Unlike arborists, who care for significant trees in parks, gardens and public amenities, silviculturists look after the care and general health of commercial forests. Their skills are diverse but are informed by closely observing the changes in their arboreal charges, season after season, decade after decade.
Much has been written about the art of growing and caring for trees. It is not a new genre and authors have approached the subject in many different ways. Peter Wohlleben is a German silviculturist of thirty years standing, although he unpretentiously describes himself simply as a ‘forester’.
The Germans, in particular, have always had a close relationship with their trees and forests and this has imbued much of their national culture and identity. This book steers away from Romantic mythology and concentrates on what makes wild and cultivated forest trees and their ecosystems so dynamic and wonderful.
This could have been a dull work, but the author brings his subject alive with good writing. Although clearly acquainted with the latest academic research on trees and forest ecosystems, Wohlleben successfully treads the narrow path between accessible language and technically informed detail with apparent ease.
“I thank you, dear reader, for having explored some of the trees’ secrets with me – only people who understand trees are capable of protecting them.”
Through the close examination of the tree species under his long-time charge in Germany (mostly beeches, oaks and conifers), Wohlleben observes how trees like to grow in natural forests. We learn how they communicate with each other through their roots (the ‘wood wide web’), and how ‘mother trees’ deliberately slow the development of their progeny so they don’t grow too quickly. We discover that these young plants ultimately develop stronger trunks and root systems this way which in time help guarantee a long life.
The author compares the slow start of forest trees to the specimens planted by gardeners in urban settings. These pampered root pruned plants – Wohlleben calls them ‘street kids’ – often grow well initially but never reach the size, strength and longevity of many of their wild cousins. Much of the book examines the many reasons for this.
Ultimately, Wohlleben makes a provocative appeal for humans to break down the barriers between the kingdom of animals and plants. Acknowledging that in recent decades we have begun to treat animals with more respect and dignity, he argues that this should be extended to trees.
While anyone with an interest in the natural world will enjoy this fine work I think arborists and horticulture students will especially benefit from reading it as it helps the planter and carer of urban trees better understand the frailties of growing trees divorced from their wild kin.
The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben
Black Inc, $29.00 Paperback ISBN: 9781863958738