Trees dominate the world’s the oldest living organisms. Since the dawn of our species, they have been our silent companions, permeating our most enduring tales and never ceasing to inspire fantastical cosmogonies. Hermann Hesse called them “the most penetrating of preachers.” A forgotten seventeenth-century English gardener wrote of how they “speak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons.”
But trees might be among our lushest metaphors and sensemaking frameworks for knowledge precisely because the richness of what they say is more than metaphorical — they speak a sophisticated silent language, communicating complex information via smell, taste, and electrical impulses. This fascinating secret world of signals is what German forester Peter Wohlleben explores in The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate (public library).
Wohlleben chronicles what his own experience of managing a forest in the Eifel mountains in Germany has taught him about the astonishing language of trees and how trailblazing arboreal research from scientists around the world reveals “the role forests play in making our world the kind of place where we want to live.” As we’re only just beginning to understand nonhuman consciousnesses, what emerges from Wohlleben’s revelatory reframing of our oldest companions is an invitation to see anew what we have spent eons taking for granted and, in this act of seeing, to care more deeply about these remarkable beings that make life on this planet we call home not only infinitely more pleasurable, but possible at all.
But Wohlleben’s own career began at the opposite end of the caring spectrum. As a forester tasked with optimizing the forest’s output for the lumber industry, he self-admittedly “knew about as much about the hidden life of trees as a butcher knows about the emotional life of animals.” He experienced the consequence of what happens whenever we turn something alive, be it a creature or a work of art, into a commodity — the commercial focus of his job warped how he looked at trees.
Then, about twenty years ago, everything changed when he began organizing survival training and log-cabin tours for tourists in his forest. As they marveled at the majestic trees, the enchanted curiosity of their gaze reawakened his own and his childhood love of nature was rekindled. Around the same time, scientists began conducting research in his forest. Soon, every day became colored with wonderment and the thrill of discovery — no longer able to see trees as a currency, he instead saw them as the priceless living wonders that they are. He recounts:
Life as a forester became exciting once again. Every day in the forest was a day of discovery. This led me to unusual ways of managing the forest. When you know that trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you can no longer just chop them down and disrupt their lives with large machines.
The revelation came to him in flashes, the most eye-opening of which happened on one of his regular walks through a reserve of old beech tree in his forest. Passing by a patch of odd mossy stones he had seen many times before, he was suddenly seized with a new awareness of their strangeness. When he bent down to examine them, he made an astonishing discovery:
The stones were an unusual shape: they were gently curved with hollowed-out areas. Carefully, I lifted the moss on one of the stones. What I found underneath was tree bark. So, these were not stones, after all, but old wood. I was surprised at how hard the “stone” was, because it usually takes only a few years for beechwood lying on damp ground to decompose. But what surprised me most was that I couldn’t lift the wood. It was obviously attached to the ground in some way. I took out my pocketknife and carefully scraped away some of the bark until I got down to a greenish layer. Green? This color is found only in chlorophyll, which makes new leaves green; reserves of chlorophyll are also stored in the trunks of living trees. That could mean only one thing: this piece of wood was still alive! I suddenly noticed that the remaining “stones” formed a distinct pattern: they were arranged in a circle with a diameter of about 5 feet. What I had stumbled upon were the gnarled remains of an enormous ancient tree stump. All that was left were vestiges of the outermost edge. The interior had completely rotted into humus long ago — a clear indication that the tree must have been felled at least four or five hundred years earlier.
How can a tree cut down centuries ago could still be alive? Without leaves, a tree is unable to perform photosynthesis, which is how it converts sunlight into sugar for sustenance. The ancient tree was clearly receiving nutrients in some other way — for hundreds of years.
Beneath the mystery lay a fascinating frontier of scientific research, which would eventually reveal that this tree was not unique in its assisted living. Neighboring trees, scientists found, help each other through their root systems — either directly, by intertwining their roots, or indirectly, by growing fungal networks around the roots that serve as a sort of extended nervous system connecting separate trees. If this weren’t remarkable enough, these arboreal mutualities are even more complex — trees appear able to distinguish their own roots from those of other species and even of their own relatives.
