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'The Hidden Life Of Trees' Explores The Astonishing Ecology Of Forests

Capelight Pictures

For most of Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, I sat with my jaw dropped and thought “Who knew?”

I never knew that a forest of spruce trees might be one organism, that trees might talk to each other, that the mushrooms growing under trees might be part of a community with those trees or that if you want a good, healthy diverse forest after an old one has been clear cut for timber, don’t replant, just leave it alone.

The Hidden Life of Trees is chock full of mind-blowing information about trees, but as good documentaries should do, this one takes you well beyond its surface.

The movie centers on German writer and forester Peter Wohlleben, who in 2015 published his famous book, The Hidden Life of Trees. The film shows him in a forest talking to Korean students, in a classroom lecturing on aspects of tree life, or recording thoughts and pictures of trees on his phone. Wohlleben is German, but the film travels with him to Canada’s Vancouver Island, where he talks to native people about their connection to the forest, and to Sweden where he shows students the oldest tree in the world.

Old Tjikko is more than 9,500 years old, but Wohlleben’s lesson about the tree is that its root system is what’s kept the organism going all these years. Its trunk is much younger, and it’s surround by shrubbery, which is part of the tree. The roots put out all this growth and the tree stays alive.

Trees feel pain and react to parasites like the spruce bark beetle. A healthy tree with enough water, defends itself against the beetle by emitting chemicals that repel the animal. Oak trees collude about when to drop their acorns. In German forests, wild boar, for instance, eat up all the acorns, but the trees cahoot with each other not to drop acorns every year so that the boar won’t rely on acorns for reliable sustenance.

I’m always stunned by extreme time-lapse shots of things growing — leaves popping out of branches in the spring and slowly unfurling. Various fungi seem to explode out of the ground, and it’s miraculous to watch as the shapes and colors appear. Fungi, I now know, contain substances found in no other plants, which makes fungi unique beings on the Earth. The fungi form webs of mycelium which help trees communicate and filter out bad stuff like heavy metals.

The Hidden Life of Trees reminds me of My Octopus Teacher because it expands how we human beings look at other beings who share the world. We are not the only creatures with intelligence or the capacity for love. The tips of tree roots are like brains; they respond to sounds. Trees look out for each other, care for each other and protect each other. And forests are alive and aware in ways people don’t understand or respect.

The Hidden Life of Trees does not oppose logging. But it does argue for smarter logging that is better for forests and better for the logging business. Peter Wohlleben believes that if it’s done properly, with respect for the forests, logging will be an important industry permanently, that it will not disappear in the next generation as many loggers claim.

And that goes to another essential in The Hidden Life of Trees. Trees do not operate at the hasty pace of Internet-driven human society. Trees move slowly; they take their time; they pay attention to the long-term patterns of the Earth. Something we human types ought to respect and imitate.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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