‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’ – Natural Climate Solutions

In 1979 Audre Lorde agreed to take part in a New York University Institute for the Humanities panel at the Second Sex Conference.  The essay ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’was composed from comments at that conference and posed the question ‘What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?’ – the answer is that ‘only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable’.  This powerful, provocative and insightful metaphor continues to shape discourse around gender, sexuality, power and race, but I believe it is also relevant to the current ecological crisis and the motives of a number of environmental campaigners who last week published an open letter and website advocating ‘Natural Climate Solutions’.

On the 3rdApril in The Guardian newspaper a number of distinguished and respected individuals including the activist Greta Thunberg, author Philip Pullman, CEO of Friends of the Earth Craig Bennett and the journalist George Monbiot called on governments ‘to support natural climate solutions with an urgent programme of research, funding and political commitment’.  The same day Monbiot wrote for The Guardianin more detail about ‘natural climate solutions’, juxtaposing the current preferred method of ‘bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS)’ with the restoration of living systems to draw carbon from the atmosphere in an increasingly futile attempt to keep temperature increase to below 1.5C.  Monbiot explains that by protecting and restoring natural forests, allowing native trees to repopulate, and restoring peat and wetlands nature could provide a plentiful source of natural solutions to draw carbon from the air.

A visit to the Natural Climate Solutions website reaffirms and extends these elucidations.  The website is coherently divided into chapters detailing how a particular natural entity can provide a way to capture and store carbon.  The first three chapters deal with ‘Reforestation’, ‘Forest Protection’ and ‘Other forest carbon solutions’; the point is made that of ‘the millions of hectares of land that have been deforested, much of it provides little or no food production, but would provide good opportunities for cost-effective reforestation’, meaning carbon dioxide could be stored without any disruption to food production.  It is also suggested that improvements in forest management could allow trees to store more carbon if logging was reduced and harvest cycles were extended and if timber plantation rotations were also prolonged.  

Logging at Salcey Forest

Natural climate solutions appear logical, cost-effective, and non-hazardous to the rest of the natural world and humans; so why is there such a reluctance to embrace these methods? One major reason is economic factors, a point acknowledged on the Natural Climate Solutions website. Whilst discussing reforestation it is suggested that creating financial incentives to plant trees by creating ‘new markets for more sustainable timber and forest products’, could make the prospect more attractive.  Restoring wetlands is also noted to be expensive and ‘a relatively high-cost pathway’, especially in the US.  But can we afford to continue making decisions solely on economic factors, as a cost will inevitably be paid elsewhere.

There are several studies which, with some caution, suggest that geoengineering could combat climate change by releasing sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere.  This will essentially mimic the effect of a volcano, pumping gas into the sky that will turn into aerosols which reflect part of the sun’s heat. This would be a temporary measure however not a solution, as it would not combat the continual accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or the acidification of the oceans and could potentially interfere with rainfall and storm patterns.

Ultimately, we are at crisis point, and the utilisation of scientific intervention in the form of BECCS or the release of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere is reminiscent of using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.  The ecological crisis emerged through the anthropocentric burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and the appropriation of land for agriculture and it seems illogical that the crisis will be averted by utilising the same tools which were implicit in its destruction.  Natural climate solutions may be slow, steady and expensive, but perhaps the master should allow the natural world to use its own tools to right the human wrong, maybe then the required perimeters of change that are drastically and urgently required will occur.

Cumbrian Coal Mining

The above picture is looking out across the Irish Sea from the shoreline of St. Bees in West Cumbria; if you continue following the coast you will reach the town of Whitehaven, which in the eighteenth-century boasted of having the greatest port outside of London and looks upon the mountains of the Lake District National Park.  On the 19 March 2019, Cumbria County Council approved a plan by West Cumbria Mining Limited to operate the first deep coal mine in thirty years at Woodhouse Colliery in a £165 million deal which is to be located between St. Bees and Whitehaven.  The mine will process 2.5 million tonnes of coking coal a year destined for the UK and European market replacing imports from the US, Canada, Russia and Columbia. The controversial plan gained support from councillors representing all the major political parties and one of the reasons it was ultimately given the green light was expressed by Councillor Geoff Cook who stated that “the number of jobs on offer … outweighed concerns about climate change and local amenity”.  The mine is expected to employ 500 people and an estimated 2,000 more jobs will be created within the supply chain.  The approval has angered climate protestors as the justification based around employment irrevocably places anthropocentric interests above the sustainability of the planet.   

