The Power of Trees: How ancient forests can save us if we let them by Peter Wohlleben, 2023. Greystone Books.
I’ve not read The Hidden life of trees by Peter Wohlleben. However, I am aware that it – and its author – has received criticism and created some controversy (e.g. Sharon Elizabeth Kingsland), and know that there was even an on-line petition to draw attention to perceived issues with the book. Therefore, whilst I was grateful that its publisher gave me the opportunity to appraise The Power of Trees by Peter Wohlleben [which I do here], I was a little anxious about what I would find.
Simply put, The Power of Trees presents Wohlleben’s case for a new kind of forestry, one that works with the trees rather than against them – and in so doing benefits the people, the plants, and the planet. But, rather than just propose something that may sound all-well-and-good in theory, Wohlleben makes a very strong – and carefully-argued – case for how it could be achieved in practice.
On the one hand, The Power of Trees has a historical focus about trees and forests and the way that the timber resource has been – and still is being – exploited by humanity. On the other, the book is more forward-looking in considering how best we can – and should – manage forests. That new covenant between forest and forester proposed by Wohlleben should not only provide a sustainable supply of forest products for human use, but – by working in partnership with the forests – help humanity face an uncertain future dominated by concerns over climate change.
A major part of Wohlleben’s argument is the climate emergency (Naaman Zhou) which not only threatens profound changes – and great harm – to humanity’s home but also affects our continued existence on the planet. One of the most powerful natural weapons in our armoury to fight climate change and maintain the habitability of the Earth, argues Wohlleben, is the forests and their historical and demonstrable resilience in coping with environmental changes. That in-built resilience of the trees is not only likely to ensure their survival long into the future, but can be harnessed to help humanity deal with climate change. But that will only be possible if we radically alter the way we currently practice forestry.
In The Power of Trees Wohlleben outlines his vision – but one we can probably all share – of a future where forests are managed better, much better than has historically been the case. He recognises – and documents at some length and in some detail – issues with current forestry practices. In particular, he rightly bemoans a profit-driven imperative which means that old-growth forests [“naturally regenerated forests of native tree species where there are no clearly visible indications of human activity and the ecological processes are not significantly disturbed” (Craig Welch) are removed* and replaced with intensively-managed plantations in order to satisfy humanity’s seemingly insatiable lust for lumber and forest products. But, that method of managing timber resources is unsustainable, argues Wohlleben, not only for the future of the timber resource, but if we are to preserve the important ecosystem services role that trees [which are well-covered in the book] and forests play in the wellbeing of the planet and its inhabitants. Arguably, it is long overdue that we take stock, re-evaluate and reboot our relationship with trees.
Although restorative measures are promoted and practised around the globe, much more needs to be done. In that regard, practices such as tree-planting are considered in the book, but largely dismissed as a very poor substitute for stopping forest destruction in the first place and allowing nature to heal itself. An indication of Wohlleben’s depth of feeling on this issue can be seen in this withering attack, “Well-intentioned tree-planting schemes carried out by companies and private individuals in public forests highlight another unfortunate reality—one that can be laid at the feet of the government agencies responsible for forest management. By planting huge areas with spruce and pines, these agencies have been paving the way for an ecological disaster for decades. Their efforts have been so successful that today more than half the forests in Germany consist of nothing but nonnative conifers” (p. 16). Ouch!
To ensure his readers understand what is so good about old-growth forests, Wohlleben spends a big chunk of the book expanding upon the biology – and ecology – of trees. In particular, he shares with his readers details of their remarkable ability to survive great environmental outrages, their resilience in the face of severe climatic events, and their interconnectedness with the wider ecology of the planet. That scene-setting occupies Part I of the book which is suitably titled ‘The wisdom of trees’ [hearing some readers gasp at this phrasing, be assured that use of anthropomorphic language is addressed later in this item].
The bulk of Wohlleben’s argument for what forestry practices need to change – and why – are covered in Part II, entitled ‘When forestry fails’. But, it’s not just about the trees. Wohlleben takes a more holistic – ecological – view of forests and discusses a new kind of forestry that is mindful of the multitude of other organisms that inhabit woodlands which all have a role in the overall health of the forestry ecosystem. Wohlleben is arguing for forestry that works with the ecology rather than against it (as now).
And tackling the issue of climate change head on the author is a great advocate for the re-introduction of apex predators such as wolves to forests in an attempt to rebalance the out-of-kilter forest systems we have at present (e.g. William Ripple et al.). Which intervention, he argues, would obviate the need for mass culls of deer that – left unchecked in the absence of predators and whose population therefire increases in an unfettered way – strip newly-planted tree saplings of their leaves and thereby reduce the yield and profitability of the woodland.
Finally, in Part III ‘Forests of the future’, Wohlleben looks forward to a brighter – and greener (in many senses of the word!) – future. But, that optimism will only be justified if a new covenant between people and trees is made, and adhered to, otherwise Wohlleben’s fears for the future of humanity. Pointedly, the author’s final words of the book are: “The forests will return. It would just be nice if we were around to see it” (p. 233). Wouldn’t it just?