Wohlleben ponders this astonishing sociality of trees, abounding with wisdom about what makes strong human communities and societies:
Why are trees such social beings? Why do they share food with their own species and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors? The reasons are the same as for human communities: there are advantages to working together. A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old. To get to this point, the community must remain intact no matter what. If every tree were looking out only for itself, then quite a few of them would never reach old age. Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy, which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer.
Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover. Next time, perhaps it will be the other way round, and the supporting tree might be the one in need of assistance.
A tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it.
One can’t help but wonder whether trees are so much better equipped at this mutual care than we are because of the different time-scales on which our respective existences play out. Is some of our inability to see this bigger picture of shared sustenance in human communities a function of our biological short-sightedness? Are organisms who live on different time scales better able to act in accordance with this grander scheme of things in a universe that is deeply interconnected?
To be sure, even trees are discriminating in their kinship, which they extend in varying degrees. Wohlleben explains:
Every tree is a member of this community, but there are different levels of membership. For example, most stumps rot away into humus and disappear within a couple of hundred years (which is not very long for a tree). Only a few individuals are kept alive over the centuries… What’s the difference? Do tree societies have second-class citizens just like human societies? It seems they do, though the idea of “class” doesn’t quite fit. It is rather the degree of connection — or maybe even affection — that decides how helpful a tree’s colleagues will be.
These relationships, Wohlleben points out, are encoded in the forest canopy and visible to anyone who simply looks up:
The average tree grows its branches out until it encounters the branch tips of a neighboring tree of the same height. It doesn’t grow any wider because the air and better light in this space are already taken. However, it heavily reinforces the branches it has extended, so you get the impression that there’s quite a shoving match going on up there. But a pair of true friends is careful right from the outset not to grow overly thick branches in each other’s direction. The trees don’t want to take anything away from each other, and so they develop sturdy branches only at the outer edges of their crowns, that is to say, only in the direction of “non-friends.” Such partners are often so tightly connected at the roots that sometimes they even die together.
But trees don’t interact with one another in isolation from the rest of the ecosystem. The substance of their communication, in fact, is often about and even to other species. Wohlleben describes their particularly remarkable olfactory warning system:
Four decades ago, scientists noticed something on the African savannah. The giraffes there were feeding on umbrella thorn acacias, and the trees didn’t like this one bit. It took the acacias mere minutes to start pumping toxic substances into their leaves to rid themselves of the large herbivores. The giraffes got the message and moved on to other trees in the vicinity. But did they move on to trees close by? No, for the time being, they walked right by a few trees and resumed their meal only when they had moved about 100 yards away.
The reason for this behavior is astonishing. The acacia trees that were being eaten gave off a warning gas (specifically, ethylene) that signaled to neighboring trees of the same species that a crisis was at hand. Right away, all the forewarned trees also pumped toxins into their leaves to prepare themselves. The giraffes were wise to this game and therefore moved farther away to a part of the savannah where they could find trees that were oblivious to what was going on. Or else they moved upwind. For the scent messages are carried to nearby trees on the breeze, and if the animals walked upwind, they could find acacias close by that had no idea the giraffes were there.
Because trees operate on time scales dramatically more extended than our own, they operate far more slowly than we do — their electrical impulses crawl at the speed of a third of an inch per second. Wohlleben writes:
Beeches, spruce, and oaks all register pain as soon as some creature starts nibbling on them. When a caterpillar takes a hearty bite out of a leaf, the tissue around the site of the damage changes. In addition, the leaf tissue sends out electrical signals, just as human tissue does when it is hurt. However, the signal is not transmitted in milliseconds, as human signals are; instead, the plant signal travels at the slow speed of a third of an inch per minute. Accordingly, it takes an hour or so before defensive compounds reach the leaves to spoil the pest’s meal. Trees live their lives in the really slow lane, even when they are in danger. But this slow tempo doesn’t mean that a tree is not on top of what is happening in different parts of its structure. If the roots find themselves in trouble, this information is broadcast throughout the tree, which can trigger the leaves to release scent compounds. And not just any old scent compounds, but compounds that are specifically formulated for the task at hand.
The upside of this incapacity for speed is that there is no need for blanket alarmism — the recompense of trees’ inherent slowness is an extreme precision of signal. In addition to smell, they also use taste — each species produces a different kind of “saliva,” which can be infused with different pheromones targeted at warding off a specific predator.
