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The Hidden Life of Trees

Tree Studies, June 2017, Stéphanie Kilgast
Tree Studies, June 2017, Stéphanie Kilgast

Hey There!

I have been listening to Peter Wohlleben‘s book about trees for the past few days, “Das Geheime Leben der Bäume“, (the hidden life of trees) and it has been a fascinating book so far.

Some Notes about the Book

Wohlleben describes the social life of trees, the way they communicate with each other through electric signals passing in their roots or scents, and how they share nutrients and water if needed. Using scents they can warn each other about pest or hungry animals and they have defensive processes that they engage when attacked. They also learn and adapt to their environment and change their behavior depending on the soil nutrients or water scarcity.
But the communication isn’t only electrical and olfactive, it is also auditive. Searchers have found that roots react to other roots who emit crackling sounds at 200 Hz. And trees who suffer from extreme water scarcity will “cry” an ultrasound. Searchers can’t say if they actually cry, (ie. if they suffer) or if it’s just a physical mechanism. However Wohlleben notes that you could also describe human shouts as a physical phenomena only.

Now, trees tend to communicate and help each other out within a single specie, tending to be in competition for sun and water with other species. Sometimes trees from the same species are also too far away from each other to communicate. And sometimes they are weakened as all their energy goes into defending themselves from a pest. This is were fungi come in action.

Fungi, Wood Wide Web

Fungi help trees to communicate among each others. In exchange, they get nutrients from the trees. Mushrooms also eat the heavy metals in the soil, which also helps the trees.
However, fungi have another agenda, they are into keeping a healthy ecosystem and will pass important messages to the tree’s competition as well. Unlike the trees, who will tend to help each other out within a same specie, fungi are fighting for biodiversity, as this is the safest best for longevity.
Imagine a forest made only of pine trees, now if a specific pine tree pest arrives, that forest won’t last for too long, however the same pest in a forest of various tree types won’t do much harm on the whole.

Deaf and Mute Human Raised Plants

One of the thing that struck me most is that all that communication and social system among trees and fungi only exist in naturally growing forests, not in planted ones that are harvested for wood regularly and not in agriculture plantations either. In those human created environments, the plants seem to be deaf and mute. Probably, although not said in the book, because these plants have not had the time to evolve, learn and grow by themselves.

Tree Studies

It has been so interesting I have started taking notes right from the beginning and it made me fell in love with nature and trees all over again.
It also brought me back to drawing studies. It helps that the weather is nice, but drawing from nature directly is so much better than using plenty of photographs. This will without a doubt enrich my art practice as a whole and I feel I need to gain a little perspective from the sculptural paintings I have been producing non stop so far.
Also… it’s fun! A point that should never be underestimated!


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