“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues.”
Thus said the Lorax, making his own introduction to the rapacious Once-ler in the classic 1971 book named for its title character by Theodor Seuss Geisel – Dr. Seuss. It’s a book I suspect most readers of The Well-read Naturalist have read. Indeed, I suspect it’s the most widely read book on the subject of the importance of conservation ever published. Its message is simple, direct, and remarkably memorable – and so effectively presented that ever since its publication various groups, commonly those with ties to various extractive industries or assorted apologists for such, fearing its power to evoke action in its readers have sought to have it removed from libraries and classrooms across the United States.
People love The Lorax because it speaks to them. It is not a scientific book yet it communicates the essential concepts of environmental conservation as well as a few significant ideas from modern ecology as well, all in the form of a short book of rhyming verse generously illustrated with fanciful, colorful images. Yet it was not intended to be merely idle entertainment; Mr. Geisel most certainly had a message to convey – he simply chose to do so using his most effective method: imaginative poetry. Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees shares in this tradition. It too is not a scientific book, yet it communicates much about forest ecology and the life history of trees in its author’s most effective method: narrative story.
Mr. Wohlleben was trained in Germany as a forester and worked in such a capacity for over twenty years, dutifully carrying our his work as a civil servant for the German Forestry Commission. However over time, what he was discovering about trees and forests from his daily work with them began to conflict with his training, to the point that he quit his job with the Commission in order to put his discoveries about forest ecology into practice. He now oversees an environmentally friendly municipal woodland in the village of Huemmel. One might say that he put aside what he was taught about trees in order to act upon what he had learned from them.
In his writing, Mr. Wohlleben is conversational, genial, and remarkably relaxed. His explanations about the lives of trees are filled with stories and rich in anthropomorphisms, describing how they are born, live, and die. His readers meet “parent” and “child” trees, trees interacting with their “colleagues” and “friends,” trees communicating with one another to fend off threats and sharing resources for the overall health of the forest. Such metaphors are highly effective and easily understandable, but they have not been particularly well received by everyone.
The Hidden Life of Trees has been solidly criticized by a number of working scientists in the plant and soil sciences. Mr. Wohlleben has been accused – often quite accurately – of being selective with what he presents about his subject, of both understating and overstating what has been scientifically demonstrated regarding a number of aspects of forest ecology and tree biology. And if his was a book purporting to be a dispassionate scientific treatise about trees, I would be in strong support of such criticisms – but as it does not, I am not.
Mr. Wohlleben’s book incorporates scientifically discovered information in its narrative, but its purpose is not to communicate research results to professionals, or even to teach developing scientists theory or praxis. The Hidden Life of Trees is a book for a general reading audience, regardless of any individual reader’s level of scientific understanding, that seeks to present the idea that you, I, and most everyone else on the planet daily pass by forms of life that are so different from us in shape, size, biological processes, and particularly longevity that most of us perceive them more as inanimate objects than as living entities. As such, its author relies on two of humanity’s greatest communicative tools – imagery and metaphor – to make his subject more intelligible to his readers. If the reception of the book by the reading public is anything to judge by, this technique works remarkably well.
The question has rightly been asked if all scientific communication seeking to reach a non-scientist audience must be – shall we say – “compromised” by turning it into a story or relying on such unscientific techniques as anthropomorphism? By no means; but at the same time we must not allow ourselves to be so rigid that we reject works written for a general audience that seek to expand the awareness of scientific ideas among a general public increasingly unfamiliar with them just because said works employ literary structures or present only selected elements of the totality of the science?
Let’s face it; for all the discussions of “scicomm” and the importance of improving the overall understanding amongst the general public of even the most rudimentary aspects of science – including its most basic concepts and methods – it is difficult to see many positive results. Increasing tribalism, particularly in the United States, is making the words of experts suspect or even immediately discountable by perhaps as much as half the population. Avalanches of raw facts about global climate change, water pollution, over-use of pesticides and antibiotics, and a host of other subjects have effectively only been heard by the proverbial choir to which they were preached; the “other side” – if they even heard the sermon at all – remains unmoved, and perhaps becomes even further entrenched because they were unable to make any connection to either what was being said or the source from which it was coming.
In his superb 1910 novel Howards End, E. M. Forster famously wrote “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest. Live in fragments no longer.” This is precisely what Mr. Wohlleben has done in The Hidden Life of Trees; he has connected the “prose” (the science) and the “passion” (the receptiveness of human beings to stories) for the exaltation of the idea that we – each of us as individual human beings – can understand more about trees and forests than we previously knew, or indeed perhaps even thought we could know.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Hidden Life of Trees. I found it lively, interesting, and quite entertaining. As one often called upon to explain aspects of natural history, I also found Mr. Wohlleben’s style and narrative techniques very instructive. Indeed, I have already put to use some of the metaphors he employs in the book to explain the dynamics of forests, metaphors I might not have thought to otherwise use but which helped me greatly to convey to my listeners information that had I simply relied upon raw facts would have most likely been forgotten as soon as the conversation ended. They weren’t. As one of my partners in the conversation told me days afterward, he had been thinking about what I said regarding forests and it moved him to look deeper into the subject.
No higher praise can be given a book than that it elicited a behavior in a reader. Just as The Lorax moved so many to think about the importance of taking better care of our world by not being wasteful with all that it can provide, and in many of us, work for the well-being and conservation of its myriad forms of life, so Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees seeks – and I dare say succeeds – in causing its readers simply to take more notice of the world’s trees and the forests in which they are found, to understand that though trees might be quite different from us in so many ways they are still intelligible to us as living entities, and to begin to see the value trees have – not only intrinsically as forms of life with which we share the planet but also in the many ways they make our own lives better. It might reasonably be said that, given the dedication to his life’s work, and the care and effort he put into this book telling all who would read it what he has learned about trees, that Mr. Wohlleben “cares a whole awful lot.” Perhaps if enough people are moved to learn more about trees as a result of what he has written, things will indeed eventually begin to “get better.” They will.
Author: Peter Wohlleben, translated from the original German by Jane Billinghurst, English forward by Tim Flannery
Pages: 288 pp.
Published: September 2016
In accordance with Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR Part 255, it is disclosed that the copy of the book read in order to produce this review was provided gratis to the reviewer by the publisher.