The secret Life of Plants is the title of an album from 1979 by Stevie Wonder that I like very much mainly due to its eclectic variety of weird mysterious noises, which make me feel just like Alice in Wonderland on an exploration tour. The album is the soundtrack to the documentary The Secret Life of Plants (1978), directed by Walon Green, which was based on the book of the same name by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird. The book documents experiments, which deal with the idea that plants are sentient, that they experience pain and fear and react accordingly. Obviously the book and the movie were heavily criticized as the notion of plants having feelings was and still is considered paranormal and the experiments pseudoscientific. For me it is just the stuff that makes for perfect inspiration for my work. My latest pieces are titled Carnivore and I wrote an accompanying short story, which tells the story of a dissatisfied flower, who is turning into a giant greedy flesh-eating mouth.
Only recently scientists found proof through the use of modern technologies like MRI scanners that dogs have complex emotions like humans. This was still very much a controversial theme in the scientific world before. I think it is safe to say that everyone who has a dog and makes the effort to build a relationship with it can only wonder about such late acknowledgement of something that is so obvious. If you have ever shared your life with one of our loyal four-legged friends, you will never have wondered if they have similar feelings. More likely, you will have asked yourself how it is possible that your dog seems to understand your feelings much better than you understand what is going on in your dog. But it took science until today to find evidence that dogs have the same brain structures like us to feel emotions, that they produce the same hormones and undergo the same chemical changes when they are having them. A dog, so scientists believe today, has the emotional level of a three-year-old child, meaning dogs can feel love, suspicion, joy, anger, fear, disgust, distress, contentment and excitement just as we do. Shame, pride and guilt are emotions humans only develop later and scientists believe that dogs cannot experience them, but the last word is not spoken about that either I believe.
I am certainly not someone who is easily caught by paranormal ideas and theories, but I believe that knowledge and wisdom can be won through other ways than science alone. Peter Wohlleben, a German forester is sharing his observations about plants, particularly trees in a book titled Das geheime Leben der Bäume (The hidden Life of Trees). He describes how in the beginning of his career, he was treating trees as goods, assessing their value only by the price they would bring on the market. When he started to run survival training tours with tourists, his perception slowly changed and he started to become a keen observer of the forest, thereby coming across many fascinating wonders.
The forest- A social society?
The most significant assumption Peter Wohlleben makes in his book is probably that a forest is not an accumulation of individual trees, which don’t have anything to do with each other, but rather a kind of superorganism with a complex sophisticated system, which serves the purpose of keeping the whole forest with all its inhabitants intact, comparable to an ant colony. Only when the forest as a whole is healthy can it create an ecosystem, which is capable to resist cold and hot periods and buffer enough water so that the trees can live protectedly and so become really old. If a few of the inhabitants of a forest get sick and die, the roof of the forest breaks open and wind, heat and cold can enter. The soil partly becomes dry and the neighbours are endangered as well. So it is really in everybody`s interest that the neighbour stays fit too.
Peter Wohlleben describes that in order to keep this ecosystem in balance, the trees feed each other with nutritients, so that all have enough to thrive. Some trees stand on a better soil and therefore are able to a pump sugar solution to their neighbours, who are less lucky or are temporarily weakened by a vermin. Sounds like a successful system of social welfare…
But not all trees show a social behaviour towards their neighbours. The beech tree likes to cuddle with its family members, showing respect and taking care by sharing all resources even when standing really close to each other. If a beech gets close to a tree of another kind though, it develops an egotistical behaviour. Under the ground, the roots are pushing though every free space to subduct water and nutrients from the other. Unlike many other trees, the birch can enlarge the size of its crown lifelong and will do so until it has outrun any other kind of tree in close proximity. The others must hold out in the second floor.
