Trees Form Friendships and Remember Their Experiences

A forester makes the case for trees and their extraordinary abilities.

looking up at blue sky and white clouds from the base of a circle of pine trees covered in snow

Dreamy Pixel / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

There are reasons why so many of us anthropomorphize trees. They stand tall like people, they sway, for torsos they have trunks, and for arms, branches. But are there more similarities between trees and people than those that meet the eye?

Peter Wohlleben is one of a number of experts who believes this to be the case. Wohlleben is a German forester and the best-selling author of "The Hidden Life of Trees." He has spent decades working with our arboreal cohabitants and getting to know their secrets.

It may come as little surprise that we've written about the tree-whispering Wohlleben before. Among other topics, we've covered his take on trees forming bonds like an old couple and looking after each. Whenever I read another interview with Wohlleben, I can’t help but write again. The following comes from an exchange with Richard Schiffman at Yale e360. The whole interview is poetry (hey, poetree!), but I especially love when he talks about trees and memory.

Trees and Memory

We had a heavy drought here. In subsequent years, the trees that had suffered through the drought consumed less water in the spring so that they had more available for the summer months. Trees make decisions. They can decide things. We can also say that a tree can learn, and it can remember a drought its whole life and act on that memory by being more cautious of its water usage.

Wohlleben has been taken to task by other scientists complaining about his tendency to anthropomorphize, but he does so very intentionally. When scientists remove emotion from writing, it loses its impact. “Humans are emotional animals," he says. “We feel things, we don’t just know the world intellectually. So I use words of emotion to connect with people’s experience. Science often takes these words out, but then you have a language people can’t relate to, that they can’t understand.”

Some Trees Form Friendships

Ancient Trees
Sanja Baljkas / Getty Images

And certainly, speaking of trees as having special friendships will raise an eyebrow for some; but why does the definition of friendship have to be exclusive to humans? We may have created the language to describe friendship as it pertains to people, but we should also be intellectually expansive enough to broaden our horizons. I have known trees that I am certain were friends, even if they don't go out for coffee with each other. Wohlleben agrees:

In about one in 50 cases, we see these special friendships between trees. Trees distinguish between one individual and another. They do not treat all other trees the same. Just today, I saw two old beeches standing next to each other. Each one was growing its branches turned away from the other rather than toward each other, as is more usually the case. In this way and others, tree friends take care of each other. This kind of partnership is well known to foresters. They know that if you see such a couple, they are really like a human couple; you have to chop down both if you chop one down, because the other will die anyway.

We May Not Fully Understand Trees

Now, of course, it would be easy to ascribe all of this to pure biological mechanics—but how egregiously species-centric that would be. Just because we don’t speak their language doesn’t mean trees don’t communicate—even if they do so with chemical and electrical signals, as Wohlleben explains, also noting that trees are badly misunderstood:

We just see them as oxygen producers, as timber producers, as creators of shade.
We have this essentially arbitrary caste system for living beings. We say plants are the lowest caste, the pariahs because they don’t have brains, they don’t move, they don’t have big brown eyes. Flies and insects have eyes, so they are a bit higher, but not so high as monkeys and apes and so on. I want to remove trees from this caste system. This hierarchical ranking of living beings is totally unscientific. Plants process information just as animals do, but for the most part they do this much more slowly. Is life in the slow lane worth less than life on the fast track?
Perhaps we create these artificial barriers between humans and animals, between animals and plants, so that we can use them indiscriminately and without care, without considering the suffering that we are subjecting them to.

You can read more from this wonderful interview at Yale e360 ... and in the meantime, don't forget to hug a tree. It may even remember that you are a friend.