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Three Life Lessons From the Forest or Why The Hidden Life of Trees is a Great Christmas Gift

Acacia Avenue was now a green wreck, the ivy had wound through the cracks like tickling fingers. The towering trees had almost blocked out the sun. Ferns had grown huge, their spreading fronds were the length of Zita and as high as her Mum (and her Mum was quite tall). The paving was lost under a thick layer of moss: and her house - what on earth had happened to her house?

excerpt from a first draft of Zita and the Forest by Zoë aged 8

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben was my daughter’s bed time story for a big chunk of September and it has captured our imaginations in very different ways. While Zoë is now writing The Day of The Triffids for the 21st century I am translating lessons from the forest into my every day perspective. If you haven’t read The Hidden Life of Trees and you are related to me, I’m probably giving it to you for Christmas. If you are happy to put aside a little anthropomorphising of plants for the larger message then I recommend that you put it on your Christmas list - it’s a great book. My three favourite messages from the book are:

1.Community is Important

Frances Moore Lappé is an amazing woman who is trying to save our “small planet” she defines community as “nurturing human connection.” She is very clear in her belief that we wither outside of community and it isn’t a luxury but essential to our well being. A forest is a fantastic metaphor for community because a tree is as strong as the forest surrounding it. All trees in a forest photosynthesise (turn light energy into sugar) at the same rate. The tallest trees with the biggest canopies share their sugar with the surrounding trees through their roots, fungi redistribute this food through complex underground networks. Fungi also colonise multiple species of plant because the greater the diversity of a forest the greater it’s overall health and resistance to disease and pests. If only we felt this way about people and celebrated diverse bodies, abilities and skin colours and took it for granted that everyone had a right to an even share of resources such as jobs with fair pay, shelter, schooling, and health care. If only we had a sophisticated network of fungi redistributing food and wealth to everyone no matter their species or size in our society. The forest can also teach us about appreciating ageing and celebrating the place of goldeners in our community because in a forest

2. The Ancient ones are the greatest providers.

In Okinawa, Japan there is a large population of centenarians actively participating in their community. These people are extensively studied to discover their secret. Like a flourishing forest one of the secrets of the inhabitants long life is that they form a secure social network called a Moai. People have daily interactions with friends and neighbours and know that they will have and will give emotional or financial support if needed. Each member is like a centuries old tree - full of energy and highly productive. Trees with larger diameters generate far more biomass than smaller trees and algae only colonise old trees. It is their mossy cushions that take in nitrogen from the surrounding air to be rain washed down the trunk to the roots to be shared with the younger trees . Finally after centuries of existence an ancient tree falls and gives way to the next generation waiting to fill the canopy. Its trunk then provides a home and a food source for thousands of insects and fungi and is an indispensable part of the life cycle of the forest. Where we think in short bursts and make decisions for those living now, a forest teaches us that

3. Time is longer than we think.

Katie Paterson is an artist who has created a 100 year work called Future Library 2014-2114. She has organised the planting of seedlings in a forest clearing outside of Oslo. These will be felled in 100 years time to provide the paper for an anthology of books. One writer contributes a manuscript every year and will do so for the next 100. Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell and Icelandic writer Sjon have contributed so far. No one has yet read their manuscripts, they will be read by people living next century. 100 years to a tree is not such a long period of time. Trees can live for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years and a tree’s “youth” lasts ten times as long as ours and movements such as growing shoots or unfurling leaves takes weeks or months. When we see a forest we see a group of static objects. The changes in a forest can only be observed over generations. Trees can’t walk but forests do move. As climate changes parent trees send their seeds towards better climes. In the centuries leading up to ice age as temperatures dropped forests of Northern Europe migrated South, now as temperatures are rising forests are moving Northward. Beech seedlings are travelling 400m, silver fir about 300m each year.

The life of a forest is a slow moving, secretly active, impressively linked mechanism. It has widened my perspective on my own networks, friends, family community and society and this is why you may be getting The Hidden Life of Trees from me for Christmas.

Happy holidays


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