But what is coking coal? Known also as ‘metallurgical coal’, it is primarily used in the steel industry.  Metallurgical coal is much harder and blacker than coal used for thermal purposes and it contains more carbon and less moisture.  As carbon dioxide is the greenhouse gas most commonly produced by human activity and is responsible for 64% of human made global warming, the approval of the mine does appear counter to the goals of the 2016 Paris Agreement about climate change.  The agreement focuses on keeping the average global temperature increase to well below 2 celsius above pre-industrial levels and to limit the increase to 1.5 celsius, a long-term goal made harder with the continual burning of fossil fuels.

The action group ‘Keep Cumbrian Coal in the Hole’, have been active in petitioning the planning application for a number of reasons.  They are concerned about the mines proximity to the Sellafield nuclear power plant as it will be located less than five miles from the site.  There is also concern about West Cumbria Minings plan to sell a percentage of the coke on the open international market as it could end up being burnt in power stations or potentially in the manufacturing process of projects such as Trident submarines.  There is also anger towards the suggestion, which was used as part of the PR campaign, that the coke is necessary for producing steel for wind turbines.  An argument which seems condescending when the planet is in the grip of an environmental crisis.

The approval of the Woodhouse Colliery highlights the most fundamental issue within the Anthropocene, that of the human versus the natural world.  At a time when our children and young adults are protesting climate change and begging for adults to responsibly be the custodians of their future planet, a plan which undeniably puts human factors before those of the environment is a detrimental step backwards and threatens the security of the planet for us all.


As February has moved into March and Spring has begun in earnest I have embarked on a ‘rewilding’ project in my back garden.  It is a fairly modest size and typical of a Victorian terrace house, rectangle in shape and leads out to an alley way that runs the back of our house and those opposite. The garden is currently essentially concrete, covered in what were once coloured slabs that made a chessboard design with a thin soil boarder around the edge.  At the moment practicality dictates that I use one small corner of the garden for my project as the dog still needs space and we need access through the back gate, however, all my research indicates that even a small area can make a massive difference to the local wildlife and increase biodiversity.

On a large scale, the idea of ‘rewilding’ has gained momentum over the last five-ten years and many environmentalists believe it to be a good land management alternative.   Rewilding Britain states that the idea “is the large scale restoration of ecosystems where nature can take care of itself”, suggesting that the intent is for humans to stand back and effectively let nature be. The aim is to reverse the ecological damage which has been done for centuries and “reinstate natural processes and, where appropriate, missing species – allowing them to shape the landscape and habitats within”.  The introduction of ‘missing species’ is a controversial idea, with many against the notion of reintroducing wolves or the lynx back to Scotland.  Writing in The Guardian in 2017, Catherine Bennett is critical of reintroducing species for safety reasons and because of the irony in humans being part of that process in order for nature to become wild again.  Rewilding Britain supports these actions because our “ecosystems are broken and nature is struggling – with 56% of species in the UK in decline and 15% threatened with extinction”.  The environmental writer George Monbiot,believes rewilding “offers the hope of recovery, of the enhancement of wonder and enchantment and delight in a world that often seems crushingly bleak”.

