The Hidden Life of Trees

After I moved back to London in 2013 I attended a course on trees at the City Lit, I can now reveal. In five whole Sundays we were promised we could learn to recognize eight trees. I immediately saw the value to me. I had not thought much about trees till then, but I needed to get out walking and there are trees everywhere, so I thought it would be interesting to know something about them. And indeed I found the course quite fascinating. We used to go to Lincoln’s Inn Fields and pull leaves and flowers apart, and one member of the class put the bits in a bag, and the following week we had to identify them again. It was good that the course wasn’t restricted to Our Native Trees, because from gingkos to Tibetan cherries to unusual types of magnolia, London is full of immigrant vegetation.

I highly recommend the teacher, Letta Jones, who holds courses elsewhere. Her website www.lettajones.co.uk will not always be quite up to date, but I think an email should get a list of courses and walks.

At the time I got some books on trees. I must say that there is no one guide to identifying trees that covers everything, and they vary in the way they help identification. You have to put time into recognizing twigs and buds and leaves and bark.

But then there are other, more discursive books on trees. And this is where the story reaches the present day. I had read a bit of the German bestseller Das Geheime Leben der Bäume by Peter Wohlleben, and much to my surprise I heard a German talking about trees to Jo Good on BBC Radio London last week, and sure enough it was he! At the time of writing the clip can still be heard as part of Prue Leith and the Barking Hour at about 1.05 (who knew one could pronounce Wohlleben like vol-au-vent?). It seems that the book has just been published in English, by a Canadian publisher, translator unnamed, as The Hidden Life of Trees. I suppose Canada is the place for lumber. Anyway, Wohlleben was passing through London and is obviously selling his book.

On air, Wohlleben was a bit sniffy about non-native trees. He had obviously practised his tree English, but he didn’t know the word pollarding. Jo Good seemed obsessed by an allegedly particularly lonely plane tree outside The Dorchester (that tree is included in The Great Trees of London and was planted in the 1930s, it says. book, website). Other callers referred to the plane tree in Cheapside, but seemingly believed it is the oldest tree in London and survived the Great Fire of London. In other words, the programme wasn’t very informative.

When I started reading the German book last year it did occur to me it might be worth translating, because there are quite a number of books about trees in English and quite a readership – but not a readership that puts them in the top ten best-selling books. One explanation is that Wohlleben tells stories and gives trees feelings.

Wohlleben was a forester for 20 years, learning how to manage wood. Later he found himself conducting nature walks and making provision for woodland burials and began to see trees differently. He retired as a forester (giving up his civil service career) and it looks as if he has published a book every year since then – see his German Wikipedia entry. But it was with Das geheime Leben der Bäume that he hit the really big time. Funnily enough, Colin Tudge’s book The Secret Life of Trees covers a lot of the same ground and got great reviews in 2005. So Wohlleben’s book had to be given a different name in translation. I read most of Tudge and found it a good read full of memorable detail, but eventually there was so much memorable detail and I was remembering so little of it that I seem to have stopped at page 252. I think this was because of the six chapters on six different tree families all over the world – the last chapter I managed was ‘From Handkerchief Trees to Teak:The Daisy-like Eudicots’.

The thing about Wohlleben is that he is a great popularizer and anthropomorphist. Both authors’ books have their references to scientific articles – I can’t help thinking Wohlleben was influenced by Tudge, not in style or detail but in the idea of writing a book on this subject, but he doesn’t cite him.

An article by Christoph Schröder in Die Zeit

Im Duktus des Märchens entwirft Wohlleben das Bild eines bestens durchorganisierten sozialen Systems, in dem zwar einerseits das Recht des Stärkeren gilt, andererseits aber der Schwächere niemals allein gelassen, sondern aufgefangen und mitgetragen wird. So beseelt wie bei Wohlleben war der Wald selbst bei den Romantikern nicht. Man spricht miteinander, liebt sich, erzieht sich und hilft sich gegenseitig mit Mahlzeiten aus, wenn Not am Stamm ist.

Kobolde haben schlechte Karten
Kann es in aufgepeitschten und unruhigen Zeiten etwas Tröstlicheres geben als den Entwurf eines funktionierenden gesellschaftlichen Gefüges, das in gegenseitiger Achtung und in Solidarität und Generationengerechtigkeit lebt? Das ist der Wohlleben-Wald: ein nur von außen, durch den Menschen bedrohter utopischer Raum, in dem es keine Schuld gibt.

In the FAZ Bäume sind so tolle Lebewesen, Melanie Mühl also considers why Wohlleben’s book has been a bestseller for months: he has been practising how to explain trees to people for years, and people want stories and feelings.

Seit zwanzig Jahren führt Peter Wohlleben Menschen durch den Wald, zeigt, erklärt, erzählt. Zwanzig Jahre Marktforschung darüber, welchen Ton er anschlagen muss, damit die Wissensvermittlung funktioniert. Bei der trockenen Wissenschaftssprache jedenfalls, da schalten die meisten sofort ab. Menschen wollen Geschichten. Und Gefühle. Wohllebens rhetorische Vermenschlichungsstrategie ist lange erprobt.

In Wahrheit gibt Wohlleben den Deutschen nicht ihren Wald zurück. Er erklärt ihnen den Baum, damit sie den Wald besser verstehen. Er fragt nicht, wie die Romantiker und die Yogamattenausroller, was der Wald für unser Seelenheil tun kann, sondern was wir für den Wald tun können.

„Ich umarme keine Bäume, und ich spreche auch nicht mit ihnen“, sagt Wohlleben.

It will be interesting to see if the book is as successful in English as it is in German.

As a footnote, Christiane Bergfeld’s blog Übersetzung und Literatur, doch nicht nur has recently been taken over by tree photos.

Colin Tudge, The Secret Life of Trees. How they live and why they matter, 2005.

Oliver Rackham, Woodlands. 2006.

Oliver Rackham, Obituary :

He was also a gifted linguist, reading Latin verse for relaxation. During a field course on the Croatian island of Rab he sat next to the local priest on a bus and questioned him closely in Latin about the management of the local woods.

Peter A. Thomas, Trees. Their Natural History.

2 thoughts on “The Hidden Life of Trees

  1. The Secret Life of Trees – reminds me of a book ‘The Secret Life of Plants’ published in 1973 by Peter Tompkins and the aptly and appositely named Christopher Bird which I read during the publicised controversy over the claim that Prince Charles use to talk to and with trees.

    Quite a few of us from a translation office in the Covent Garden area used to sign up to the very good (languages and Viking History) courses at the City Lit. when it was on Stukeley Street at the top of Drury Lane. During class breaks, the Welsh language lessons seemed to spill over into the refectory.

  2. Yes, I used to go to the Stukely Street building too, but as you know the City Lit is now in a much bigger building in Keeley Street. Foyles has gone the same way.
    Actually, speaking of Prince Charles, Jo Good more than once said how we all used to think Prince Charles was an idiot for talking to trees – she said it as if we no longer think he’s an idiot! Ohne mich.

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