The Heartbeat of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, pub. Greystone Books The Heartbeat of Trees is an offshoot of Peter Wohlleben’s 2015 bestseller, The Hidden Life of Trees , and in it he follows much the same path as before, leading us into a forest of ideas including that trees are social beings, and forests are communities. But with this new book he goes deeper into the woods, introducing research suggesting that trees have assorted senses that parallel our own, and that perhaps communication of a kind may be possible not only between trees of the same species, but between them and us. The importance of Wohlleben’s work is in persuading us to think of trees as living beings, perhaps even conscious ones, so that empathy may help us to cherish the centuries-long slow natural growth of dense and varied woodland. Wohlleben wants us to think of trees much in the way we think of elephants. “I like to compare the two because they have much in common. Both live in social groups and look after not only their young but also their elders. That famous elephant memory is also found in trees, and both communicate in languages that we didn’t even recognise at first.” He writes in an engaging and avuncular manner as if telling a good bedtime story, although no fairy tale, but one largely rooted in science. His approachable style means he vastly outsells the often more cautious accounts of scientists he cites. But there’s a sense throughout that Wohlleben is swinging over a chasm of New Ageism and wishful thinking on a liana of others’ research. He mentions “alternative” medicine, and gives passing approval to naturopathy. And it’s worrying that his principal recommendation, that we should go and immerse ourselves in a forest, is presented as almost a universal panacea, which unfortunately suggests quackery. Forest walking is an antidote to the poisons of modern life, from atmospheric pollution to allergies and short attention spans. A fast fashion horror story that should pummel your conscience The compounds that beeches, oaks and other trees release into the air benefit our circulatory systems, our subconscious and our blood pressure. Cancer-killing cells and anticancer proteins increase in people who visit forests, and a survey of 30,000 Toronto citizens showed 10 more trees in an area improved the health of its residents as much as an increase in income. “I am given to neither religious nor mystical thinking,” says Wohlleben, yet he talks of “the conservative views of science” – conclusions based on lack of evidence that do not support his own position. “Many people are clearly terrified about the consequences for their world view, and so discoveries being made today about plants and what they can do are often dismissed as pure fantasy.” But these are precisely the kinds of claims made by those defending near-death experiences as evidence of an afterlife, the accuracy of astrology and the effectiveness of prayer. Prejudiced scientists won’t listen. Scepticism begins to creep in, and Wohlleben is certainly proof that sitting around communing with nature does not make you a philosopher. He decries religion as the source of the idea that nature is a pyramid with humans at the top and plants at the bottom, but uncritically takes a religious ghost-in-the-machine view of human consciousness as something more than the product of electrochemical cause-and-effect. He carelessly uses language that implies trees have intent: “The responses I have described are simply a defensive strategy plants employ against external events they view as a threat.” The Membranes: eerily prescient novel on the terrors of technology Finding human qualities in trees is part of the project to encourage us to leave naturally mixed forests entirely undisturbed, with assorted economic and environmental benefits. But in his ideas there’s often a sense of the same straining upwards through the darkness experienced by growing things, a hope that science’s habit of revising its position as new data comes in means that eventually it will support the conclusion hoped for, such as that meaningful communication with trees is possible. Wohlleben is a sort of hunter-gatherer for forest-related facts, many of them fascinating, and in the book we’re given a look into his knapsack, where he’s collected items on tree worship, on environmental campaigns from British Columbia to Poland, a trip to visit the oldest living tree on Earth (in Sweden) and much more. There’s nothing to fault in his insistence that we should spend time in forests. “Shut your eyes and feel that this is a place where you belong,” he writes. Even thinking of doing that is a step in the right direction.