Rewilding my back garden may be a small action, but it is a manageable one.  I have removed some of the slabs, turned the soil and scattered various seeds, aiming for a meadow like effect that will attract butterflies, bees and more exotic birds than pigeons and blackbirds.  I will not use any chemicals on the area, no pesticides, slug pellets or fertilisers.  The concrete which remains I will endeavour to decorate with plants and flowers that will attract a diverse range of insects and birds.  I will therefore effectively be letting nature take care of itself and yes, there is an irony in a human hand creating the space but there must be a balance between the human and nature within the current ecological crisis and a working together rather than an anthropogenic dominance.  

Early Spring and the Science of Phenology

As February 2019 begins to move towards March is has been hard to ignore the increase in the daily temperature resulting in coats and jackets remaining in cloak rooms to be replaced by t-shirts, shorts and flip flops for the truly brave.  Accompanying this change in attire has been the smells and sights of Spring arriving early.  A fragrant perfume of flowers beginning to bloom and grass being mown, a blanket of vibrant spring flowers emerging and trees budding their infant blossom.  Birds and insects have begun to build nests and wake up, swallows have been sighted across the country and bees and lady birds have been spotted as early as Valentine’s day.  

The problem with such an early Spring is that if March, when true Spring is expected to commence, has effectively swapped places with February, then the birds and insects may find themselves struggling through a cold and wet month, battling to survive as food becomes scarce and night time temperatures plummet.  This will then impact their ecosystem as food chains struggle and nests built early in the year on the promise of a warm Spring find themselves empty.

As we begin to experience  increased fluctuations in weather patterns it is vital that data is recorded and analysed to ascertain the causes and effects of these anomalies, especially the impact of climate change, and this is known as ‘phenology’.  This is “the study of the timing of natural events, especially in relation to climate … Historical data proves how responsive species are to changing temperatures”.  As part of the Woodland Trust, Nature’s Calendarencourages the public to record signs of natural happenings beginning earlier than expected to track these changes.  Through data collected and already analysed, Nature’s Calendar have determined that the “overall period of active plant growth each year is lengthening’ and that across Europe Spring “is now advancing by 2.5 days per decade”.  Indicating that if this pattern remains, in twenty years Spring will be five days longer and in forty years up to ten, suggesting that in most of our life times these recent temperatures and early Spring will become the norm.

It is essential therefore that as the narrative of the Anthropocene continues to evolve we strive to become active participants not only in reducing our anthropogenic impact, but also by recording these natural happenings to ensure a true pattern can be established. Please visit https://naturescalendar.woodlandtrust.org.uk/add-a-record/to view which species have been recorded already this year and how you can record your own.

The Secret Network of Nature – Peter Wohlleben

In The Secret Network of Nature by Peter Wohlleben the close connections that exist between flora and fauna are explored and several unexpected relationships reveal the delicate balance which maintains vulnerable ecosystems. Wohlleben stresses that nature works on cause and effect, however the earths ecosystems are too complex for us to ever easily map out simple rules to ensure the balance is never interrupted. It is therefore difficult for us to imagine today some of the long-term effects and disruption being created through the anthropocentric control of nature. 

One of the most interesting chapters in the book is entitled ‘Salmon in the Trees’ and here Wohlleben explains the relationship between salmon, bears and trees.  He states that along the Pacific Coast of North America black and brown bears catch salmon as they journey back upstream in preparation to spawn. The bears catch the salmon but will discard the carcass if they are no longer carrying much body fat, ensuring a tasty meal for other animals in the area.  The head and bones of the salmon often get left to rot amongst the vegetation and this subsequently fertilises the soil.  This results in extremely high levels of nitrogen being distributed which has the effect of speeding up the growth of the Sitka spruce in particular which grows nearby.  It has been reported that more than 80 per cent of the nitrogen that is found in the trees can be traced back to fish.

In Europe, where we no longer have salmon swimming in abundance in rivers, it is difficult to ascertain what effect their absence has had as we are unable to test trees for nitrogen levels because as Wohlleben states, since the Middle Ages, forests have either been cut down or “so heavily exploited that all the ancient trees have disappeared”.  It is a sad but surprising fact that in Germany forests which are commercially managed have no tree older than eighty.  

