The Legacy of the Lorax
At that very moment, we heard a loud thwack.
From outside in the fields came the sickening smack of an axe on a tree.
Then we saw the tree fall…the very last truffula tree of them all
It has been almost fifty years since Theodore Suess Geisel (Dr. Seuss) introduced us to The Lorax - that upstanding little creature who could speak for the trees.
The words of Suess have only appreciated with age and inspired many contemporaries to speak out on behalf of the trees. One such arboreal articulator, a forester from Germany named Peter Wohlleben, has written a book. A bestselling account called The Hidden Life of Trees.
Through a winning kind of plant-thropomorphism, Wohlleben makes a scientifically established case for the emotional lives of trees. He shows us the secrets of his forest surroundings. How the trees scream out for water, sweat in the sun and wrinkle and scar with age. Tree roots crackle in conversation, they count by days, and they even learn from their mistakes as time goes by.
It turns out that the most successful old growth trees in the forest live as a community. Working together trees can moderate the forest climate and protect each other from extreme weather conditions. They can also bloom in harmony in the Springtime, to widen their gene pool for future generations. In the forest neighbourhood Mother trees will shade their sapling children from the sun and offer them extra leg room to expand their little roots. Sometimes they even fall in love, finding ‘partner’ trees to spend a lifetime with clutching hands (roots) beneath the soil. Eventually, when they are well into their thousands these trees may even pull a Romeo and Juliet, and die in each other's arms . When a wizened old tree is injured or dying, it will also pass on wisdom (chemical defence signals) to its children in the understory.
Some trees use scent to communicate with their neighbours. When the acacia is being eaten it releases a warning scent to let their neighbours know that there is a giraffe or zebra in their midst. Surrounding acacias will then switch on their defence, and pump toxins into their leaves.
Some trees prefer to communicate through fungal networks in the undergrowth, via what ecologist Suzanne Simard refers to this communication system as the ‘Wood Wide Web’. Fine threads of mycelia fungi link up the roots of trees in the forest, and this network allows them to share sugars, nutrients, chlorophyll and even electrical impulses to one another. Why call when you can send a tree-mail?
Even a stump can stay alive for hundreds of years, if its neighbour trees continue to support it.
Not all trees are socially savvy. The Birch and Aspen for example prefer to be self reliant. They live in solitude, grow up quickly and expend a great deal of energy on self defence. These species tend to burn out early.
Similarly, trees in plantation forests or urban settings who can’t help but act in isolation. These trees are the orphans, who miss out on the opportunity to build relationships with other trees around them. Whether they meet the chainsaw or not, these trees will also live a much shorter life. What a 75 year long Harvard University study could tell us about humans, the old forest has always known; that great relationships are the secret to a long and happy life.
Wohlleben further believes that we misunderstand trees because their lives are so much slower than ours.‘What we see is always a brief snapshot of a landscape that only seems to be standing still. The illusion is almost perfect in the forest, because trees are among the slowest-moving beings with which we share our world and changes in the natural forest are observable only over the course of many human generations’.
The ancient forest represents a value that we, in the pursuit of progress, tend to forget: Patience.
In the first 300 years of a tree’s life its mother will shield it from the sunlight, making sure her young ones don’t grow up too fast. In fact, trees need the darkness as much as they need light. Just as they ‘breathe out’ oxygen during the day, they release carbon dioxide from their leaves night. The only reason that we don’t feel the suffocating effect of this CO2 is because of the global circulation of air. The oxygen in the midnight forest is, however, most likely to have been produced out at sea by a mass of bobbing algae.
Slow growth allows a tree to balance its size with self defence, and storing up food and water for the seasonal changes. They must also time the falling of their leaves, the stripping of their bark and dropping of their seeds for the most opportune moments.
The undisturbed forest is a rare and precious place.
If we are going to enjoy any wondrous old growth forests in the future, we too must learn to be patient. In the case of ‘managed’ forests this means we have to stop interfering with the trees. Wohlleben estimates that it takes 500 years of uninterrupted growth before the trees in a plantation forest will regenerate, integrate and start talking to each other.
We can also practice conscious consumption. Using less paper, choosing FSC certified products, and checking whether the cellulose fibre in our clothes (such as rayon, modal or bamboo) are sustainably sourced. Above all, we can support our national parks and wildlife and take out time to walk amongst the trees.
Now that you are here, at the end of this article, the wise words Suess should be perfectly clear.