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The Hidden Life of Trees: Chapters 1 - 6

#187: May - July 2023 (Non-Fiction)
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Chris OConnor

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The Hidden Life of Trees: Chapters 1 - 6

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The Hidden Life of Trees: Chapters 1 - 6

Please use this thread to discuss the above referenced chapters.
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Robert Tulip

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Re: The Hidden Life of Trees: Chapters 1 - 6

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Chapter One begins with strange mossy stones in an ancient forest. It turns out they are not stones at all. They form a circle five feet across, the remains of an ancient tree, long fallen. This tree has no leaves but its stump is somehow still alive, green under the bark. No tree can live without leaves. It turns out this old tree receives its nutrients from its children, the surrounding younger trees of the same species, which feed it through fungal networks around its roots. It is as though the children love their mother and choose to keep her alive. The forest is far more complex than we can imagine.

Does this mean trees are conscious? That is the serious mystery in this book.
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Re: The Hidden Life of Trees: Chapters 1 - 6

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As I mentioned earlier, I'm listening to this book on Audible, primarily when driving. It's a bit frustrating to keep hearing things that I question or want to discuss, but I'm going 75 mph on the Interstate. The way Peter Wohlleben sounds, he looks at the forest as almost conscious, as you mention, Robert. This doesn't sit well with me for many reasons. But I'll wait till I'm deeper into the book to opine on a topic that I know next to nothing about.

How is it possible that trees help feed each other? I mean, that's crazy. But it seems true. Someone please explain, in evolutionary terms, how nature could select for such a behavior. Basically, the trees take care of each other. But why? How?

It's almost like human altruism. We are good, and take care of one another, because doing so is in the social group's, and the individuals, best interest. But conscious or subconscious thought seems to be involved with humans. We think, possibly subconsciously, that we're going to treat our neighbors well, so that they do the same with us.

But how does a tree know to help it's neighbors? Is there a mechanism in place to kill off tree species that fail to reciprocate?

I'm sure the answer is simple, and I'm just not wrapping my head around it...yet.
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Re: The Hidden Life of Trees: Chapters 1 - 6

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At some point, we may want to ask Peter Wohlleben some questions. Start thinking about that now. Jot down your questions, and we'll approach him, maybe in June.
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Re: The Hidden Life of Trees: Chapters 1 - 6

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Consciousness is obviously not something we can attribute to trees since they don't have brains. But they do feel pain, as this book explains. And they do seem to be able to make decisions about which branch to grow and which to let die.

The underlying theme is that our usual assumption is that a forest is every tree for itself. We think of each tree as an individual organism with no contact with other trees. That is the classic example of not seeing the forest for the trees. We have been conditioned to be unable to see the whole as more than the sum of the parts, so we miss the big picture.

A great book that explains the evolutionary benefits of cooperation is The Social Conquest of Earth by EO Wilson. It is about animals but it applies equally to plants. There are thousands of species of fungus in soil. If by chance, a species of tree evolves to give sugar to the fungus from its roots, which means the fungus can give nutrients to another tree, it makes sense that this will mean that species is more adaptive, it has more successful offspring and spreads through the forest.
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Re: The Hidden Life of Trees: Chapters 1 - 6

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But they do feel pain, as this book explains.


But is it really pain and do they really feel it? It seems more of a response to stimuli. We anthropomorphize everything. I'm not arguing against the author. I'm just questioning the wording at this point.

And they do seem to be able to make decisions about which branch to grow and which to let die.
Are they really making a decision? "Decision" implies a brain and conscious deliberation.
The underlying theme is that our usual assumption is that a forest is every tree for itself. We think of each tree as an individual organism with no contact with other trees. That is the classic example of not seeing the forest for the trees. We have been conditioned to be unable to see the whole as more than the sum of the parts, so we miss the big picture
Precisely. This is what I am getting out of this book so far. Maybe as I get deeper into what he's teaching us, it will all start to gel together and make more sense. The individual trees interacting with each other doesn't mean they are communicating... or does it. I find it fascinating how a caterpillar eating a leaf on a tree causes the tree to slooowly respond.