Communication between trees
Peter Wohlleben states that the trees of a forest have a very well working system of communication through scents and even through electric signals, which travel though the interlaced underground network of roots and myceliums. With attractants some trees can bait certain enemies of a particular vermin. With others they warn their neighbour trees that enemies attacked them. As a result some tree families simultaneously produce untasty or even poisonous substances in their leaves and bark, so that the fiend looses appetite and withdraws. This happens quite slowly of course, but normally it works fast enough that none of the tress will suffer serious damage by the intruders. Trees in a forest also coordinate between them in which they blossom, because if they bloom together, a more successful mixing of genes is guaranteed.
Mr Wohlleben is sure that not only trees have the ability to communicate, but all plants in a healthy natural environment and that we didn’t even begin to understand the complex diverse ways of their communication. He also states that the more cultivated plants are, the more they seem to loose the ability to “talk”. He thinks it highly possible that growers would need less insecticides if they worked with wilder versions of their plants.
Educating their offspring and learning
Being a baby tree is hard. The grown ups are closing the crown of the forest, so that only very little light is coming through to the lower levels and too many siblings create a competitive situation. Peter Wohlleben found out that many of the little trees have to linger in the same height for a very long time and have to wait until one of their grown-up family members dies and comes down, so that there is light to make a leap in gaining height. Small trees, which look like only a few years old, can be already 80 years or older. It seems somehow cruel of the elder trees to claim all the sunlight for themselves and let their offspring stand in the dark, but forresters actually call this a pedagogical measure. Science found out that a very slow growth of young trees is the best supposition to reach an old age. The wood cells inside contain less air, so that the tree is more flexible and resistant in general. As the baby trees persevere in low levels close to the forest ground, the tree family is taking care of them by already integrating them into their network of feeding the week and needy.
According to the author, trees also have the ability to learn and often they have to learn the hard way. A tree can go without food for a while, but a lack of water very fast becomes a serious problem. Ignorant trees drink water greedily from the ground in spring and then often suffer injuries during hot summer periods. The tree trunk of the spruce for instance can get a crack, a wound from which the tree will suffer probably its whole life. But in the years to come the tree will handle its water budget more carefully, so that further such injuries can be prevented. But how is this even possible? Trees don’t have a brain where can they save knowledge and experience? For most scientists talking about trees which learn is as credible as a fairy tale, but some scientists already support this assumption, claiming that the tips of the tree’s roots might have similar structures to brains. Personally I find it very plausible that plants can learn too. We may not be able yet to explain it, but maybe this is only a matter of time.
Why are plants green?
We all learned about Photosynthesis in school: With the help of the chlorophyll the leaves use sunlight to produce nutrients and therfore energy. If the trees were able to use everything in an optimal way, there should be nothing left and the forest would be black even during the day. But chlorophyll cannot absorb the colour green and has to reflect the colours of this spectrum unusedly. This weekness of the chlorophyll is the reason why we can see the photosynthesis and why all plants appear green. I am wondering what the world would look like, if it wasn’t green the chlorophyll could not use, but blue, yellow, red or purple.
In some parks you can find beeches with red leaves. The reason for this anomaly is a disturbance of their metabolism. They lack an enzyme that is used to remove a red colourant, which was meant to safe the leaves from UV radiation. The emission of the red colours is causing a huge wastage of energy for the tree, so that they normally have a much shorter life expectancy.
The natural forest
In Germany it was decided that 5 % of all forests should be totally left alone, so that they can become the primeval forests of tomorrow. This is not much, but in Mr Wohlleben’s point of view it is a good beginning. The first early drastic changes in such a forest are already visible after only a few years. The originally planted conifers are eaten by insects, which could meanwhile multiply without hindrance. A couple of years later only a wasteland is left with pale tree skeletons. Not very romantic. But these dead trees build the best basis for the new forest to come. The first young generation of broadleaf trees have no parents to brake their growths and so they are not as strong as they should be. The social structure of a natural forest takes a long time to develop. Only after 100 years the plantation trees have vanished and only the second generation of broadleaf trees can grow protectedly under their parents welfare. When the second generation of trees reaches adulthood the forest becomes stable and can truly be called a natural forest. This forest would look like this: The tall mother trees would dominate the picture. They would have extremely straight and smooth trunks similar to the pillars of a cathedral, which would stand closely together and let only little sunlight though. The ground would show almost no bushes as they wouldn’t have enough light to grow. Maybe you imaged a natural forest as I did: chaotic and wild. But it seems that actually the opposite is true. Natural forests must draw an image of calm and order.