Wohlleben illustrates the centrality of trees in Earth’s ecosystem with a story about Yellowstone National Park that demonstrates “how our appreciation for trees affects the way we interact with the world around us”:
It all starts with the wolves. Wolves disappeared from Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, in the 1920s. When they left, the entire ecosystem changed. Elk herds in the park increased their numbers and began to make quite a meal of the aspens, willows, and cottonwoods that lined the streams. Vegetation declined and animals that depended on the trees left. The wolves were absent for seventy years. When they returned, the elks’ languorous browsing days were over. As the wolf packs kept the herds on the move, browsing diminished, and the trees sprang back. The roots of cottonwoods and willows once again stabilized stream banks and slowed the flow of water. This, in turn, created space for animals such as beavers to return. These industrious builders could now find the materials they needed to construct their lodges and raise their families. The animals that depended on the riparian meadows came back, as well. The wolves turned out to be better stewards of the land than people, creating conditions that allowed the trees to grow and exert their influence on the landscape.
This interconnectedness isn’t limited to regional ecosystems. Wohlleben cites the work of Japanese marine chemist Katsuhiko Matsunaga, who discovered that trees falling into a river can change the acidity of the water and thus stimulate the growth of plankton — the elemental and most significant building block of the entire food chain, on which our own sustenance depends.
In the remainder of The Hidden Life of Trees, Wohlleben goes on to explore such fascinating aspects of arboreal communication as how trees pass wisdom down to the next generation through their seeds, what makes them live so long, and how forests handle immigrants. Complement it with this wonderful illustrated atlas of the world’s strangest trees and an 800-year visual history of trees as symbolic diagrams.
Text BY MARIA POPOVA – originally written/published on the excellent brainpickings.org.
I marched today because as a woman a sister, a mother, a human being, my heart is distraught, grieved, conflicted and appalled at the current state of the world. Trump’s bigotry, xenophobia and sexism is deeply concerning and in direct conflict to the values I believe in. i will use my voice as an advocate for change amidst a climate of hate, indifference, and denial. i will take to the streets and stand alongside the marginalized, and be a voice of love, hope, peace and justice. today was astounding. hundreds of thousands of men, women and children peacefully protesting, walking these roads together to defend dignity. revolution isn’t just a part of our history, it’s happening now. come be a part of it. #womensmarch
Why is that seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years have accelerated so dramatically? 10 or 20 years ago, it felt everything was long, lasting, sometimes even boring….I feel there was time for things, in fact, if I wanted I had time for everything. Now, I (and everyone around me) finds it hard to have any time for any thing.
Now the days are too short; 24 hours feel like 12. The week just rushes past me – and each Friday, when we usually have a family evening when I am baking pizza and we watch some nice programme on TV with Alfie, it feels as if the week have just started. I have been talking to her exactly about this cause in my mind, I thought it was just an illusion, that time is the same but as a consequence of me ageing and becoming older, I have this weird feeling. No, She says the same. Time goes so fast. She would love to have more time in the morning before school, more time in the evening after school, more time to play with friends who come and are here for 5 or 5 hours and then it is not enough anyhow….more time to prepare Christmas, or more time for any holidays!
Incredible. So, time was much slower before. How come?
I have memories of long, long days and of even longer weeks that felt as if they would never end. And I was bored. I could spend hours long on the balcony thinking, dreaming…I remember those moments so well.
But now? With our way of life, with information, with communication, with connection – cyber connections and other – and social media makes life rush past us. I am wondering if this has a scientific explanation? Can this be understood and proven in some concrete/mathematical way? As I am trying to understand and to research and found this article on wikipedia about “time dilation due to relative velocity”. Beautifully poetic isn´t it? I love the way the formula for determining time dilation in special relativity looks like – though of course, like you- I dont understand any of it:
where Δt is the time interval between two co-local events (i.e. happening at the same place) for an observer in some inertial frame (e.g. ticks on his clock), known as the proper time, Δt′ is the time interval between those same events, as measured by another observer, inertially moving with velocity v with respect to the former observer, v is the relative velocity between the observer and the moving clock, c is the speed of light.