Alongside other fascinating relationships examining ‘Why Deer Taste Bad to Trees, ‘Is the Bark Beetle All Bad?’, and ‘How Earthworms Control Wild Boar’, Wohlleben addresses many of the myths which surround biodiversity.  In particular the idea that if we manage to save one particular animal or plant we are doing a good thing for the environment, the effect this then has on the survival of several other species is often ignored.  Wohlleben highlights the fact that in Germany alone there are 71,500 known species, meaning we can never know how many will be destroyed by the anthropocentric decision to alter the environment to ensure the survival of one.

The Secret Network of Nature is an accessible, illuminating, factual account of how anthropocentric management of the environment can interrupt the balance of life.  The notion of cause and effect  reminds me of the 1952 Science Fiction short story ‘A Sound of Thunder’ by Ray Bradbury. Set in 2055 the protagonist Eckles pays a lot of money to return to the past to hunt a Tyrannosaurus Rex.  Eckles and his fellow hunters are given strict instructions to remain on the path and only shoot when instructed so they do not cause any damage in the past that will have consequences in the future but, panicked at the sight of the T-rex Eckles runs into the forest straying from the path. On their arrival back in 2055 subtle changes have taken place which indicate something must have gone wrong.  On examining his shoe, it becomes clear that Eckles has crushed a butterfly when he deviated from the path.  The story concludes on a sound of thunder resonating from the past highlighting the damage caused by anthropocentric actions.  Wohlleben’s book is a sound of thunder in the Anthropocene, our current actions will and do have far reaching consequences; but understanding the ‘network of nature’ may help us stick to the path and ensure the balance of these relationships.

The Living Mountain – Nan Shepherd

Composed during the Second World War but not published until 1977, The Living Mountain  by Nan Shepherd expresses the authors adoration and devotion to walking, exploring and understanding the Cairngorm Mountains of north-east Scotland.  Rich in Romantic language and imagery, Shepherd shares her encounters upon the mountain, often revealing snippets of a world that invokes faerie; crystal clear lochs, skies of blue and sloping mountains adorned with a pallet of purple, green and yellow.  But as expected of faerie land, danger lurks below the surface and the mountain demands respect, blowing arctic winds, snow and ice, disorientating fog and dizzying drops upon visitors who do not look, listen or understand.  Shepherd’s chapters range from discussing the inanimate, ‘The Plateau’, ‘The Recesses’, and ‘The Group’, to what she refers to as ‘the elementals’, water, light and air, to the plant life upon the mountain and the human senses and ‘Being’.  The mountain, and Shepherd are both at their most vibrant and alive in the recollections that invoke the sublime.

In the second chapter, ‘The Recesses’, Shepherd admits that when first climbing she “made always for the summits, and would not take time to explore the recesses”, until one September day when she was guided to “Coire on Lochain”.  Shepherd describes her awe at discovering the Loch which hitherto had been hidden from sight.  Recounting with pure joy and emotion Shepherd describes how this hidden place assaults the senses and corrodes the human understanding of time, “as altering the position of one’s head, a different kind of world may be made to appear”. From her newly acquired knowledge of place upon the mountain Shepherd explains she only then “began to understand that haste can do nothing with these hills”.  It is impossible not to feel the overwhelming emotions of Shepherd in that recollection, of being out of time at the realisation that the mountain is timeless in a human sense of keeping time, and that despite ceaselessly looking, she had “hardly begun to see”.

Shepherd tells a further story of the recesses upon the mountain featuring a visit to Loch Avon that sits at an altitude of 2300 feet.  On a crisp, clear July morning she began to ascend with a companion Cain Gorm and having reached their destination by midday, encouraged by the clear, cool water they stripped and bathed.  Shepherd recounts that the clarity of the water was greater than looking through air and the true expanse of the Loch was only revealed as they began to wade into it, but their march was halted by the revelation of a shelf that plunged down to what was the true bottom of the Loch.  Communicating in silence the companions made their way to the safety of the shore and Shepherd recalls her “spirit was as naked as my body”.  These moments of wonder, awe, beauty and tranquillity, contrasted with the perils that are a constant potentiality is a reminder to the reader that nature is harsh, it is violent, and it is unforgiving.

