is that some trees can interact with their neighbouring brothers as well as other animals without roots. The beautiful Acacia tree in the savannas of Africa, has developed incredible olfactory warning systems. Wohlleben narrates: 

“The giraffes 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 a crisis 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.”

Wohlleben has written a wondrous book on his journey through these discoveries called “The Hidden Life of Trees” - I highly recommend it. Trees certainly are magnificent - in shape, structure, and biological complexity. In the search for non-human consciousness, trees may cause us to form a new perspective of how we view life.

Since the dawn of time, forestry has been a large part of human society and the wood we use from trees has allowed us to feed ourselves and provide us shelter. Every home we live in is made from the lumber of the trees on our planet. In light of these new developments, I hope the direction the industry takes is to view trees not just as a source of lumber. Each tree is but a small part of an evolving forest-consciousness.

I have always found wood to be one of the most useful materials on this planet - and we will always strive to show off its beauty in our watches. At the same time, we must all do our part to make sure that we’re giving back at least as much as we’re taking - and because of this, we plant 10 trees for every watch we make!


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