The Hidden Life Of Trees

Recently, I finished reading Peter Wohlleben's excellent The Hidden Life of Trees. If you haven't read it yet, I cannot recommend it enough. It is informative, thought-provoking and can make you see the world in a whole new light. The central premise of the work is that plants and especially trees are an underrated and underappreciated lifeform who, as the author puts it, live their lives in the slow lane.

If Peter Wohlleben is to be believed, then trees can think, talk, smell, taste, hear and see in their own peculiar way. This is a truly astounding revelation if you viewed trees as merely part of the scenery before. While his work is clearly that of a talented layman, I will admit to being blown away. His passion for the forests that he manages in Southern Germany shines through on every page, and if even half of what he describes is backed by scientific investigations (which he claims but I have not checked), it is sufficient to force us to look at the myriad of plants around us in a new light.

The central premise of The Hidden Life of Trees is that trees are just beings that live life on a different timescale and in an alien way to shorter-lived animals such as ourselves. Plants produce their food internally from nutrients drawn from the world around them, while animals are incapable of this and must convert their food from the remains of other organic lifeforms (plant or animal). This fundamental difference in the unalterable requirements of life informs much of the difference between the kingdoms. Yet, life is still a struggle at its core no matter if you are a plant or an animal. Wohlleben demonstrates that just like animals, trees struggle and fight for life.

Wohlleben tells us that trees respond to threats by changing their behaviours. They conserve water if it is scarce, drop their leaves earlier if they have been caught out by frosts and produce toxic compounds to ward off attacks by insects and animals. Some trees even work together to assist each other's survival. Parent trees nourish the juveniles at their feet, while neighbouring trees share resources with sick or injured trees. When a threat is observed, the trees communicate to their neighbours through fungal networks by audible signals and by scent.

In short, while they are alien to us, Wohlleben makes a compelling case that trees are also recognisably beings like us. Possessed perhaps of an incomprehensible form of consciousness and living very different lives to us. Yet recognisably alive, endowed with personal agency and driven by the same reproductive purpose as every other being. Of course, that plants are living beings is not news in Codist Philosophy.

We have long proffered the view that plants, animals, fungi and even protozoa are equivalent at the universal level. Each individual being's survival contributes to the continuance of life overall and has an equal moral claim to existence. However, unlike what Wohlleben seems to suggest, this does not lead to any particular moral obligation to other beings. Wohlleben indicates that as we begin to understand trees and their particular form of consciousness better, we will—or at least should—provide them with personal rights analogous to that provided to animals. His argument makes sense, and it is likely that just as we now see people demanding rights for insects and other animals, in time, we will see people campaigning for the rights of plants.

Yet, for us, the idea of rights in general and rights for non-sentient beings, in particular, misunderstands the nature of existence. The rights-based argument argues that the existence of certain beings should be preserved because they have an inherent right to life. Yet inevitably, this argument about the right of one being to live conflicts with the rights of other beings. We will talk more about this in another article, but for now, it is sufficient to say that while we agree with Wohlleben's view that trees and other plants are more complex than they are often given credit for, we disagree with his view that this should give them more rights.

In conclusion, Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read that is well worth the investment of your time. Wohlleben brings to his tale a lifetime of experience in the forests of his native Germany. His love and passion for the forest shines through on every page. For myself, I could not help but be infected with the sense of wonder in which he sees the world around him. What's more, I have found myself looking at the trees and wondering at their histories and their alien experiences. There is a lot to recommend this book for the seeker of knowledge, yet even for those completely uninterested in the forest, I'd still recommend this book as it just makes the world a little bit more wondrous.

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