The newly found evidence of the emotional range of dogs naturally raised the question of a befitting treatment of dogs too. Surely an animal that can almost feel as strongly as us humans (oh most divine of all creatures) should be treated with respect. But what about all other animals for which scientists didn’t yet find evidence for their abilities to feel? Shouldn’t we better treat all animals respectfully (Scientists in California claim that fruit flys are able to dream…)? Or maybe even all living beings? Where would it leave us if we started to think about plant rights and plant welfare?
Peter Wohlleben is indeed comparing our exploitation of the forests to the suffering of farm animals. But he is also acknowledging the fact that we humans as well as all animals can only survive by killing other living beings. The question is, can we do it in a way that would avoid unnecessary suffering? And comparable to animals that would mean that trees would be able to live out their social needs in a natural forest climate. It should be apparent to us that forests are not only factories for wood but home and protection to countless animals and places of recovery for humans. I myself walk every day in a forest, which is only just behind where we live. I love walking there, but I can’t help feeling a sad energy inside this forest and since I read Mr Wohlleben’s book I think I have more of an idea why. Several times a year woodworkers are going in with heavy machinery. It always seems quite brutal and careless. The forest has already changed very much in the three years I have known it and some former nice places are in a desolate condition now. I can’t help wondering what this forest would look like if it could develop in a more natural way and if the woodworks would be handled with care.
Born in Heidelberg, Germany, Michael Lange has been working since the late seventies as a magazine and commercial photographer and has been focusing on personal projects the last 20 years. He is currently based in Hamburg, Germany.
He has had numerous solo shows, amongst others at the prestigious Alfred Ehrhardt Foundation in Berlin, Robert Morat Gallery Hamburg, L.A. Gallery Frankfurt, Wouter van Leeuwen Gallery Amsterdam, photo-eye gallery Santa Fe and Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles. His work was part of various Photofestivals and fares such as „La Gacilly“ in France, „Noorderlicht“ in the Netherlands, or Paris Photo. He has twice been the recipient of the Stiftung Kulturfonds grant in Germany.
WALD – Landscapes of Memory searches for stillness and harmony. Michael Lange captures timelessness in lands seemingly untouched by human hands. Photographed over the course of three years in the coniferous and deciduous forests of Germany during the twilight hours, WALD is a documentation of the forest in its mythic form. The idea of the forest has been imaginary for centuries. Through fairytales and mythical narratives, the forest has emphatically written itself into collective memory. In it, the forest’s visual substance mostly sees itself as a psychic area of retreat, in which childish longings and fears can live on. Lange found those places of retreat in which the imaginings of childhood condense, in sober nature documentary form, into impressive visual coinages. His photographs were created beyond the paths and hiking trails, often in the thicket and dense undergrowth. He visually captures an experience that is expressed in the German Romantic specific term „Waldeinsamkeit“ – Sylvan Solitude.
His books WALD and FLUSS had been published by Hatje Cantz 2012 + 2015. Signed copies can be ordered at www.michaellange.eu.
1 Michael Lange: WALD # 0095, 2009
2 Michael Lange: WALD # 6678, 2010
3 Michael Lange: WALD # 2016, 2011
4 Michael Lange: WALD # 1000, 2010
5 Michael Lange: WALD # 0576, 2009
6 Michael Lange: WALD # 0252, 2009
7 Michael Lange: WALD # 0075, 2009
8 Michael Lange: WALD # 0172, 2009
Text edit: Hayley Grafflin