So much for an overall assessment of the book, what follows are some thoughts on what Wohlleben does well [see Strengths below], and aspects that could be improved [see Weaknesses below].
The Power of Trees is very well-written. But, since the text is translated from the author’s original German manuscript, it’s hard to know what credit is due to the author and what should be attributed to the translator. Whilst it’s best to put it down to great teamwork between the two, it is certainly appropriate here to express our thanks to the book’s translator, Jane Billinghurst – who is also an author in her own right (e.g. Christian Martin) – for doing such a sterling job.
The book is also a relatively undemanding read,** which is a tribute to the language used, and the way in which the ideas – some of which are quite complex, e.g. epigenetics [“the study of changes in gene function that are mitotically and/or meiotically heritable and that do not entail a change in DNA sequence“] (Judith Bender; Flávia Thiebaut et al.), and the role of carbon-14 in determining the age of tree’s fine roots – are expressed. Readability is also helped by the fact that each of its 26 chapters and pair of other sections is relatively short. Another aspect of the book that aids its readability is the author’s enthusiasm for his subject, which comes over loud and clear. Wohlleben writes from conviction borne of many years of experience in matters of trees and forestry.
All of those features will undoubtedly help the book reach a wide audience. Anything that helps to bring to the public’s attention concerns over climate change and current forestry practices can only be a good thing. And, if, having read The Power of Trees, readers are motivated to ask questions of governments and industry who are engaged in this pattern of forest management, and discuss the issues raised, that is to be applauded.
In making a case for a new way of working with trees, it is important to provide evidence. This Wohlleben does by inclusion of numerous sources to support the statements he makes [indicated in-text by super-scripted numbers which relate to fuller citation details – listing by chapter – in 16 pages of Notes towards the back of the book]. Unfortunately, there are issues with the sources provided – and those not provided, which are addressed more fully under the Weaknesses section.
My perceived deficiencies of The Power of Trees – and which could readily be addressed in a future revised edition of the book – primarily relate to matters of writing style, and evidence (in particular the plant biology that is considered at length in Part I).
In talking about trees, Wohlleben uses language that is anthropomorphic [“the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities”] – throughout the book and almost from the first page, e.g. “Perhaps these trees were particularly anxious and wanted to play it safe” (p. 9). If the book was an academic, science text, such an approach would be frowned up, and probably be considered completely inappropriate (Amy Clark; and here, here, and here) at worst, or as “sloppy writing and bad form” at best. Plants are not human and should not therefore be accorded human emotions, etc., they should be talked about using non-emotive, impassionate, objective language. But, The Power of Trees is not a scientific text – even though science is discussed within its pages. Instead, Wohlleben’s book is what one would probably categorise as ‘popular science’, in which the author has taken on the task of conveying information – some of it science-based – about trees and forest practices to a general, non-science-specialist audience. In that respect, use of non-objective language – such as ascribing wishes, wants, needs, and feelings to his subject matter – is probably a way of making the message more user-friendly. Indeed, such an approach is endorsed in Rockwell Tomson Lyon McGellin et al.’s peer-reviewed article entitled ‘Stop avoiding the inevitable: The effects of anthropomorphism in science writing for non-experts’ who state that: “Writers should feel free to use anthropomorphic techniques if they are appropriate for their topic and their audience”.
Certainly, anthropomorphism is a long-established and -practiced literary technique when writing about non-human animals [e.g. at least as far back as the Fables associated with Aesop (Jeremy Lefkowitz)]. And is becoming more commonly used in connection with plants (e.g. Kathryn Williams & Mung Balding; Jessica White).
But, lest the book’s readers do actually believe that trees ‘talk’, ‘think’, ‘make plans’, etc.,*** it may be a good idea for some sort of ‘warning’ at the beginning of the book about the literary style that has been employed, and a clear declaration made that the anthropomorphism used is merely a stylistic device, not a statement of fact that trees engage in human activities. Unless we are to understand that Wohlleben’s use of anthropomorphic language “may be a sign of alternative conceptions, as they may consider an anthropomorphic explanation to be scientifically valid” (Keith Taber)?
Whilst – as mentioned above – inclusion of sources is a strength of the book, there aren’t nearly enough of them! By no means an exhaustive list, here are a few instances where sources are needed for statements made in-text:
“Trees expend a great deal of energy transporting water to their crowns” (p. 9); “The beeches supply each other with sugar solution underground via their root network” (p. 14); “…lichens increasingly regarded as holobionts” (p. 84); “Along with other exotic species, they [Douglas fir, Turkish hazel, and Oriental beech] are expected to satisfy the predicted demand for wood in Germany for the next eighty years” (p. 100); “…the average tree in Germany is seventy-eight years old…” (p. 100); “Root tips are among the most sensitive organs in a tree. This is where scientists have discovered structures that act a bit like brains. This is where a tree decides how much to drink, which neighbor [US English used in the book] it will supply with sugar solution via the trees’ underground network, and which fungi to pair up with” (p. 118); “A beech produces an average of almost two million seeds over its lifetime, all of which have different characteristics” (p. 120); “On average, especially large old deciduous trees lower the temperature by about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) (pp. 197/198)”; “an old beech releases up to 130 gallons (500 liters) of water from its leaves” (p. 198).
