The Hidden Life of Trees

With a full title of The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World this book is going to be amazing or terrible. We got lucky. Part of The Overstory is about a forest scientist who discovers how trees communicate and writes a book about it. I believe that The Hidden Life of Trees is the inspiration for that book-within-a-book from The Overstory.

The Hidden Life of Trees starts out with a bang describing several mechanisms that trees use to communicate with each other in forest settings. We go on to a deep dive into many fascinating aspects of trees and forests that I didn’t know, despite growing up around forests and foresters. The book wraps up with a passionate argument for managing forests in a more wholesome way than most forests are managed now.

In some cases the author Peter Wohlleben ascribes more intelligence and emotion to trees than I personally believe they actually have, but that doesn’t take away from the arguments showing that as a society we know much less than we think we do about trees and we should treat them, and forests, better.

As I was reading The Hidden Life of Trees I took a bike ride that went through Angrignon Park here in Montreal, where I was surprised to find a scene that remind me of my childhood: piles of cut logs. It turns out that Montreal is cutting 4000 trees from the forested areas of Angrignon Park. This is mostly to control Emerald Ash Borer, but also to remove “dangerous” trees. Some of the trees are being turned into lumber for use by the city, and others are being chipped and returned to the forested areas of the park. After reading The Hidden Life of Trees I wonder if this is the best approach, and have so many questions. For example, if the goal is to get rid of of Emerald Ash Borer then why are any cut trees being returned to the forest? If it is ok to return trees to the forest shouldn’t they all be returned? If trees are to be returned to the forest why use the fuel to chip them when nature will decompose the trees for us in a way that increases biodiversity?

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The Overstory

With a lot of great reviews The Overstory had a lot to live up to, and it mostly did. I was not engaged by the final part of the story as much as I was by the middle, but maybe that’s by design, and after reading some other post-read reviews I realize that there is a certain beauty to the final section that I had missed in my reading.

Thing I learned that shocked me most is that clearcuts are doused with herbicide after they’re cut to kill all plant life. This allows the forest managers to plant stands of single species of trees, which are easier to harvest in the future. As an avid gardener this sounds suspiciously like the mono crop agriculture that has been sucking the life out of farmland for the last century. I hoped at first that using herbicides on forests was an invention for the novel, but sadly its not, not even in Canada.

The Overstory leaves me wanting to do something about how humans treat the natural world and forests especially. I don’t have concrete plans yet to do anything, but maybe there is some guerrilla tree planting in my future. I did get The Secret Life of Trees from the library read that next.

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Warlight

This book is written in 2, (or 3?), parts, and I fell in love with the first part. It’s a somewhat tragic but romantic story of a kid making his way in post-war London with a fascinating cast of characters.

But the rest of the book is weird and disjointed. While the first part is completely narrated by the kid, the second part is, I think, sometimes narrated by him but sometimes narrated by an omniscient voice that just appears to narrate sometimes. Or maybe the narrator is still the, (now grown up), kid but he somehow knows stuff that he probably shouldn’t know. I’m not sure if this was done on purpose or if Michael Ondaatje wasn’t sure how to put the rest of the story together. Maybe, because the kid’s life is disjointed and doesn’t turn out how we want it Mr. Ondaatje is doing the same thing with the way he tells the story. If that is the case it was not satisfying to me as the reader, but did disturb my perception of the story to mirror how the narrator’s life was shaken up.

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