Seeing the trees, and the forests, two new books bring our relationships to trees into focus

Not inanimate, nor unliving. Picture: Shutterstock
Not inanimate, nor unliving. Picture: Shutterstock

In his internationally best-selling book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, famous German forest-guardian and eco-personality Peter Wohlleben argued that the sophistication and dynamism with which trees experienced and responded to the world, and even communicated with each other, complicated their classic characterisation as the most inanimate, unliving form of life.

Now in his new book, The Heartbeat of Trees: Embracing Our Ancient Bond With Forests and Nature (Black Inc, $29.99), Wohlleben returns to reimagine the biological conceptions and rationalist distinctions that define the relationship between human beings and their stoic, leafy cohabitors.

Renowned Australian art and cultural historian Janine Burke has also turned her attention to trees - to the human cultural universes that have emerged between them. Her new book, My Forests (Melbourne University Press, $39.99), explores varied, evocative case-studies, complete with curated artworks, of the personal and cultural webs anchored in trees and forests.

In his early chapters, Wohlleben interrogates the supposed "unnaturalness" of the human - the idea that we were weaker, blinder, deafer and softer than everything else in the jungle; hence the great efforts to cut down the jungle and build a softer, comfier world in its place. Wohlleben argues for the naturalness of the human being and emphasises our susceptibility to the stimulation of the natural environment.

His book features intriguing new evidence into topics like human senses for magnetic bearing, the cultural relativism of colour, rooted in neuroplasticity, and the sensitivity of human psychology to the minute signifiers of nature.

He also emphasises the depth of the historical human relationship with trees; for example, drawing a continuity through the pagan tree worship of the German Sinzig region to the young men of modern Sinzig who steal into the protected forests to ritually nab the trees: "[giving] our girlfriends a token of our affection that could be seen by the whole neighbourhood".

His analysis seek to engage the ancient conundrums of the philosophy of biology: "what is living?" and "what justifies the human exceptionalism?" These questions demand justifications for the ways the humans live in and treat the natural world, and appeal to a more holistic conception of cooperative, communicative nature - including the human.

My Forests, meanwhile, is composed of chapter-long case studies on topics of culture, history, and art; synthesising such muses as Shakespeare and Woolf, Genesis and Shinrin-yoku, from Vienna to Nuremberg to Varsini to Korowai tree-houses. Less the exclusive focus, trees comprise the seed (pardon the pun), from which a human discussion emerges.

These analyses are affecting and often wonderful. The middle chapters are particularly excellent: a gripping voyage through the microcosmic history of Victorian deforestation, paralleling the domination and destruction of pre-colonial Australia, and a dive into the vibrant and tragic cultural complexities of Hindi Widow traditions, through a conversation with the Indian Banyan tree.

Wohlleben's authorship evokes a documentary-like mode, drawing centrally on anecdotes of forest-guardianship to engage with issues in the use and management of trees in modern society, and particularly conservation. Conservation features also in Burke's work, as it must, but is less central, emerging as illustrative of human connections with nature.

More an improvisation on the theme of trees than a focused treatise, The Heartbeat of the Trees has meandering and meditative German feel to it. A bit like a walk in the forest itself, what Wohlleben prose generates is a desire to go out, read under a tree, and make some natural chewing gum of errant sap - which, I suspect, was the author's intention.

Similarly, My Forests meditates on themes, rather than pursuing conclusions. Burke satisfies the desire for a distinctly Australian gab, as well as meaningfully global one, that is somewhat restricted by the extent of Wohlleben's about as far north as Sweden and as far south as Italy, with the occasional Atlantic leap into North America. Burke provides an illustrated journey out of Elwood, Melbourne, romping through Europe's cold Icelandic north and mild Italian south, over the Tigris and the Euphrates and into India, and beyond.

Ultimately, the meeting of these two books draws sharp methodological comparisons. Wohlleben, for his humanistic eccentricity, has the view of a problem-solver - an individual being, regarding comprehensible objects. His textual world is a scientific one, which features human experience, rather than an experience - a succession of feelings - which includes science.

Burke, meanwhile, generates a text that is emotional and experiential; a subjective world of human culture, anchored to inscrutable things called trees, and implacable places called forests.

This story How trees fill our lives, every day first appeared on The Canberra Times.