Documentary Review: Secrets of the forest revealed, “The Hidden Life of Trees”

Dr. Seuss would have loved Peter Wohlleben. The writer who dreamed up the line “I speak for the trees” would appreciate a real, live Lorax among us. “The most famous forester in Germany” has become a worldwide spokesman for what’s really going on in the woods, drawing on research from others and his own decades of experience to declare that trees are “not gigantic robots,” but “sentient beings” that communicate, feel and cooperate as they “pursue their objectives.”

“The Hidden Life of Trees” is a documentary built around Wohlleben’s teaching, lecturing and travels, based on his book of the same title (“Das geheime Leben der Bäume” in German). It’s a lovely blend of science, travelogue and arboreal evangelism.

He explains the science that’s revealed how trees communicate and cooperate with each other, not so much “competing” for sunlight, water and nutrients, as “sharing,” sending sugars to each other to keep ancient roots alive even after a trunk has fallen.

He makes his own “Ents” from “Lord of the Rings” joke, but that’s after he’s shown us the way fungi — mushrooms, the stars of “Fantastic Fungi” — weave a “wood wide web” under the forest floor, passing on information about stresses, threats and the like from tree to tree.

And he preaches to foresters, timber concerns, politicians and anybody who will listen about the proper care of forests — benign neglect — and the damage done by clear-cutting and mechanized harvesting, of planting one (usually non-native) species on tree farms and acting as if that monoculture is “helping” anyone other than big lumber and pulp paper concerns.

“If we want to use forests in the battle against climate change,” Wohlleben insists, “we have to allow them to grow old.”

Jörg Adolph’s film follows the forester through forests of Germany — “reserves” where “old growth” has reproduced the “virgin” beech forests of ancient central Europe, recent sites of forest fires (where leaving the trees, even the dead ones, standing, is the best practice). He visits the world’s oldest tree, a 10,000 year-old spruce in Sweden. He pitches in on anti-coal mine/clear-cutting protests in Germany and Vancouver.

And nature footage by Jan Haft — extreme closeups and majestic panoramas, time-lapse sequences and slow-motion scenes — fills in the rest, showing us the grandeur and the quiet of great expanses of trees left to do what trees do, the collection of forest creatures who depend on the nuts, cones and seeds of trees to survive.

And that underscores Wohlleben’s main points (either presented on camera, in German, or narrated from his book in English). Deciduous trees, he says, “before they bloom, agree among themselves” about when to do it. They can hold off on dropping seeds for a year or two as a means of preventing the wild boar, squirrel and deer populations from growing too fast and threatening the forest. Smart trees.

He also makes the case for avoiding transplanting trees from nurseries, doomed to “die before their time” because of whacking the roots back to make them easier transport, and against mechanical harvesting altogether. Forest floors are ruined for water retention and life regeneration by the gigantic, automated harvesters that render the work so fast and efficient these days.

A chat with the Canadian scientist/philosopher David Suzuki lays out the shortsightedness of logging and loggers. Wohlleben, like the trees, is thinking in terms of centuries, ecosystems and sustainability. Big Timber is cashing in on the worldwide lumber shortage to clear cut much of North America, all over again. Take any backroad in the rural South and you’ll see this, descendants with little connection to the land selling off timber rights to rape, ruin and run clear-cutters and chip mills.

“The Hidden Life of Trees” won’t change that practice on its own. But if you’re tempted into the woods by this film, maybe you’ll be a little more open to the idea of “individual rights” gathered in number to battle “corporate rights” in search of a more sane and sustainable way of looking at the forest, and the trees within it.

MPA Rating: PG

Cast: Peter Wohlleben, David Suzuki, Markus Lanz, Achim Bogdahn

Credits: Directed by Jörg Adolph and Jan Haft (nature footage). A Constantin Films release.

Running time: 1:24 (North American version)

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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