When Frau B looks out of her fourth-floor bedroom window, she sees two tall trees. On the left is a spruce. Its mass of deep-green needles presents a burst of colour all-year-round.
But she’s more interested in the maple tree beside it. Each September, she watches its leaves turn from vibrant green to grimy brown and yellow. A few weeks later, the wind snatches them away, leaving a stark tangle of branches for Frau B to observe during the winter months.
At the age of 97, even she is a whipper-snapper compared to a tree.
When I told her the other day that scientists in Norway had discovered a 9,500-year-old spruce, she sighed.
“Mich nimmt der liebe Gott auch nicht,” she said, meaning ‘God won’t take me either.’
It’s something she says quite often, usually with a smile. This time, it conjured up an image of a long line at the gates of heaven. When Frau B eventually gets to the top, she is rejected alongside a Norwegian spruce. Together, they lament the curse of their longevity.
In the past few weeks, my relationship to trees has morphed from passive appreciation to zealous awe. Peter Wohlleben, the author of The Hidden Life of Trees is mostly responsible.
The book was an impulse-buy, having met my three criteria for spontaneous literary purchases: an inviting title, a pretty cover and the promise that I would be a slightly different person after reading it.
My transformation has become especially apparent to LSB, who now finds himself at the receiving end of a barrage of excited outbursts:
“Do you know that trees use fungal networks to communicate?”
“Woah! You will NOT believe this! Trees can detect the saliva of insects and use THAT knowledge to send out chemicals to attract their predators!”
“Okay, I promise this is the last one: did you know that parent trees deprive their children of LIGHT in order to keep their growth rate steady?”
“…I know, I know: I’m sorry but I just have to tell you this: trees of the same species INFORM each other about impending environmental threats!”
At first, he listened politely, nodding occasionally as he scrolled through his phone. But as the days turned to weeks and my enthusiasm failed to wane, he advised me gently that I was putting the “bore”into arboreal.
It hasn’t stopped me though.
What I find so extraordinary about trees is in fact quite unremarkable: they’re just like us.
They have memories, which they can pass on. Communication happens via a sophisticated electric network forged over millions of years. The sick are nursed and the tendency is to protect one’s own.
Eventually though, like you, me and Frau B, they breathe their last and descend into the ground. There they turn to humus and enable new life, once again, to begin.