The secret life of trees

I spent last week in the woods in silence. I rested my weary soul, grateful for a reprieve from the repressive and inescapable pull toward action that narrates much of city life. The woods pulse with an energy that’s quieter in our conventional sense of noise. And yet it’s not quiet at all: branches scrape against one another vying for precious vertical real estate, the wind howls and moans like a mother in mourning, stream water rushes around pieces of fallen debris and half-frozen stalks of spindly pine needles.

Being quiet and spending more time outside reminds me of a central paradox: My life is fairly small and insignificant, and I am inextricably linked to something so much bigger and more vast than my one little life.

I grew up on a lake in Wisconsin and spent the first a epoch of life running barefoot through the grass, talking to a stately weeping willow tree that stood on the other side of the driveway and learning to swim in pristine lake water. I always had a sense that some innate intelligence hummed through this part of the world, and yet always felt several degrees removed from it.

Trees in particular have long captivated me. I’m rediscovering wild and energizing curiosity as I make my way through a book by German forester Peter Wohlleben.

What most resonates with me as I read him describe the secret life of trees is the myriad ways that tree life mirrors the human experience: trees struggle significantly to survive. They experience pain. Their bark functions just like human skin, protecting them from pests and shedding and stretching as the tree grows. They live in communities that support each other, sharing nutrients with ailing trees either by virtue of their roots being physically interconnected or through a system of underground fungal networks (scientists have referred to this network as the “wood wide web” for its efficacy in disbursing highly pertinent information quickly en masse). They can communicate danger to each other utilizing those same fungal networks. They are mobile (yes, you read that right) and have memory. Scientists even suspect they can hear and communicate through sound.

Then there’s the aspect of time. We tend to measure time in small, limited ways. “In ten years” or “Once my kid starts kindergarten” are generic markers we use to mind our lives. But trees exist in another realm, what some would call deep time. Trees live for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years. Wohlledeb notes Dr. Zoë Lindo of McGill University researched Sitka spruce that were at least five hundred years old.[1] Another group of researchers say they’ve identified a spruce in the Dalarna province of Sweden that is 9,550 years old based on root testing using carbon 14 dating.[2] Swedish artist and architect Patrik Qvist wrote about visiting a 5,000 year old chestnut tree in Sicily: “There is so much beauty in that which is shaped by the slow forces of the ages.”[3]

To exist this long begs so many questions about resilience and sustainability. It also makes me wonder what it means to be human. The more I get into Wohlledeb’s book and other writing about trees, the more I notice and connect the throughline of symbiosis that exists amongst all life forms, animate and inanimate. It brings me back to Mary Oliver:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?


The trees at Kevala are absolutely stunning, stark and wondrous against the bleak background of winter at full tilt. Here are a few of my favorites:

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My favorite tree, perhaps because the sense that she is close to the end is so palpable
jpeg image 3
One big tree family
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Natural artistry
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She reminds me of my niece’s hair when she wakes up
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An incredible oak tree
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When I look at her I see a couple dancing the tango

[1]Wohlleben. The Hidden Life of Trees. 2015. P. 64.

[2]Wohlleben, p. 81.

[3]Qvist, Patrik. “Hundred Horses Chestnut.” The Dark Mountain Project. Accessed on 6 Jan 2019.


4 thoughts on “The secret life of trees

  1. Beautifully written Brianna and, funny thing, I just had a conversation with a friend today about the life of trees.

    Sent from my iPhone


    1. Hi Patrik. I really enjoyed the piece. Thank you for writing it. Trees provide me with endless inspiration. Best wishes to you and your latest project.

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