With regards to the Anthropocene, The Living Mountain is a beautiful reminder that nature is alive, a dominant force, and irreverent to human time, purpose and agenda.  Shepherd alludes to the element of exclusivity in accessing and appreciating the mountain, an exclusivity that could potentially help appreciate, respect and understand the natural world within the environmental crisis we are currently within.

Rewild Yourself – Simon Barnes

The notion of ‘rewilding’ is fast becoming a widespread reaction to the emerging narrative of the Anthropocene. The purpose, according to rewildbritain.org.uk is “the restoration of ecosystems where nature can take care of itself … Rewilding encourages a balance between people and the rest of nature where each can thrive”.  It is an acknowledgment that nature is powerful; capable of renewal, regrowth, and replenishment.  On a large scale, rewilding must be the concern of government, councils and organisations which are able to implement policy and prevent vast amounts of natural land becoming covered in concrete, chemicals or sites of deforestation.  One idea already proposed is that of ‘Half-Earth’, the simple idea that the environment would be able to repair itself if half of the earth’s surface was allocated primarily for the benefit of other species.  This proposal has gained traction following a mass-scale forest restoration which has seen 43 countries committed to restoring 292m hectares of degraded land to forest.  On a smaller scale, the individual can become involved with rewilding by making a few small changes to their perspective and by making a little effort.

In Rewild Yourself  by Simon Barnes there are 23 spellbinding ways to make nature more visible, and I would suggest that through making nature more visible, what will likely follow is a respect, delight, sense of wonder and desire to protect, preserve and restore the natural world within your own environment.

One of the delights of Barnes book is that each spell begins with an introduction from a work of fiction which transports the reader to another world; Lucy walking arm in arm with the faun through Narnia, gills appearing on Harry in the Goblet of Fire, the Marauders Map revealing secrets in the Prisoner of Azkaban  and darkness being made visible in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  These allusions to another world are both to prepare the reader and remind them that the spells will reveal a new world to the caster, and they must be ready to look again, change perspective, make an effort and enjoy what they newly discover.

The spells themselves are a mix of practicality, honing our human senses and enriching our reading material.  In a spell entitled ‘Magic Trousers’, Barnes conveys the world which will become revealed by simply investing in a pair of water proof trousers.  He attests that what these trousers will do “is break down some of the barriers between being inside and being outside”, they will effectively allow greater time to be spent out of doors resulting in a closer interaction with nature.  In ‘Regaining your lost sense’ Barnes highlights how we culturally privilege sight over any other sense, and if we take time to hone our listening skills, which have become dulled through a constant barrage of urban noise, a new and exciting sound will prick our ears, grab our attention and transport us to a land of birdsong.  In ‘The Magicians Library’, Barnes lists his top ten books which will help the reader in their summoning of nature.  These are not just books to aid the reader in identifying trees, plants, insects and animals, they are about evolution, butterflies, whales and Mowgli, living intimately in the jungle, a human in balance with their environment.

As a response to the Anthropocene, rewilding is an activity all can become involved in and Rewild Yourself is a gentle introduction in how to transport yourself into a world of magic and awe which is closer than imagined.  The spells summon nature, draw it closer and make visible that which is often hidden amongst the white noise of our increasingly urban lives.

The Lost Words and the Power of Nature

On the evening of the 23 November I had the privilege and the pleasure of attending ‘Sobell House Hospice presents Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’ at The Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford.  Macfarlane and Morris have become involved with the hospice through their joint venture The Lost Words and the evening celebrated the connection, solace and hope nature provides as families navigate heart breaking diagnosis, grief and, ultimately loss.

