There is no need to guess what Peter Wohlleben’s international bestseller is about. Its title announces what its text admirably delivers: The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World. The title is meant to titillate. How can trees feel? And do trees really communicate with each other?
The book glides effortlessly through material that far exceeds what we learned in middle school science. (For me, that is little more than the distinction between deciduous trees and conifers). For example: “A mature beech tree can send more than 130 gallons of water a day coursing through its branches and leaves.” And, being in a forest lowers your heart rate and blood pressure.
The book often exposes an astounding complexity, more akin to what we expect from astrophysical research rather than forestry: “There are more life forms in a handful of forest soil than there are people on the planet. A mere teaspoonful contains many miles of fungal filaments.” Or, trees of the same species are “as far apart genetically as different species of animals.”
The goal of arriving at a moment when we will completely know the natural world around us is becoming a fiction of science.
Chapter titles capture the book’s lasting significance, asking us to consider whether concepts that we consider to be purely human might not apply to something as seemingly simple as trees in deep forests: Friendship, The Language of Trees, Social Security, Love, Forest Etiquette and Tree School.
Is talk of friendship among trees nonsense? Mr. Wohlleben is a German forest ranger. He has always known about the amount of water in trees or what is in the soil they depend upon. But what compelled him to write this consciousness-changing book is nicely illustrated by a discovery he made when he stopped to explore a forest circle of mossy old stones, one that he had often walked past before:
The stones were an unusual shape: they were gently curved with hollowed-out areas. Carefully, I lifted the moss on one of the stones. What I found underneath was tree bark. So, these were not stones, after all, but old wood. I was surprised at how hard the “stone” was, because it usually takes only a few years for beechwood lying on damp ground to decompose. But what surprised me most was that I couldn’t lift the wood. It was obviously attached to the ground in some way. I took out my pocket knife and carefully scraped away some of the bark until I got down to a greenish layer. Green? This color is found only in chlorophyll, which makes new leaves green; reserves of chlorophyll are also stored in the trunks of living trees. That could mean only one thing: this piece of wood was still alive! I suddenly noticed that the remaining “stones” formed a distinct pattern: they were arranged in a circle with a diameter of about 5 feet. What I had stumbled upon were the gnarled remains of an enormous ancient tree stump. All that was left were vestiges of the outermost edge. The interior had completely rotted into humus long ago — a clear indication that the tree must have been felled at least four or five hundred years earlier.
A circle of mossy stones reveals itself to be a tree stump—still living!—centuries after the tree had been felled. How is that possible? Mr. Wohlleben explains that sympathetic neighboring trees supply the stump with nutrients. This isn’t typical, but it does happen. Clearly, if trees can choose to keep another tree on life-support, we do not know much about trees.
We live in a time when knowledge is expanding exponentially. Yet the goal of arriving at a moment when we will completely know the natural world around us is becoming a fiction of science. This is because with each new discovery our surrounding world reveals a bottomless depth. It truly is what theologians call a “mystery,” a reality that ever exceeds our grasp.
We are mysteries to one another. The same is true of nature. The same has ever been true of God.
Note the irony. The modern age began by turning its attention from God who, by definition, exceeded our intellectual grasp. We turned to nature, which we thought we could explore, explicate and exploit. Turns out, the natural world is a mystery every bit as elusive as God.
We also do not know much about each other. Even those closest to us have a way of surpassing our expectations, surprising and unsettling us. The church has always taught that the dignity that must be accorded to human life stems from this bottomless ability to transform ourselves, ever to be growing into something more.
The sad thing is, we do not seem to be growing in our knowledge of each other. Instead, technology increasingly separates us from one another. One world leader does not challenge another to constructive debate. He flies away, angrily tweeting. At home, we try to converse with a family member who won’t put down the smartphone. At school, the number of young people trying out for sports and other high school activities is declining. They even shy away from parties where previous generations “sowed their oats.” Instead, more and more high school youth stay at home and observe each other on social media, and, when sin enters cyberspace and they are bullied, they commit suicide in ever-increasing numbers.
To reverence God is to reverence the two great mysteries that God created: the world around us and ourselves.
All of this gives us new insight into Jesus’ comparison of the kingdom of God to a mustard seed. What utter hubris to think that we understand what God is doing in the world! Or even to think that we know what God is doing in the life of those whom we know best.
The church says that sin can be identified. It is real, and it diminishes our humanity. In the words of a Eucharistic prayer for children, it “makes us all unhappy.” But the church refuses to identify sinners. Yes, they surely exist, but no one of us knows what is happening in the world of another. We do not know the plain of experiences upon which others walk. We cannot see the myriad of biological and environmental factors that influence their daily life. We do not know what they truly know when they must, like all of us, choose between good and evil.
In short, we are mysteries to one another. The same is true of nature. The same has ever been true of God. All we know is that the first two mysteries emerge from the third and that they remain under God’s providential love. That being once again preached, we must think again before we exploit nature. And we must pause to consider how unjust and irrational we truly are when we judge each other.
To reverence God is to reverence the two great mysteries that God created: the world around us and ourselves. We do not seize that which ever-exceeds exceeds our grasp. We humbly open ourselves to it.