Absence of declared sources for such statements of ‘fact’ leaves them open to question – they may be factual, but how can one tell? Furthermore, in seeking to establish a new way of practising forestry – and over-turning long-held views and practices – Wohlleben’s case is only weakened if there are deficiencies of sources. Whilst people’s established views and perceptions can be challenged and changed, to do so – and win the argument – you need to present your evidence. Unsourced statements aren’t evidence.
Another issue regarding sources relates to the very high number of publications cited in the Notes that are in German. I have nothing against articles in that language – it is after all the author’s first language and one shouldn’t be surprised that he cites such material. My problem is that I – along with, I suspect, the great majority of the book’s intended readers – don’t read German. I therefore have no idea what those non-English items say or how well – or otherwise – they validate the statements they are purportedly supporting, and therefore whether they help Wohlleben’s argument. Being extremely grateful that the lingua franca [“a language used for communication between groups of people who speak different languages”] for science articles is English (Raoul Kamadjeu)**** – a language I do read – I note that several such items are included as sources [but not for any of the statements highlighted as citation-deficient above]. I’m therefore wondering if the German items are actually peer-reviewed, evidence-based articles; if not, they therefore may be of lesser value as evidence [and glancing at the URLs (Linda D) stated, many of these items appear to be from web-sites]. Given that the text has been translated from the German, it would be really helpful if the titles of the German items in the Notes could also be translated into English. That would give the majority of the readers some idea of what the items are adding to the book, and where they are from.
Is Wohlleben correct?
Where does all of the above leave us in relation to Wohlleben’s proposed new forestry manifesto? Although I’d be amongst the first to acknowledge that trees are pretty amazing living things and I’m quite prepared to believe that they have the resilience necessary to cope with or adjust to the demands of climate change – provided they’re not too extreme, and that the ecosystem services they provide are essential components of a well-balanced planet, many more sources are needed to back up his statements about tree biology. As for the forestry, with so many of his supporting sources being in German, I can’t judge.
But, one thing’s for sure, Wohlleben is a passionate advocate for the cause he espouses [although evangelical zeal on its own should never be enough to win an argument]. And, whether you agree with Wohlleben’s style – or not – it is difficult to take exception to his fundamental premise that we need to take much better care of our forests – and the natural environment more generally – if we are to survive on a climate-changed planet. As the back cover of my Advance reader‘s copy puts it, The power of trees “is a love letter to the forest and a passionate argument for protecting nature’s boundless diversity, not only for trees, but also for ourselves”. Wohlleben’s is a powerful voice that deserves to be heard, and The Power of Trees is a book that deserves to be widely read. Although there are issues with the book – considered at some length above – I enjoyed reading it, and am pleased to note that my initial anxiety about what I would find has been largely allayed.***** Thanks to Wohlleben I have a much better appreciation of what current forestry practice is, and what it could be in more enlightened times.
If you’re looking for enthusiastic and passionate writing about trees and people (and you’d like to be informed about modern-day practices in forestry), then The Power of Trees by Peter Wohlleben is the book for you. Wohlleben is a literary talent whose experience-based opinions matter and which deserve to be read. But, do take the artistic language used to talk about trees with a pinch of salt!
* Which is not surprising considering the sums that such highly-sought-after trees can command (e.g. Lyndsie Bourgon).
** The Power of Trees has no pictures. Whilst it would have been nice to see some images of the trees he talks about so respectfully and passionately, perhaps that would have pushed up production costs and the price of the book [and potentially be an inappropriate use of limited forest resources – not a good advertisement for the cause he is promoting]. But, maybe the images conjured up in one’s head by the book’s carefully-crafted phrases are enough..?
*** The dangers that can accompany use of anthropomorphic language are exemplified in this anecdote as told by Rajbir: “A year and a half ago, I had a short exchange on social media with a lady who thought that plants could think, talk, smell, taste and listen exactly as [we] do. She wondered if her plants approved of her taste in music. If only she could understand what they were trying to tell her. I tried to explain that although plants are complex organisms which react to stimulus in sophisticated ways that we may never completely understand, but [sic.] we can’t take terms applicable to animals and whimsically apply them to plants defying the very precision with which those terms are used in science. Imagine if bats were to think that humans answering to their names is echolocation, it would be similar. She would have none of it and dismissed me as a hopeless ignoramus – it didn’t matter that although I’m a computer scientist and not a biologist, I have a fairly good understanding of the basics of biology. She, on the other hand, had recently read Peter Wohlleben’s book “The Hidden Life of Trees””…
**** This statement should not be seen as an endorsement that English should be the only language of science – there are strong arguments in favour of more language diversity in the communication of this human endeavour (Robert Sanders; Pisana Ferrari).
***** Much of that I suspect – apart from the persistent use of anthropomorphic language – is because in The Power of Trees Wohlleben is dealing with more established facts than he was in The Hidden Life of Trees, and The Heartbeat of Trees, titles of his which have attracted criticism (e.g. Erin Zimmermann; Sharon Elizabeth Kingsland; Rajbir; Trevor Hawkeswood.