The Secret Life of Trees (or if a tree falls in the forest is it actually plotting to kill you?)

One of the quirkier things my husband has been worrying about as we prepare for our AT thru-hike is getting hit by a falling tree, which amuses me a bit.  It’s true that a lot of trees fall over in the forest.  We see them everywhere as we hike, tilting at crazy angles, creaking ominously as the wind blows, or snagged in another tree’s branches after being uprooted in a storm.  And it’s also true that at least one AT hiker has been killed by a falling tree — and in our area, too.  But of all the dangers there are to worry about — snakes, bears, ticks, and deranged Deliverance-style murderers — toppling trees don’t usually make my list.fallen-tree-four

At least they didn’t until I read an article revealing that trees are smart.  It turns out, according to multiple researchers, that trees are much more complex than we once believed.  They can differentiate between species.  They form friendships with each other, protecting and nurturing the weak ones in times of need.  And they actually communicate in various ways – by intentionally making noises, sending out chemical signals, and using fungal networks in the soil called the “wood wide web.”  Yes, you read that right.  Those supposedly silent trees are actually abuzz with activity, gossiping like giggling schoolgirls, sending out news and messages as we hike past.  (You can read the article here:

So what do they talk about?  Predators, for one thing.  When insects or animals chomp on their leaves, they give off a warning gas or electrical signal.  That prompts the trees around them to send bad-tasting compounds into their leaves to keep the hungry critters from getting to them.  Or they release something that attracts the predators of those animals, like calling for backup from a gang of thugs.  Trees can also think ahead, collaborating and strategically coordinating their nut crops so the deer population doesn’t explode and do them in.

All of this makes me wonder.  If trees get that alarmed by gentle deer munching on their leaves, what do they think about humans who come bearing axes and chain saws or bulldoze entire woods?  While I’m tripping happily down the trail, imagining that they’re swaying peacefully in the wind, are they really plotting my demise, preparing to plunge to earth and slay me in retaliation for my brethren’s sins?

montclair-tree1If so, I’d like to explain that I’m one of the good guys.  I love trees.  I spent my childhood sitting in their branches.  I’ve planted trees nearly every place I’ve lived.  I even helped get a Virginia school district to save an ancient tulip poplar from demolition.  Surely they can count on me as a friend?

Regardless, I know one thing.  I’ll never view trees the same way again.  And before I strap my hammock to them at night, maybe I’d better ask their permission — before they turn homicidal and decide to exact revenge.


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Comments 9

  • Linda Vance : Sep 21st

    Trees have some serious secrets, and are bigger than they look. People think they see aspen forests, but often what they’re seeing is one aspen organism with a lot of stems. There’s one in Utah that has 47,000 stems and covers 100 acres ( I think you’re wise to get chummy with them before hanging your hammock. And do pay attention to the dead ones. We call them “widowmakers” out here in the West, where insects and disease have decimated our pine forests. I never pitch a tent without calculating the likely fall path of any dead or diseased trees in my vicinity. You’re safer in the deciduous forests of the east, where the trees are deeper rooted, but a dead tree is always a potential hazard.

    • Gail Barrett : Sep 22nd

      Wow. I had no idea about how big trees are, Linda. We know so little about the world! I have heard smoke jumpers use the term “widowmakers.” It’s a good thing to keep in mind. And yeah, I remember the damage in the forests out west. So sad. I guess the forests will eventually recover, but probably not in our lifetimes.

  • Lisa : Sep 22nd

    Funnnnnyyyy! I like your posts Gail!

    • Gail Barrett : Sep 22nd

      Thanks so much, Lisa! Hiking is certainly a “wild” adventure!!!

  • TBR : Sep 22nd

    Had a tree fall one night when I was on the AT in Vermont. Didn’t hit the tent, but … came close.

    • Gail Barrett : Sep 22nd

      Yikes! That must have been scary, TBR! I’m glad that you’re okay.

  • Willough : Oct 14th

    I read that article about the Wood Wide Web, but your description is SO much more fascinating and magical.

    And Linda’s comment just blew my mind. I’m definitely not sleeping now. I’ll be up for another 2 days reading about this.

  • Linda Two-Socks : Mar 31st

    Hi Gail. As a 60+er & hiker, I’m looking forward to voyeuristically following your AT hike this year. Just a comment on that ‘secret life of trees’ of which you so accurately speak. Just finished reading “The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben. It’s impossible to look at another tree w/o equating it w/human behavior (make that “positive” human behavior) after reading the info packed into this book. Again….God speak and hope the rain & heat treat you kindly on your adventure.

    • Gail Barrett : Mar 31st

      Linda, I’ll have to add that book to my reading pile for the second half of the hike. It sounds fascinating! And thank you so much for the good wishes. I really appreciate them. We leave tomorrow morning (yikes!!!!) and are plagued with all sorts of doubts, especially since it has been raining hard all day. But for better or worse, here we go…


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