Some thoughts on reading Peter Wohlleben's book, 'The Hidden Life of Trees'...
When I read about the complexity of an ancient forest, the ‘wood wide web’ which supports every tree within the woodland, I fear for our ignorance in the face of this beauty. We are learning that every tree in a healthy forest is interconnected by a vast network of roots and fungi and chemical signals, warning each other of predators, sharing food, respecting each other’s hard won space, leaning on each other, creating a sheltered, humid environment which benefits all. If one tree dies, this affects the environment in which its neighbours grow, altering that finely tuned balance. It has been observed that trees which are planted by humans, not growing from seed, have damaged root systems and are unable to benefit from the support of their peers, living a life of isolation, deprived of community. Most modern day humans know what that feels like, though we may have little conscious memory of what we have lost.
It goes further than this. Apparently, trees can learn, adapt and may even make ultrasonic cries of distress in times of drought. Are their cries just physiological responses to the stress, tissues distorting in the strain? Or are these magnificent beings more sentient than we, with our mechanistic, exploitative mindsets, have wanted to believe? They live so slowly, sending electrical messages through their bodies which travel at a measured rate of 3m/second. Maybe they are more like us than we realise, just living in a lane that is slower than we can imagine.
All those reports of how nature heals and restores... could it be that we are able at some deep intuitive level to tune into the magic of a forest community, of landscape that is healthy and connected and co-operative? We were once part of this wood wide web, it’s where we came from, and our artificial separation is, in evolutionary terms, just a heartbeat. At some level, it’s what we yearn for, what we mourn, even while we smile and say we’re fine and think about our pensions and pour another drink. John Muir said ‘when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything in the universe’. Yet we have tried to set ourselves as a species apart from all of nature, and then further separated ourselves into our atomised societies, only glimpsing our true natures in the heady tribalism of concert goers, ravers or cheering football fans.
A little while ago, I visited some areas in Scotland where rewilding is being carried out. It’s a concept that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, when I first read about it. Yes! Bring it on! On this trip, I had the experience of walking in a wild Scottish landscape, rugged, empty, elemental. Feeling that I should be rejoicing in its beauty, yet knowing that my heart wasn’t in it. And then, I crossed a deer fence, and although the only difference was control of grazing, suddenly the land felt alive. The vegetation was deeper and spongy, varied in species and structure. In my memory the light changed, but maybe it was something changing within me. The first landscape might as well have been a city street, for all that it fed my soul. In the second I felt the life of the land, and I felt nurtured by being within it. It felt rich, it felt right. Intellectually, I knew that this landscape purified the waters feeding the loch that the otters played in, that trees could set seed and grow here for the pine marten and the wildcat, that insects bred here that nourished the flycatchers, the summer house martins, the warblers and larks. But it was more than intellectual, and reading about the interconnectedness of plant communities I wonder if we actually recognise and respond at a very deep subconscious level to this ‘rightness’ more that we realise.
With this in mind, I wonder at the rewilders’ well meaning tree planting programmes. Are we reinstating a PC version of the serried ranks of forestry conifers, trees which have no ties of loyalty or kinship to each other or to the land into which they are introduced? Will it take generations before they are able to start to weave their underground enchantment, indeed will it ever happen? Would we do better to simply fence out the sheep and the deer and let nature take its course, let the grass grow coarse and tussocky, let the birds drop seeds of bramble and rowan, and the wind blow the birch, let the ancient wisdom of nature heal the land, subtly, slowly, powerfully? Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: ‘since country is so tender/ to touch... even where we mean/ to mend her we end her’. How little we really understand about nature. It beggars belief that planners and ecologists working for developers can talk about ‘mitigating’ the loss of ancient woodlands by replanting or transplanting - as if we could make a family by bringing random strangers together. None of this is to belittle the efforts of the rewilding movement – its heart is very much in the right place, and I’m sure that in 50 years’ time there will be beautiful young woods in many places where previously there were (to borrow George Monbiot’s description) sheepwrecked deserts. I just wonder whether our understanding is so inadequate that we may seek to create a semblance of a living landscape, never realising that a whole dimension is missing, like the two dimensional flats I once saw of a wild west street facade, propped up among the dust and thorns for long departed actors and film crew.
Nature is struggling, more and more, we can be sure of that. We are, despite our efforts to separate ourselves, part of nature. Could it be that at some deep level, we sense the trees’ cries of distress, and resonate in sympathy? And how many other species broadcast their pain on wavelengths we try to block out? We go about our lives, trying to screen out nature’s cries, and yet we can never fully separate ourselves from her suffering. We desperately need to find ways to be at peace with nature, to live respectfully within a community of living things. Nature’s pain is our pain, at some level. But also available to us, if we care to tune in, is the bliss of being part of a natural community which is still, in places at least, in balance and harmony. We can take time to sit with our back against an old tree, the sunlight filtering through the leaves, listening to birdsong, wind, rustling foliage, and maybe... maybe we can hear another heartbeat, very slow... and know that we are not alone.