Monasteries of the Heart

Monks in Our Midst: Alicia von Stamwitz on If Trees Could Talk

Every once in a while, I chance upon a person, place or idea that jolts me and shifts my world on its axis. That’s how I felt recently when I stumbled upon a newspaper review of the German book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate.

The book’s author, 52-year-old forester Peter Wohllenben, describes his personal and professional relationship with trees and the transformations they’ve wrought in his life. I hasten to add that we’re not talking about easy transformations or storybook endings here. This is a man who has been ridiculed and misunderstood, who quit his longtime job as a civil servant in order to put his ecological ideals into practice (not knowing how he’d provide for his family), and who suffered panic attacks and depression—all thanks to his love affair with trees.

But, my, oh my—am I ever glad Wohllenben followed his heart and decided to write about it, because his discoveries are mind-blowing. According to Wohllenben, trees “can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network...and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.”

I’ve seen only snippets of the book, but already I look at trees differently. Could it be true, even scientifically proven, that trees “talk” to one another, “suckle” their young, “cherish” the old, and have memories and emotions? I’m not alone, I suspect, in having a special relationship with a particular tree—a nearly 200-year-old basswood in our city park. I visit “my” tree when I’m feeling low or lost, even hugging it or placing my hand on the trunk for strength. But I always glance furtively in both directions before touching it, afraid others will think I’m foolish. Maybe after reading Wohllenben’s book I’ll have the courage to greet my tree openly, like the dear and marvelous friend it is.

The German edition of Wohllenben’s book is a surprise bestseller, and at least 20 publishing houses around the world will publish editions in other languages. (The U.S. English edition will be published in September 2016). Meanwhile, here’s a link to a touching four-minute video on Wohllenben and his work, “Protecting Germany's old forests”

My favorite part: When Wohllenben bends over a large, dead tree that has fallen on its side, gently pressing and prodding its flank like a physician exploring a living body. He explains that dead trees have an important place in the forest ecosystem too and must not be moved. “At least 1600 different types of fungus can settle in a dead tree trunk like this! There are 1200 different insects that can live here too! A dead tree trunk is like a mothership of biodiversity.”

Alicia (Arellano) von Stamwitz is an award-winning freelance author and longtime editor with the religious press whose exclusive interviews and profiles of today's most influential spiritual leaders are published internationally. She served as one of our regular contributors through the first year of the "Monks in Our Midst" series.

Watch the video if you have a chance and let us know what strikes you. Or tell us about your relationship with and understanding of trees. Do you have a special tree?

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