The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate
Greystone Books, 2015
After breezing through a thoroughly delightful book, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, I can’t help but hear new voices in the backyard. I’ve always been a romantic about trees, so I was predisposed to swallow whole Wohlleben’s sense of tree beings. Happily, what you find in his book also just makes sense, illuminating the grey areas of forest ecology. How do trees know when to wake up in the spring? Why do you feel better after a walk in the woods? How do trees adapt to change? Do trees communicate with each other? And how? Do trees think? Feel? Care for each other? Remember?
These are not questions that we feel comfortable asking about life-forms that do not move about and make noise, that don’t interact with the world in ways we understand, that live so slowly that humans simply can’t observe them in real time. We discount a tree’s interiority because we can’t easily quantify it, can hardly perceive it. We see objects not beings.
However, I tend to see beings. I’ve been a gardener all my life. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t go out and dabble in the dirt. Usually in utter amazement. The plants I tend are the fast-living cousins of trees, but nevertheless obscure and subtle and completely fascinating. I’ve always felt an affinity with these green things. I freely admit that I talk with plants. With trees the voices are slow and faint, sometimes I’m not sure of the language, but the words are deep and resonant. I feel them. Not in a facile tree-hugger fashion, but as I feel the emotions of other humans even when they are silent.
I am glad to have found someone else who admits to this sort of thing in Wohlleben — a high-functioning adult, no less. I don’t have to be quite so self-conscious. And now maybe I can tell some of the stories I’ve learned in my backyard, beginning with our apple tree.
This magnificent tree lives on the edge of the back lawn at the south edge of our border woodlot. The apple tree is at least thirty feet tall and wide. Its trunk is about five feet in diameter. I’d guess the tree is as old as our house — around 250 years old. I suspect it’s one of the things the Kings brought with them from the Massachusetts coast in their mid-18th century relocation to New Ipswich.
Deer have browsed away the apple tree’s lower branches in a level plane about six feet off the ground so that the tree looks like an umbrella. There is a record of obsessive attention and benign neglect in the pruning. The oldest branches are few in number and many times thicker than the hundreds of offshoots, likely because these fat limbs were cleared of all growth over many decades to encourage fruiting. More recently watersprouts have shot up and twisted twigs hang down from the elder branches, making for an orchardist’s nightmare. But the tree doesn’t seem to be suffering from the mess. It was smothered in blossom this spring and then loaded with small red apples. Not the best flavor to my palate and rather wormy, but the backyard wildlife loved them — maybe specifically because of the worms.
The tree’s defining feature, however, is the enormous hollow in its trunk. This cavity in the heartwood extends upwards about a foot above the hole. After reading The Hidden Life of Trees I can guess how this gaping hole formed. There was likely an initial probing from a sapsucker or woodpecker. The latter seems likely from the scale of the hole though it is too low to the ground to have been a home. Perhaps the initial hole bored down behind a cleft of a branch that fell off. Still it doesn’t seem to be that secure, so that’s a bit unclear. However, what followed was almost certainly fungal infection that rotted the wood into mush. From the bulging edges of the hole, I can guess that the tree tried desperately to heal itself. But it couldn’t close the hole in time to keep its core intact.
Once it accepted its new look, the apple tree seems to have suffered no more from the hole. Likely, the pruning has been more detrimental; watersprouts are always a sign that a tree is upset. But today the tree is sturdy and healthy, stronger than the pines and spruces that surround it — and which drop branches at the slightest puff of air and thinnest veneer of ice. The apple tree shrugs off all weather. True, it’s in a protected spot, but the mulberry behind the apple tree is similarly sheltered and it too is a disaster. So I think the apple is doing better than most of the trees in the yard.
Now, what else can I say about this tree? It is delightful to sit on the bench underneath it. It’s shady but not too cool and bugs seem to avoid that area. There is always a fresh sensation somewhat beneath actual scent, but present all the same. And the tree feels content. Smug even. He is proud of his life. And “he” is beyond doubt the proper pronoun, mother though he may be to many generations. I don’t doubt I’m anthropomorphizing because that’s what humans do to understand the world, make it like our familiar selves. But still, it doesn’t feel like such a stretch of the imagination to see a proud old man in that tree. Or something very like anyway.
I enjoy his company. I think he tolerates me well enough. I’m trying to make his world a bit more comfortable. In any case, he’ll carry on back there with the spruces and pines for decades to come. With a bit of luck, he’ll probably outlast this house. He’s certainly going to be here long after I’m gone. The romantic in me would like to think he’ll carry the memory of our brief time together into that future I’ll not see. I think Wohlleben might be saying that an apple tree might just do that.
© Elizabeth Anker 2021