OK, setting up for a birthday party. I'll say more as I read/listen more.
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Re: The Hidden Life of Trees: Chapters 1 - 6

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Chapter One explains how an ancient tree stump that has had no leaves for centuries can stay alive, “the conclusion is that forests are superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies.” Researchers have found that tree roots actually connect different trees so they can exchange nutrients. This concept of the superorganism is the title of a book by EO Wilson, who I mentioned in my last post. Wilson invented the concept of sociobiology, the genetic evolution of advantageous social behavior.

Tree root connections are not just random, since they only connect to the same species, which shows that trees are social beings. Just like for humans and ants, trees demonstrate the evolutionary advantages in social cooperation.

Trees in an intact forest live to be much older than isolated trees. So they look after sick trees so the forest canopy remains intact. By comparison, plantation trees are delinquent loners, unable to form the same networks of connection seen in a natural forest. Their roots are damaged when planted so they can’t cooperate like trees that grow in place from wild seed.
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Re: The Hidden Life of Trees: Chapters 1 - 6

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Chapter Two
Do trees have language? They clearly communicate using scent, electricity and fungal chemistry. Like pheromones that cause human sexual attraction, all animals communicate by creating smells from hormones, in a wordless language. For trees, an example is that when African trees get eaten they release a smell that makes their leaves bitter and warns all the nearby trees, which also pump toxic chemicals into their leaves to ward off the grazer, such as giraffes. This is a pain response, as seen in animals.

Trees have a toxic arsenal to deal with various problems such as insect infestation, including chemicals that summon the predators of pests, specifically targeted to each known pest, such as wasps that lay eggs in caterpillars. Trees send slow internal electrical signals to each other through their roots, and also warn each other with chemical signals such as tannin pumped through their roots.

A teaspoon of forest soil contains miles of microscopic fungus threads, like fibre-optic cables for trees, enabling the trees to share news about water and pests across the wood wide web. Well connected trees in the forest network are better able to ward off attack.

By contrast, cultivated plants cannot communicate, making them attractive to pests, and requiring ever more chemical poison applied by humans. Breeding wildness into crops might make them more resilient through ability to keep in touch across the field.

Nectar from flowers is designed to encourage pollinators, so serves an evolutionary communication function. New research is even finding that plant roots make sound, and it has been proved that other plants notice this.
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Re: The Hidden Life of Trees: Chapters 1 - 6

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Chapter Three

Forests are counter-intuitive! You would think that even spacing of trees like in a plantation would mean each tree has the best opportunity to grow as fast as possible. Not so!

Natural forests that are not thinned to space the trees apart will grow more biomass than artificially managed plantations where close trees are removed.

Why could this be? The story is extraordinary and amazing.

Trees are actually very friendly creatures. They help each other out all the time. Their social security system works through their roots. Study of a beech forest in Germany found that when one tree gets plenty of light, it shares the nutrients it creates with other beech trees in different living conditions so the rate of photosynthesis for all the trees in the forest is the same, whether they are strong or weak, equalised through the underground fungal redistribution network. The trees like to huddle together, dividing water and nutrients between them.

Peter Wohlleben says when you chop a tree down, its neighbours are bereft. Rather than welcoming the loss of competition, they get confused and the previous good balance of fungal networking goes haywire. The overall result is less growth, and more vulnerability to pests. The forest is a social organism, where each tree species works like a trusting community. Evolution is not about individual competition but rather about working together.
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Re: The Hidden Life of Trees: Chapters 1 - 6

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Evolution is not about individual competition but rather about working together.
Yes this is one major evolution in the theory since Darwin's original survival of the fittest, that at least for social creatures (and who knew trees are in this category?), cooperation assists survival more than chopping down the competition. (Although arguments about group Vs. individual selection may be reignited.)

I was particularly taken by chapters 4 and 5, describing how various trees stagger their blossoms to only once every 3 to 5 years. This wards off pests and saves a large amount of energy, improving overall survival. We have perhaps the most extreme version of this adaptation in Ohio & Pennsylvania with cicadas that emerge by the multi-billions, but only every 17 years.

Must say I am enjoying the "easy breezy" writing style of this book. Too many non-fiction books (and some fictional puzzles) attempt to convince you they are accurate and serious by creating migraines during the effort required to understand them. As a result this book may appear superficial, but some concerns raised above will be addressed later, for example in Chapter 8 "Tree School."
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