A life of trees sometimes hidden by lush verdant text

The review might have appeared a lot faster, if there wasn’t a problem with the language in Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees.

The book is a popularisation of the Wood-Wide Web, the idea that trees in a forest can communicate through a network of mycorrhizal fungi.

Wohlleben runs with this idea and explores this notion of tree society and relationships. A lot of the time this approach works well. Wohlleben is able to discuss the life cycle of trees by showing how they relate to the established trees around them and how the forest is renewed as it grows. A lot of the time I thought the book was engaging. Quite often I found the text a bit too rich, like the pop-science equivalent of a second helping of Death by Chocolate. And sometimes the text held something jarring, like something solid in a mouthful of what you were assured was Death by Chocolate.

Richard Grant’s article in the March 2018 Smithsonian Magazine explains the problem:

Wohlleben’s first priority is to not be boring, so he uses emotional storytelling techniques. His trees cry out with thirst, they panic and gamble and mourn. They talk, suckle and make mischief. If these words were framed in quotation marks, to indicate a stretchy metaphorical meaning, he would probably escape most of the criticism. But Wohlleben doesn’t bother with quotation makes, because that would break the spell of his prose.

The florid narration caused me a problem when Wohlleben described how fungi can hollow out trees as they rot, while leaving them stable. “[W]e shouldn’t feel sorry for a rotten tree, and it doesn’t necessarily feel pain either, because heartwood is no longer active and usually no longer contains any living cells.” I’d misread this as suggesting that ‘pain’ signals go through the centre of the plant. Given that signals travel in a variety of ways including outside the plant as volatile chemicals this puzzled me. Picking out the detail while rereading a section means wading through quite a bit of purple prose.

However, most people wanting detail aren’t likely to be reading this book anyway. It’s worth bearing in mind who this book is written for, because Wohlleben clearly had a specific target audience in mind. I get the impression is this a book for people who aren’t that interested in plants or ecology. This is more nature appreciation as entertainment. I don’t mean that in a snide or spiky sense. This is a book that people read for pleasure, not as students sitting exams, and Wohlleben writes with that in mind. In contrast, some ‘popular’ science books I’ve read could have been subtitled “Things I wish my students would know before they start the course I teach.”

The Hidden Life of TreesIn contrast, what are readers likely to have learned from this book six months after they put it down? I think there’s a fair chance they’ll remember fungi in the soil play an important part of a forest’s wellbeing, and maybe that logging a forest and replacing the trees with saplings isn’t exactly a one-for-one swap. Crucially, I think that the readers are also likely to appreciate that there are hidden complexities in forest management, even if they’re fuzzy on what those complexities are. This feeling, rather than understanding, might make them a more sympathetic audience to appeals for action where it’s backed by science.

For that reason, it’s not a book I’d recommend to regular Botany One readers, at least not to learn about trees. I’m assuming regular visitors already have an interest in plant sciences. However, if you have a friend that can’t see why Botany is so much work, or if you want an example of emotive appeals in science writing instead of just-the-facts it’s worth looking at.

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