Talking trees: Fact, fiction, or the bright future of conservation?

Trees in sunlight
A new book regarding forests as ‘communities’ could promote more forward-thinking approaches to tree conservation.

The ‘Ents’ of Lord of the Rings may be starting to overstep the realm of fantasy. Recent studies have posited that trees engage in a communal life, ‘talking’ to one another and experiencing the same group dynamics that characterise human societies. But although to some this may equate to anthropomorphism and ‘tree-hugging’, by evolving our perceptions of trees we can go some way to developing their successful conservation. Tree conservation has never been more important, and not from simply naturalist perspectives. A recent study articulated the health benefits of city tree planting and the reduction in pollution that trees can effect. Therefore tree conservation should be elevated above a level of low priority, to a matter of social necessity.

These ideas are framed in a recent bestseller by German forester, Peter Wohlleben: ‘The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World’. The book, published this year in English, popularises theories which have already been circulating in the scientific community, but presents the ideas in a way which restates the need for tree conservation and invigorates the impetus behind tree conservation campaigns.

In the book, Wohlleben asserts that trees communicate through a ‘wood-wide web’, a system of interconnection via the roots of trees, whereby electrical impulses transmit messages between trees in a way not dissimilar to the human central nervous system (Tim Lusher, The Guardian). Trees are shown as having familial interactions, to register pain (e.g. insects feeding on their leaves, and deforestation), to possess individuality, to require ‘sleep’, and are conceived of as ‘social beings’ (Sally McGrane, The New York Times). And Wohlleben should know if anyone; he was a forester in the Eifel mountain range of western Germany, and has worked in forestry for nearly thirty years. He studied the behavioural patterns of the trees he tended and managed in his work. At first-hand he noticed how forestry practices can potentially disorder natural tree growth and hence the development of their forest societies. Wohlleben resolved to try and implement sustainable forestry practices after seeing the detriment forestry could wreak upon forest communities, and this is just what he did. After a change in the contracting of forest managers, Wohlleben was allowed to increase the sustainability of practices in the forest; ‘[h]e brought in horses, eliminated insecticides and began experimenting with letting the woods grow wilder. Within two years, the forest went from loss to profit, in part by eliminating expensive machinery and chemicals.’ (McGrane, The New York Times)

In this way, Wohlleben proved that sustainability would not impair profits, but increase them – breaking a common myth about environmentally-conscious solutions. Allied with his background and the remedial changes he has enacted upon the forest he manages, ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ is a convincing testimony to the value of trees in the modern world.

Perhaps a more human approach to trees – even if it means anthropomorphism – is paradoxically the best way to protect them

Just as trees have been shown as akin to human societies, they can reflexively have a positive impact upon them. ‘The Nature Conservancy’ conducted a study that highlighted the role of trees in reducing ‘particulate matter pollution’ (PM pollution), improving air quality and consequently health. The lead author Dr Rob McDonald stated: ‘[t]he average reduction of particulate matter near a tree is between 7-24%, while the cooling effect is up to 2C (3.6F). There are already tens of millions of people getting those kinds of benefits.’ (Mark Kinver, BBC News) But whilst there are quantifiable benefits to having trees in cities, in the 245 international cities studied, most noted a net loss of the number of trees present. McDonald also posits tree-planting as an economically viable way of improving health: ‘[a]ll of the cities we looked at, if all the people in them spent an extra US $4 a year on planting trees, you could save between 11,000 and 36,000 lives each year. This is mostly as a result of having cleaner air.’ (Kinver, BBC News) Therefore trees could indirectly save health care costs if they were planted in greater numbers. In this way, sustainable practices with relation to trees, both in the forestry sector and in urban planning, can potentially resolve or at least ameliorate issues of cost, timber quality, air pollution, health and general well-being.

But is nevertheless a time where trees are proving contentious in some British cities. In Sheffield, there is opposition to council plans to remove roadside trees in the city. As part of a £2bn road improvement plan, 36,000 trees are under assessment (Dean Kirby, Independent). Those campaigning to protect these roadside trees cite the health and pollution cutting benefits of the trees, and accuse the local council of failing to maintain the trees properly, leading to a knee-jerk maintenance plan. Some of the trees are estimated to be around 100 years old (Kirby, Independent). The council has reportedly planted replacements to compensate for these lost roadside trees, but the continuing antagonism to the ‘Roads Ahead’ scheme proves that trees are perceived as a valued asset within our society. This resistance to the scheme is positive in that it reveals how attitudes towards the environment have changed as the human benefits of trees are gradually acknowledged. As Wohlleben commented, ‘[w]e have been looking at nature for the last 100 years like [it is] a machine.’ Perhaps a more human approach to trees – even if it means anthropomorphism – is paradoxically the best way to protect them.

Environmentalists are often colloquially dubbed ‘tree-huggers’, and perhaps tree conservation efforts have always been hampered by this image. But trees have a universal effect as the cornerstones of many ecosystems and the lynchpins of atmospheric regulation, in addition to providing a stable habitat for innumerable species.

There have never been more reasons why it isn’t ridiculous to be thankful for trees, but that doesn’t mean we have to hug them – just plant more of them. As Wohlleben stated, ‘I don’t hug trees and I don’t talk to them.’ Perhaps in the future we need to take a leaf out of Wohlleben’s book when thinking about trees.

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