Macfarlane and Morris were hosted by Dr Rachel Clarke who offers palliative care at the hospice and who conveyed beautifully the importance and power of nature through her personal experience of losing her father.  Dr Clarke also spoke of the kindness and selfless actions of Macfarlane who had sent her father a pebble from an arctic expedition after she had contacted him via social media and asked for a signed book to boost his spirits; a kindness that was repeated in stories told by members of the audience, many of whom had been sent natural objects by Macfarlane in times of personal crisis. The trio were accompanied onstage by a patient from the hospice with a terminal diagnosis, a daughter revealing her mother’s own version of The Lost Words and a husband who had lost a wife.  I will not repeat their stories here, they are not mine to tell, and I could never do them the justice they deserve, but I will tell a story of my own.

In June 2014 my dad suffered an aortic aneurysm.  I will refrain from repeating the gory details but after a ten per-cent chance of survival, an eight hour operation, over twenty pints of blood, a blood clot in his leg, weeks in intensive care followed by weeks learning to stand and walk again, an ileostomy two years later, reduced feeling in his feet and legs we are able to say he is here.  And it is not until now that I have realised and appreciated that nature played a role in his recovery.  Dad has never been a fell walker, a mountain basher or a rambler, but he has always taken great enjoyment in walking his dogs in the surrounding countryside where my parents live.  Whilst in hospital one of his biggest concerns was his cocker spaniel Bruce; Who would walk him? Where was he being walked? Would he ever be able to walk him again?  He would take Bruce out for hours along the riverbanks watching the partridges, pheasants and hawks, carrying his camera to show us all later what he had found.  He would sit on the bank as Bruce ran in and out of farmer’s fields sniffing and chasing the birds from their hiding places. When he was in hospital he would tell me stories of when he was younger in Kent, scrumping apples, picking hops, looking after a fox cub.  I see now he has always had an affinity with nature; enjoyed it, took pleasure in being surrounded by it and had a desire to get back within it, an affinity I am not sure he himself has recognised.  His walks may be shorter now, less adventurous and more about socialising, but being outdoors is revitalising, hopeful and is the essence of being alive.

Following that evening in Oxford and thinking about my dad I have begun to  revisit The Lost Words and can now appreciate it for more than keeping language alive; it is about all kinds of loss and carries within it hope.  As one gentleman said on the night “nature carries the joy of life”; and as the spells from the book are read aloud, that joy becomes recast.

Where Poppies Blow – John Lewis-Stempel

Where Poppies Blow by John Lewis-Stempel tells the story of the British soldiers enduring relationship with the natural world. Retold through a mixture of the soldier’s own words taken from diaries, letters to loved ones, and their own poetry, Lewis-Stempel creates an emotional and compelling narrative of the men, animals and landscape that served and inspired during the First World War.

The first chapter, ‘For King and Countryside’, recounts numerous soldier’s personal reasons for enlisting, all linked in their own way to the unfailing desire to protect and preserve the English countryside for the generations to come.  One of the most poignant aspects that emerges from several personal accounts is the age of the men; as expected most are young, teenagers and early twenties, their lives still ahead of them, but many are in their thirties or early forties and therefore had no statutory obligation to fight.  On being asked why he had volunteered, the thirty-six-year-old poet Edward Thomas scooped up a handful of the earth and replied, “Literally for this”.  The British landscape also gave comfort to the soldiers when the outlook, metaphorically and literally looked bleak.  Recounting the beauty, tranquillity and life of the countryside at home served as a tonic to the “destruction of nature on the Western Front”.

Sandwiched between the chapters of Where Poppies Blow, Lewis-Stempel has interjected an ‘Interstice’, providing a short space for extra material. From a comprehensive list of ‘Birds of the Battlefield, Western Front 1914-18’, to ‘The Statistics of Disease’,  this is a space for indisputable facts but more importantly to hear in the soldier’s poetry the passion, pride, empathy and sympathy they show towards their animal comrades.

