PICTURED: Beech trees, like this one in the Carpathian Mountains, were what covered most of the forests in primeval Europe, and are a major focus of the new documentary. PC: Andrew Corbley. All rights reserved.
Story at a glance…
A new documentary features decades of work on plant intelligence
Featuring Europe’s most famous forester, Peter Wohlleben, it’s a roundup of tree facts that transforms our understanding of what a tree or a forest is
Wohlleben spoke to World at Large about the production, and his life’s work.
“Superorganisms” is a term for circumstances of life whereby many individual life forms work together in such a way as to appear like a single being. There’s no such thing as “a bee” or “an ant” in a certain sense, as they are always found amid their hives and nests. In the ocean, superorganisms actually do appear as one; in the case of the pyrosome or salp — floating, moving worms whose bodies consist of hundreds and thousands of tiny zooids.
Forests are superorganisms, and the science of their intelligence, awareness, and abilities to act upon the landscape has steadily grown since the days of Darwin.
Now a new documentary capturing the life and work of Peter Wohlleben, a German forester and “shepherd of the forest,” as Tolkien would have described it, has been made to bring the world up to speed on exactly what humanity takes away from the forest every time it fells a tree.
Sharing the name of his best-selling book, “The Hidden Lives of Trees” will forever change your perception on the forest.
Tree butchers, tree mothers
“When I was a child I wanted to become a conservationist… and when I started in forestry, because I thought at first [I’d be] someone a little bit like like an Ent in The Lord of the Rings – a tree-keeper, I learned a forester is more like a tree-butcher,” Wohlleben told WaL in an interview.
Normally that would be a joke, except over the course of the 1-hour documentary, Director Jörg Adolph covers what is essentially a lesson, given in part by Peter, on our five-senses’ equivalents in trees.
“I thought I could lay back and watch them produce the documentary, but they said ‘no, you’re going to a part of it,’ and the team followed me around for about a half-year, almost everything I did,” he said.
In 2018 National Geographic published a video of the biochemical signals released by a leaf under attack by a caterpillar, a subject also covered in the new film. Releasing glutamate after the injury, it activates a conversion process to create calcium, ruining the caterpillar’s dinner.
“Plants look like they are just so intelligent—they do the right thing at the right time, they sense a huge amount of environmental information, and they process it,” said botanist Simon Gilroy under the video. This reaction is not the same in all plants, as some release chemicals that attract the attacker’s predators.
While this was certainly impressive, Adolph and Wohlleben show so much more besides, including the fact that there are “mother trees” which cultivate an area around them to serve as a nursery. They detail their social cooperation, like how trees will entangle their roots together, sometimes over large distances, in order to share nutrients and defend trees that are sick or hungry, or that thousands of trees will somehow coordinate when to release their seeds in order to avoid predators like boar and squirrels.
This cooperation is centered around the superorganism that is the forest. Tree roots mix with thousands of species of plants, animals and fungi to create the sometimes-called “wood-wide-web” also known as the “mycorrhizal network”. Through this social media, they send signals about drought, disease, insect attacks, famine, and more, including bartering food to fungi in exchange for cleaning and detox services.
Far from blocking your politically-active aunt on Facebook, trees are in fact incredibly familial beings as well. Through the mycorrhizal network, trees pump water and sugar along their roots to sustain other trees in need. Through this IV drip, saplings can grow in the forest gloom, where lack of sunlight would normally prohibit photosynthesis. In a sense, saplings are “suckled” in “tree nurseries”.
“The term Mother Tree was already being mentioned by the Brothers Grim, the famous fairytale writers in the 19th century, so it’s long known wisdom,” says Wohlleben. “Even foresters know there is a certain ‘education,’ by shadow, by making a slow growth possible”.
Older, dead trees that have raised many saplings to maturity, or a tree that has long been intertwined with a comrade can often continue receiving this life support for decades after they’ve died.
“It turns out more and more that plants and trees have more abilities than we ever thought,” he notes, commenting on all these discoveries. “The next thing I would be really happy to be developed is a computer which would be able to detect by smell what trees are talking about”.
“Trees are communicating by smell. By smell it’s very easy because it’s very fast because it’s transported by wind”.
Root branch and brain
Other stunning revelations include how aware trees are of their surroundings. In one instance, Peter revealed the results of a Swiss study that found plants in a laboratory green house could tell, by sight, through their leaves, if the potted plant next to them was a relative or not. If they were, they moved their leaves in such a way as to ensure their cousin or aunt or brother received adequate sunlight.
“Switzerland scientists are known for the humorless life, so they’re 100% not esoteric about this,” he said “At minimum some plants are able to detect if neighboring plants are relatives by view, by certain light waves, which is exactly the way we are able to see something”.
In the film, Peter meets with a scientists that found tree roots have brain-like biological structures in the tips of their roots, and that they were able to “hear” the sound of rushing water in the form of a 200 hertz hum of white noise.
“Charles Darwin said for example, that in the roots there are brain-like structures like in animals, but I think in the last decades there is a speeding up in discoveries, but in general it’s very long-known,” said Wohlleben.
The documentary is set to debut in theaters around the U.S. on the 16th of July.