Speaking of Trees

I’ve begun reading The Secret Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, by Peter Wohlleben. In the foreword to the book, Tim Flannery suggests the reason many people fail to understand trees is that humans live our lives on a radically different time scale than trees; the oldest tree, he says, is a spruce in Sweden that is more than 9500 years old. The concept that trees can communicate with one another is a bit hard to swallow, though Wohlleben makes some intriguing arguments in support of his theory. He offers, as evidence, examples of trees under attack by predators (e.g., a giraffe munching on the leaves of an acacia tree) flooding their leaves with toxins distasteful to giraffes and then “warning” others by releasing air-borne gases through their leaves, which cause surrounding trees to flood their leaves with the same toxins in advance of the giraffe’s arrival.

Reading about the age of trees prompted me to explore what I could find online on the topic. Sure enough, an April 2008 article in National Geographic asserts that a “a conifer that first took root at the end of the last Ice Age” was found in Sweden. The visible portion of the tree is only thirteen feet tall, but the roots stock of the tree is 9,500 years old. The article goes on to say, The spruce’s stems or trunks have a lifespan of around 600 years, but as soon as a stem dies, a new one emerges from the same root stock,’ Kullman explained. ‘So the tree has a very long life expectancy.

The article says bristlecone pines in the western U.S. are recognized as the world’s oldest continuously standing trees but I question that assertion, based on other articles I’ve found. The oldest bristlecone, the article says, dates to around five thousand years ago; I’ve found other information that suggests that one baobab tree in Africa (which literature says frequently live for one thousand years or more) is six thousand years old (see an incredible photo of that tree here.

I still have quite a bit of the book to read, so I should probably allow myself to be astonished by his claims before I go off exploring the legitimacy of the author’s claims. The assumption that animals are the only creatures that can communicate, though, strikes me as presumptuous. Perhaps it’s our understanding of ‘communication’ that allows us to make such an assumption.

I may write more of my perspectives on the book after I finish reading it. Or I might not.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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