The chapters which focus on animals, the birds, horses, dogs and cats that served alongside the soldiers, became their friends and alleviated the boredom of war exhibit a longing for home and a sadness for innocent casualties of war.  In the chapter about ‘All the Lovely Horses’, the numerical facts regarding the mere amount of horses and mules used and lost throughout the war are staggering.  At the beginning of the war in August 1914 the British Army had “25,000 horses and mules”, and throughout procured more from home and several other countries including America, Spain and India.  The soldiers recount in their diaries and poems of the suffering endured by these beautiful animals, but also of their bravery and companionship, and how whenever possible they would alleviate their suffering when they fell from shell fire, disease or hunger.  It was to the skies though that the soldiers looked to alleviate the tedium of war. The myriad of birds which sang, flew and nested across the stretch of no man’s land gave respite, comfort and hope when often there was not much to be found.  As one Scottish miner who enlisted told his local newspaper, “If it weren’t for the birds, what a hell it would be”.

In the Preface Lewis-Stempel states that we “have become de-natured and uber-urban”; we forget too easily the price that has been paid for our freedom to enjoy, experience and exploit the natural world.  As we mark the hundred-year anniversary of the First World War, Where Poppies Blow is a poignant, emotional and stark reminder that nature is worth protecting and fighting for.

The Hidden Life of Trees – Peter Wohlleben

Trees are a necessary and important part of our ecology, they provide us with oxygen whilst storing carbon, provide habitats for wildlife and bear fruit, fuel and shelter. But aside from all these anthropocentric benefits, trees are involved in a community of their own, creating a network of friendship and sustainability.  Just over two decades ago the ecologist Suzanne Simard discovered that trees were effectively communicating with one another.  Through a web of tightly bound infrastructures below the surface of the soil, trees form connections with fungi to exchange nutrients, warn one another of an impending threat and give life to friends who have been mercilessly axed down. The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben provides an intimate and illuminating peek into the community of trees in the forest he manages in the Eifel mountains in Germany.

To speak of friendship amongst trees appears romantic, the mere application of anthropocentrism to give human qualities to a non-human entity, but Wohlleben describes the relationship between the trees in his forest as a friendship of survival; the forest as a whole is only strong when all the trees work together.  Through reciting an anecdote of stumbling upon an ancient tree stump within the forest displaying signs of life, despite being felled four or five hundred years ago, Wohlleben concludes that this stump was “getting assistance from neighboring trees, specifically from their roots” (3).  Scientists have discovered these nutrients are exchanged from either a fungal network which exists around the tips of the roots or from the roots themselves becoming interconnected.  This however does not happen by mere accident or circumstance of roots bumping into each other and becoming connected, trees have the ability to distinguish their own roots from those of other species, they therefore choose which trees they connect with and support.  This means that “forests are superorganisms with interconnections” (3) and the trees rely on one another for survival.  Through working together in friendship, they create an ecosystem which can sustain the forest and it is within this environment that they can live to be very old, but it is dependent on the community remaining “intact no matter what” (4).

The notion of friendship to create a sustainable ecosystem is reiterated by Wohlleben when he speaks of the chaos which is created within the forest when humans attempt to assist trees by creating more space for them through culling others.  In a harrowing tale he recounts a time in his early years as a forester when he was tasked with the job of having “young trees girdled” (17).  The process involves stripping the bark 3 feet wide and removing it around the trunk to basically kill the tree.  Wohlleben speaks with raw emotion and regret at these past actions describing them as ‘brutal’ as “death comes slowly” (17); thanks however to the underground network, many of these trees survived, receiving nutrients from their neighbours.

This idea of friendship and support at work within a forest community is not only relevant to humans because forests work as fantastic natural vacuums of carbon, benefitting our predicament within the Anthropocene; they also provide a model of co-operation and communication.  As the narrative of the Anthropocene continues, humans can gain insights into natural networks and learn from how they create an ecosystem which nourishes all the participants.  Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees is more than an insight into an underground network, it is a model of sustainability and survival.