Secrets of Trees | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 15, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 09:32 AM, February 15, 2020

Tangents

Secrets of Trees

Recently I started reading The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, a German forester who spent several decades managing old trees in European forests. The book has many startling observations and claims: for example, trees communicate with each other, they raise alarms and work cooperatively, and they single out certain weak trees for special attention and care.

Perhaps many of the findings of the book are well-known to botanists, but for the layman used to looking at trees as mostly static and dumb, they are revealing.

One reason we miss events in the lives of other beings in our world is that they occupy a different time scale than humans. On one extreme are creatures whose lives go by very fast. For example, birds such as bee-eaters can snatch, flip and swallow a flying insect so swiftly that, for more people, it is impossible to discern this action with naked eye. Only with a very fast sequence taken with a high-speed camera can you see the truth.

Trees fall on the other extreme. Many of their actions are so slow compared to our familiar time scale we are accustomed to that we miss them.

Wohlleben's contribution is to interpret these slow events showing the deliberate actions of the trees. Reading the book, I was reminded of behaviour patterns I had encountered in trees.

Sundarban came to mind for several reasons. Trees of Sundarban – which must surely form many communities of trees as described in the book – have to cope with an environment made adverse by saline water, submersion by tides and storms blowing in from the Bay.

Take, for example, the photograph above. I took it in Sundarban in 2018. Unable to understand what is happening there, I asked Dr. Mahmood Hussain, a professor of Botany at Khulna University, who explained it to me. These trees have shallow roots and easily toppled by storms. In order to help each other withstand storms, roots of nearby trees have interlocked so they gain strength from each other.

When I was in the Amazon forest, I noticed that the canopy was so thick that sunlight hardly penetrated into the forest ground. How do saplings grow then, I asked my guide. He said that upon reaching a height of five or six feet, they stay put, simply waiting their turn – perhaps for decades. Eventually and inevitably a nearby adult tree falls because of lightning, disease, storm or old age, opening up sunlight to the patient juvenile. At that point it starts growing again.

But you don't have to go to Amazonia to witness the wisdom of trees. The Candle Bush (Dad Mordon), which grows in abundance on our roadsides and disturbed ground, is an example. Certain caterpillars eat its leaves. To discourage them, the plant produces nectar in its yellow, candle-shaped flowers, attracting ants. These ants, in turn, attack the caterpillars and keep them away. If you see such a bush next to the road, take a closer look – you are likely to see a line of ants in its yellow flowers.

Wohlleben's observations go well beyond the adaptations that trees make to survive. He presents trees as beings with memory, emotions and intelligence. But he also points out that the kinds of sophisticated behaviour he observed are seen in forests where trees have grown naturally. When trees are planted in a forest, their roots are already irreversibly damaged, and they are less likely to show interesting behaviour.

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