Ralph Gardner Jr: Can Trees Talk?

Jan 12, 2019

Snap quiz. What are the large organisms that surround us, that provide beauty and shade, fuel and shelter, but that we know least about? I guess I gave it away with the shade part.

It’s trees, of course. And lately I’ve been hearing that there’s a lot more going on in our woods than meets the eye. If you think your pets are withholding, they’re positively blabbermouths compared to the maples and oaks in your backyard.

In order to better understand our arboreal friends I picked up a book, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, at Barnes and Noble over the holidays. Actually, it was supposed to be a gift either for my wife or naturalist older daughter, though I don’t think possession was firmly established when we were opening presents Christmas morning.

However, so far I’m the only one who’s cracked the book’s spine.

I haven’t had much luck recently picking up a book that sweeps me off my feet. It’s entirely my own fault and Donald Trump’s, not much of a reader himself from what I gather, since the daily news cycle seems more compelling than any work of fiction I’ve stumbled across lately.

Advanced age may also be playing a part. I can’t seem to read more than a couple of pages in bed at night before nodding off. That makes it hard to keep track of things like plots and multiple characters.

But I decided to break bad habits during the week between Christmas and New Year by committing myself to The Hidden Life of Trees while lounging on the couch in front of the fireplace and between walks in the woods. Those forays suddenly became field trips as I hoped the forest would speak to me and share its secrets in ways it never previously had.

To be honest, I’m only a hundred pages into the 250-page volume, not including notes and index. Also, the author runs an environmentally friendly woodland in Germany so some of the trees he’s referring to and their conditions appears a bit different from the deciduous forests of the Northeast.

But what I’ve gathered is that trees have a lot more going on than appears at first glance. Literally. Much of their activity occurs underground, in fungal networks around their root tips that the author describes as a kind of Internet transmitting information from one tree to the next.

As he tells it, trees are less individuals, or at least not only individuals, but also members of communities extending acres and even miles.

In fact, it’s hard to resist anthropomorphizing them. Like us they share information about threats – such as droughts and insects – and even rally to each other’s defense; communicating through olfactory, visual and electrical signals.

They may even “speak,” perhaps not as self-assertively as those trees on the banks of the Munchkin River in the Wizard of Oz. But researchers have discovered roots crackling at 220 hertz.

They can also learn, and like us, they’re rather competitive. Struggling to reach the summit of the forest canopy and monopolize as much sunlight as possible to aid in photosynthesis.

We’re only beginning to understand their language and, of course, they operate on a different, more patient time frame than we do.

But the book reinforces something I’ve felt since I started walking our own woods in my teens. Something that’s easy to ignore until you successfully still your own senses. And that is that we’re part of a community, some of whose members we might not instantly recognize as being sentient. That while we insist on asserting our singularity, our fate will surly turn on acknowledging and then acting on the knowledge that we’re part of something larger than ourselves.

In fact, our survival may depend on embracing that realization as soon as possible.

Apologies for suddenly getting dark. But even if we’re willing to destroy ourselves the other animals and trees, the oceans and air and soil (it’s hard to imagine how much many critters live under your feet) don’t deserve to become collateral damage. We have no right to spoil things for everybody else.

There’s been a lot written lately on the 50th anniversary of that photograph of Earthrise first taken from Apollo 8. It’s become a cliché but from that distance there are no borders, no walls and fences, no us and them.

We’re all in this together – trees, humans, the squirrels that raid my birdfeeders, and the fragile atmosphere that protects us -- passengers on a beautiful oasis spaceship traveling through the blackness of interstellar space.

The faster we realize it the better. Just ask a tree.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.