Trees & Growth
Guest Post by: Sharon Michelle, MSc Psychology
I love trees and I love books. So it won’t be a surprise to hear that my stand-out favourite book of all time is “The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben. The author used to manage woodland with a business “growth” perspective until he learnt how amazing and wonderful trees and forests are. Now he uses what he has learnt from Trees over the years to inform his now eco-friendly and sustainable management practices. This book and walking amongst the Trees are where I go when I need inspiration, peace, and healing. And I’ve really needed the hidden life of trees in the last couple of weeks.
We have a new Government in the UK. The new Prime Minister Liz Truss has declared that many groups who support environmental issues and are taking action in support of combatting climate change are “enemies of growth”. Fighting talk, divisive, and depressing. However, when I step back I can see that the side effect of her views has been brilliant in uniting many groups who are now rallying together and stepping into the ring.
A while ago I joined some people who are part of the fabulous organisation “Friends of the Earth” to help tie ribbons around 270 trees. All of them are over 80 years old and some much more than that. It was to draw attention to the fact these trees had been earmarked for destruction by a local council. Developers want to cut the mature trees down in order to build flats. They are then going to plant a bunch of sapling trees in their place (it’s bewildering…). Now, according to the new Government, anyone who opposes this “development” and stands up for Nature is an “enemy”.
This new Governments’ stance is useful and an opportunity to talk out loud about what is important and a chance to resolve the things that are preventing much-needed change from happening.
Mature Trees are priceless. They nourish and support an abundance of wildlife and give greater health benefits to people than saplings do. Older Trees give plenty of shade in hot weather, decrease flood risks, absorb pollution, and give life to ecosystems within and beneath them. If I have to pick a side; I’m on the one that recognises how wonderful and valuable they are.
I don’t want there to be sides though because it isn’t productive. We need to work together to figure out how to restore the health of our Planet. However, it seems the other side will see Trees in terms of profit and they are either an asset or a liability. Business first. Nature as a commodity. Making enemies of those fighting against climate change is a short-sighted view and I am growing more and more weary of it.
When we were tying ribbons around the magnificent trees there were people of all ages and backgrounds who wanted to protect the trees as much as I did. Some had circumferences that needed several people to wrap the ribbons around them leaving us with a sense of awe. We felt the Tree’s strength, a connection to what is giant and ancient, and to the web of life. And also anxiety and fear that despite their size they cannot protect themselves from human tools of destruction and “development”. Trees need our help and protection.
Partway through this ribbon event, it absolutely poured with rain. But it didn’t matter because the trees sheltered us.
In “The Hidden Life of Trees” Peter Wohlleben describes Forests as a social network which works for the benefit of the whole group. This ecosystem can mitigate the impact of extreme weather conditions. Wohelleben tells us that Tree parents can live along with their offspring, communicate with them, and support them. Trees share nutrients with other trees of the same species when they are sick or struggling.
Trees can warn other trees of impending dangers and can use taste and smell. The saliva of insects that eat their leaves can be detected and they can send out chemical messages to other trees warning them about that specific insect so their kin can protect themselves too.
In Africa, if a giraffe eats too much of an Acacia tree it emits a smell into the air that warns other Acacia trees who smell it and start to release toxic chemicals to deter the giraffes. Amazing.
Then there is the www. the “wood wide web”, an underground network of fungi, a.k.a the “mycelial web”, which is integral to life and facilitates communication of the trees in the forest. Tree roots are nourished by leaves that decay on the ground and all are interconnected, all helping each other.
We could learn a lot from this community.
Isolated trees and trees that get felled at a young age due to Business requirements don’t learn how to communicate. They don’t get assistance from other Trees. The ground they grow in is not rich and does not support other life and animals to the same extent an old forest does.
We need to learn from this.
Trees eat carbon. Older Trees gulp up more. Many people believe when a tree gets to 100 years old it slows down and dies so that is when it is good to harvest but this has been proven wrong by a group of scientists who looked at 700,000 trees all over the world and found the older a tree is, the more quickly it grows. Healthy old trees are not fragile, they have more biomass, are full of strength and energy, and are more highly productive than young trees.
So when it comes to climate change older trees are extremely valuable. We have to allow as many as we can to grow properly to a ripe old age. Trees don’t need us but especially in this current climate, we need them more than ever. We shouldn’t take trees for granted. They are vital to our survival and are wonderful.
Despite the increasing stories of the devastating effects of climate change and the evidence and advice from Scientists; our new Government is busy making lots of plans to reverse protections for the natural world.
A recent BBC article reports several “enemies of growth” a.k.a. Wildlife charities (with a combined membership of 8 Million people), see the new proposals as “the biggest attack on nature in decades” and are now planning to take action against the Government. It is the first time these groups have “formed such a high-profile and outspoken coalition on an issue in this way”.
These groups and many members of the public are angry about the Government alarmingly proposing “investment zones” which will strip away environmental protection in Natural environments. The Environment Land Management Scheme (ELMS) may be scrapped which had been designed to pay Farmers to protect the environment and restore nature. There are proposals to prohibit Solar Farms in certain areas, and also to give new licences to oil and gas companies.
“We choose our battles very carefully – and we don’t do it very often” one of the Directors of the Wildlife Charities has said. They are now talking about what action they are going to take. This is good news and what we need more of. A strong web of groups working together with Nature at the heart.
Peter Wohelleben believes a “happy forest is a healthy forest”. To be environmentally friendly benefits all life on Earth AND can be economically sustainable. He argues we need to protect ancient Forests and work to develop more of them. The Government and many Businesses have to re-evaluate the relationship with the natural world and realise how many people want and need this to happen – now. Ms Truss needs to learn how to make friends with the millions of people who care about the Natural world. There is a wealth of experience she could utilise and work with to make necessary changes if she chose to. And until she does I am happy to join the new coalition and become an “enemy of growth”.
Wohelleben, P. (2016). The Hidden life of trees: what they fell, how they communicate: discoveries from a secret world. [United States], Greystone Books.
(Reading this book comes highly recommended. It is packed full of so much interesting information. Walking in the woods will never be the same again…)