Of course this has little to do with our feeling of intensity and fast forward movement of our lives. But I thought it would be fun to discover some kind of a proof, even crazy, even romantic. Also because, I recently became 50 years old and I feel like 40! And my friends who are 40 feel like 30! This could also another proof isn´t it?
When someone is 80 years old, everyone would assume they are at the end of their life. Everyone would assume that they would not have dreams or plans for the future. But today, when talking to my father – who in January became 80 years old – I realised this is not always the case. At least with Alexandre Canellis it is not true. He obviously has plans. I did not expect it but next year in June 2017, he is going to move again. This time, back from Greece (where he moved 10-12 years ago), he is planning to go back to France. Not in Paris. He checked it out and wants to move to La Rochelle. Amazing? He does not know anyone there. He does not want to go to any residency for old people. He likes to be alone. He is the “bear” of the family!
I was amazed to hear again his plans about how/where he wants to be buried. Every year or so, I am sent a little note describing very precise procedures and wishes for burial. Some years ago he wanted to be cremated. Since this is not allowed in Greece, he went to some burial office and made some formal agreements. Like in a movie: we would (one of his daughters) drive with his coffin in Bulgaria where the cremation would be done and then we would come back with the ashes!!! He even tried to pay everything in advance, but the guys did not accept that (fortunately). Now the plan has changed. He is going back to France. So he will take care of the family “space” his parents has bought (the concession for 100 years) in the Père-Lachaise Cemetery (next to Jim Morrison and other very famous people!). He says it was bought in 1947 so we have it until 2047. He even asked me if I would be interested. He asked me if I had the intention to stay in Norway for ever. Did he not understand I created my family here? I did not really respond. I did not really understand to be honest.
He is something….
Now, more than ever, we need to spark a global conversation on the state of peace and to engage all members of society with what we can do to create a more peaceful world.
When you ask someone what peace is, they’ll often tell you what it is not. Peace is a notoriously difficult concept to define, yet it is essential that we do so. Peace is more than just the absence of conflict or war. Peace is a multidimensional concept that can be viewed through many lenses.
And one of them, the one we propose here is the debate, the curiosity, the knowledge and the gathering around a fabulous dinner.
Conflict Kitchen (1) is a new project aiming to build consciousness around the issues of conflict & peace while serving cuisines of different countries in conflict (2) in a temporary “pop-up” restaurant in Moss.
This project is an educational series of events aimed at a large target public, inviting all to challenge their own personal knowledge to a different level and create an innovative understanding of the identity in our world.
Barnas Fredsverden works on disseminating playful activities for youth and children to understand/prevent conflicts and promote peace building (3) actions. They are the first direct recipients of our programmes; but through this programme, we wish to extend our scope and to address the circles around youth/children – their family, their teachers, and the other actors of society so as to widen our perspectives and sharpen our objectives.
Our aim through Conflict Kitchen is to get people more engaged, learn about conflict from another perspective, sit at the same table with complete strangers and discuss with them, give them food for thought and encourage them to learn/debate/share and possibly shape their opinion while experiencing a complete sensory delight of all senses.
(1) CF is inspired by a restaurant of the same name in the United States, which serves only food from countries the US is in conflict with. The festival of politics in the UK has also initiated a series of dinners on the same model.
(2) What is a country in conflict? We will base ourselves on the definition of Wallensteen & Sollenberg (1997, p. 354) who define an armed conflict as a ‘contested incompatibility, which concerns government and/or territory where the use of armed force between two parties, of which at least one is the government of a state, results in at least 25 battle-related deaths’.
(3) Peacebuilding is an important supplement to peacemaking processes and peacekeeping operations. Peacebuilding covers a broad range of measures implemented in the context of emerging, current or post-conflict situations for the deliberate and explicit purpose of promoting lasting and sustainable peace. Many of the elements of peacebuilding are the same as those of development co-operation with countries that are not affected by conflict, but the context and purpose are different and require an extra-sensitive approach as to what should be done and how it should be done. (MFA, 2004. Summary: Peacebuilding – a development perspective. Strategic Framework.)
Kongsvinger is a small town in Eastern Norway, close to Sweden, with a small dedicated group working in kindergarten and elementary schools to convey conflict and social skills to children from 1 year old to 12. Recently, they presented their fabulous experience for a very grateful audience of children, teachers and parents.
