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29 December 2016updated 04 Aug 2021 2:01pm

What two new books on trees taught me about politics

How we think about the natural world matters – which is why the rich metaphors in The Hidden Life of Trees  are so important.

By John Burnside

Veterans of the more speculative end of environmental thinking may recall a book called The Secret Life of Plants, in which the former US intelligence officer Peter Tompkins and the expert dowser Christopher Bird claimed that plants were not only sentient, but also able to communicate with one another, especially when they sensed danger. That book appeared in 1973, to universal derision from established scientists. One botanist said that the entire enterprise should be “regarded as fiction”.

Yet this was no deterrent in a time of burgeoning New Age ideas. “Live” demonstrations were staged at events such as the Mind Body Spirit Festival at the Olympia exhibition centre in London, where I stared in mute disbelief at injured or threatened plants whose distress signals (chemical and electrical) were made audible by a mysterious conversion program that turned hormonal emissions into screams. There was also a film with, perhaps inevitably, a soundtrack by Stevie Wonder.

For a time, the emergence of a new plants’ rights movement seemed altogether feasible. Then the whole thing blew over and, until Peter Wohlleben’s eloquent, thoughtful and far from New Agey book The Hidden Life of Trees appeared, I had forgotten about Tompkins and Bird altogether.

A pity, because if there is anything that our science community needs, it is true, unmanufactured quirkiness. For the best part, the response to Wohlleben’s work has been less severe than it was for The Secret Life of Plants four decades ago, although he has been accused of misrepresenting estab­lished facts (and botanists have known much of what The Hidden Life of Trees has to tell us for some time) by using highly anthropomorphic language to suggest that plants resemble us more than they do.

Wohlleben – a trained forester who formulated his contribution to the science of plant communication while working in the beech forests of Germany – counters with a response that raises pressing questions about how conventional science is theorised and shared with  the public. “I use a very human language,” he told the New York Times in a recent interview. “Scientific language removes all the emotion, and people don’t understand it any more. When I say, ‘Trees suckle their children,’ everyone knows immediately what I mean.”

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Although scientists are vexed by the use of metaphor, they depend on it to communicate their ideas. Stephen Hawking used it memorably in the conclusion to A Brief History of Time: “If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God.” Hawking seriously considered cutting that line; had he done so, as he later said, “The sales might have been halved.”

In a series of forest portraits based on his observations, Wohlleben explores the surprising abilities that plants possess, albeit working in timescales too large (and so too “slow”) for human beings to perceive without specialist instruments. He explains what we know so far about how plants respond to pain and warn other plants of danger, how they nurture others in their environs and build familial kinships within the forest ecology and, perhaps most intriguingly, how they respond in sophisticated ways to seasonal changes, predators and abnormal weather events.

We should not let the differing time frames or a queasiness about metaphor conceal this mysterious world from us. At a time when every kind of plant life is under threat, from peatland and savannah to forest, it is surely better that a general readership come to appreciate the richness of vegetal nature than continue in ignorance about the astonishing support systems that plants have evolved. There are even political lessons to be learned when we read how, when one tree goes through a tough patch (such as disease, or loss of water or nutrients), its neighbours contribute resources until it recovers, not for charity, but for the greater good of the finely balanced whole.

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The Hidden Life of Trees is a wonderful, provocative book that draws together half a century of much-neglected and misunderstood plant science and frames it within field observations by an acute and empathetic forester. At times, it challenges the more rigorous limits of hard science, but it also widens our understanding and appreciation of trees – and if Hawking can get away with talking about God in a work of popular science, it seems only fair to allow Wohl­leben the suggestion that plants deliberately nurture and even “talk” to one another. Might we even hope that, if we can begin to feel that trees are more like us than we previously thought, human beings might be less inclined to destroy their communities with barely a second thought?

The anthology Arboreal is a suitable companion to The Hidden Life of Trees, and happily, in a book of poems, lyrical prose and visual art, it is understandable that metaphor, sensory intelligence and empathy are allowed much freer rein (though the nagging question of why science goes to such lengths to exclude empathy from its workings is worth several books in its own right).

The volume is dedicated to the ecologist Oliver Rackham, whose writings, especially Ancient Woodland and The History of the Countryside, did so much to enhance our appreciation of British woodlands and pastures. Rackham died last year, and he would have appreciated this commemoration as being in the spirit of his work, in which ­observational rigour is balanced beautifully with imaginative appreciation. As its editor, Adrian Cooper, writes in his introduction, “We may be able to move through woodland, or climb up the branches of a particular tree, but it is the woods and trees which move into us, become entangled in our memories, taking root in our language.”

With fine poems by Adam Thorpe and Jackie Kay, powerful prose from Jay Griffiths and Paul Kingsnorth and extraordinary artwork from the forest photographer Ellie Davies, this book would be the ideal gift for anyone interested in how we think about the natural world and how the imagination conspires with nature to form the world we inhabit – as far from the sclerotic end of science as it is from New Age fantasy.

John Burnside’s books include “I Put a Spell on You” (Vintage)

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben is published by Greystone Books (288pp, £16.99)
Arboreal: a Collection of New Woodland Writing edited by Adrian Cooper is published by Little Toller (333pp, £20)

This article appears in the 13 Dec 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016