What I Read in 2019: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

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I read this mainly for research for an online course that I ran in July. I was looking for something that bridged the gap between science an literature and had an open minded approach to animals and plants as living organisms. I’m from a science background, I worked as an NHS microbiologist for some years before I abandoned it to pursue a life of poverty working in the arts. There’s a bit of a misrepresentation of scientists in the media there’s an assumption that we work in a binary yes/no correct/incorrect method and that science is a water tight method of explaining everything. I also think people assume that the word Eureka is shouted a lot and that when a scientist makes a breakthrough it suddenly changes everything, when what actually happens is you have to repeat that breakthrough until it is statistically relevant, and then there’s a lot of paper work before you do anything else.  Let me tell you now, science is amazing, science has kept a huge amount of the world’s population alive just by identifying stuff that kills us, science is also really cool; there are many beautiful things in science that astound and delight, but science is not water tight, it doesn’t explain things, it just problem solves and creates further questions. That’s why it’s such an impossibly beautiful process; because it’s never ending, because it constantly opens doorways into our knowledge as a world society. Scientists don’t think in a polarised, binary way either, we tend to think in terms of patterns rather than yes and no when it comes to research and if you’re a biologist, even more so because there are so many differences between even single celled individual organisms. That being said, one of the things that has always been drilled into scientists is to not anthropomorphise animals in research, we don’t go into the field and study an animal and make an assumption about its behaviour based on how we would react, because that’s going to cause problems with results. This has meant we can be truly objective, but it’s also meant that empathy and compassion towards animals in the scientific world is severely lacking, it’s caused an objectivisation that has led to othering which is just a way of excusing appalling cruelty. and I think we have missed out on huge chunks of knowledge because we pushed back agains the idea of animals having emotions and human like reactions, we forgot that we too are animals and of course animals have similar reactions to other animals.

I’m not here to rant, I just want to place in context the nature of this book, because a step further down the ladder of compassion and empathy in the scientific world, probably even after poor old Drosophila, are plants. They’re treated as objects not as living things and we have great deal of difficulty imagining them interacting or being aware of anything really, not least themselves and their lives. This book, therefore, took me completely by surprise. because it doesn’t buy into that view of plants, in this case trees, being aware and it doesn’t rage against it either, it just assumes that plants are aware and are making choices based on that awareness. Even writing that as a scientist makes me feel slightly odd, but as a person who is around nature a lot, as someone who writes about nature a lot, I know it to be true in the same way I know my guinea pig recognises me, even if it’s just because I am the carrot bearer in the relationship. We know animals are conscious and sentient, we choose to pretend we don’t and now we are starting to know the same about trees. The book is not lacking in science or scientific evidence, it’s loaded with it and I spent many a happy hour furthering my knowledge about it on youtube, on the internet, following up the information about trees that we know, expanding my knowledge and learning the most amazing things about tree communication, fungal networks, tree reactions, tree matriarchy, etc. The book led me to that through a gentle style, a friendly style which is verging on folk tale like or fairy tale like, as narrated by forestry warden, Peter Wohlleben. It’s no wonder it’s a best seller, it’s so nice to read. I can highly recommend it, I feel like I know more about trees than I ever have, though I am still appalling at identifying them, and I have a new respect for them and how we plant and care for them. Excellent stuff.

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