On his blog, Johan Galtung* describe some situation to better portray and understand his work: Enters a teddy-bear, a key ‘person’ in the conflict scene. Child 1 grabs the bear beats Child 2 shouting, “He is mine!” The teacher reports: “Of course I could scold, saying beating is not allowed. But that is not good enough.” So I said, “He is neither his nor yours, but the kindergarten’s. You wanted to hug him? OK, but no beating. You could have asked”. Next time that would be the chosen means for the “bear in my arms” goal. Another child had left some cute stuffed animals on the bathroom counter. Then the bell rang. They all left, except that child, standing by the door, crying deeply and loudly. The teacher reports: “Of course I could have said that ‘big children like you don’t cry’ but that wouldn’t have been good enough”. So I simply asked, “Tell me, what is the matter?” “The animals are lonely, nobody cares for them!” was the reply.
Small stories for most people; big for the children. Again and again teachers try to train them. Children do something negative, unacceptable, irritating? Ask them or yourself “why, what do you want, what is your goal?” And then you may question the goal, modify it possibly. And suggest better means. To hug the bear is a totally acceptable goal, but asking for it is a far better means than beating. To care for the lonely animals is not only acceptable but beautiful, but words are a better means of communicating than tears. Of course then comes the question: which words?
Elisabeth, a teacher from this kindergarten, made a study of child conflicts and found that they were essentially of six types:
* A child wants to have a toy alone;
* A child takes a toy from others;
* A child does not wait for his/her turn, sneaking in the line;
* A child wants to decide alone what and how they all shall play;
* Disagreement about what and how they shall play.
* A child is excluded from playing.
These are conflicts: at least two clashing goals are involved, beyond the acceptability of goals and adequacy of means. what kind of solutions can be propose here: for example, an easy one: putting the teddy-bear with a K label, for Kindergarten (or B for Barnehage as we say here in Norway), hanging around the neck in the center, singing together for him; he is ours, we are his. Letting the teddy-bear rotate, each child waiting for his/her turn.
I remember not so long ago, Alfie my daughter came back from her kindergarden with a teddy bear that was actually rotating from one child to the other and then he would come back a little different, with stories, with clothers, with gifts. They would all be so happy to see him again day after day, week after week.
Togetherness around the toy, sharing, rotating. Skills to learn.
Another interesting story from the blog: A mom gives her girl a beauty-kit with two mirrors tied together; she shows it off but one day breaks it, separating the two mirrors. The teacher asks, “But why?” She answers proudly: “Sharing. One mirror for mom, one for me”.
Bullying is a major issue here in Norway, though we are said to be a very peaceful country, and it is of course everywhere in the world. The aim, purpose, goal of any parent, any pedagog, any human being would be that early enough children learn about conflicts, what they are about, about the clashing goals, and very early they should be helped to design the best ways out. The aim is to know how to handle bullying positively, learning from it, making the bully devise better means-goal relations, making the bullee understand, to help him. To construct.
Adults still need time about all this peace “education”: their preoccupation seems to be about who is right, who should be punished, who should come out on top, who wins, who loses.
One day on earth, some global bullies invented a new play: the nuclear game! One child had the monopoly for some time, refusing to give it up to that big kindergarten called the UN. Then another children came, and asked to have it and more and more came as well. Maybe geopolitical kids could pick up better toys than missiles, rocket shields, speculation? How about the conflict resolution game?
This summer, (and next one) I am in charge of organising Barnas Fredsverden annual Youth Seminar for Peace I have planned to put up a parallel programme for 3 test-kindergarden in the region (moss -våler -rygge) helping them to acquire the difficult notions of Peace, best social skills and master conflicts even as young as 3, 4, 5 years while playing and having fun!
I feel this is going to be a very interesting moment in my life…
Sustainable solutions for a better a peaceful world, and as Johan Galtung proposes why not install a “Peace hygiene” programme!
I will keep you updated, soon.
article inspired by Johan Galtung (I need to meet this man!)
For more on these methods, read: SABONA: Searching for the Good Solutions-Learning Solving Conflicts, TRANSCEND University Press, 2011.