An Introduction to “The Hidden Life of Trees”

An Introduction to “The Hidden Life of Trees” July 25, 2021

Are trees sentient?

In his bestselling book The Hidden Life of Trees and, now, the documentary based upon it, German conservationist Peter Wohlleben unequivocally says yes.

I might be out of the loop on current botanical research, but the confidence of Wohlleben’s affirmation surprised me.  However, to judge from the controversy surrounding his book, many if not most plant scientists aren’t ready to make that leap either.

I haven’t read his book, but with chapter headings like Friendship, Love, Language, and Character, the film delivers a decent opening statement.  I would’ve liked a deeper delve than its 85 minutes allow, but my curiosity has now been stoked.

When nearby trees sustain a stump that can no longer photosynthesize, it’s hard not to see care in that action.  When trees can recognize individual predator species and sends out distress signals in response, that does indeed seem like a form of language.

An image from “The Hidden Life of Trees”

Is this too anthropomorphic?  Perhaps.  But considering the immense damage we’ve done to our fellow members of the animal kingdom by denying their sentience (thank you, René Descartes, the Christian doctrine of special creation, and runaway capitalism), maybe some anthropomorphizing of the plant kingdom is necessary – and accurate.

Like the vaquita porpoises of Mexico and the resident orcas of my Puget Sound, we may lose our local trees if we don’t act fast.  With climate change, Wohlleben reports his homeland could be deprived of most of its conifers within the next two decades.  Instead of diverse forests, wooded areas in Europe already resemble single-crop plantations.

With its overly crisp and chipper narrator and occasional reliance on lecture footage, The Hidden Life of Trees sometimes shades a bit dry, too much like science class.  It’s most engaging (and filmic) when Wohlleben is in his outdoor element, in his beloved Eifel region.  We also see him venture to Sweden, Poland, and British Columbia to advance his arguments.

We’re reminded that trees operate on a much longer timeframe than humans and other animals – think Treebeard from Lord of the Rings, and you’re on the right track – such that the documentary appropriately leans heavily on timelapse videography to make its points.  Whether closeup (ferns unfurling, mushrooms expanding) or overhead (to observe individual trees reacting differently to the changing seasons), these images are wondrous.

Wohlleben has a knack for analogies, to drive home his points:  contemporary forest management guards nature, just as butchers tend to their animals.  Fungi craft a “wood-wide web,” with miles of connections in each teaspoon of soil.

Soft-spoken yet passionately eloquent, Wohlleben contends we need to stretch our imagination to comprehend the lives of trees and their encompassing forest superorganisms.  This film offers a good beginning for that stretching process.

(The Hidden Life of Trees is now in theaters.)


(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )


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