THE HIDDEN LIFE OF TREES – Review – We Are Movie Geeks



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A scene from the documentary THE HIDDEN LIFE OF TREES.
Courtesy of Capelight Pictures, MPI Media Group and Fusion Entertainment.

A walk in the woods is a lovely thing but when it is nature tour is led by the deeply-knowledgeable, infectiously-enthusiastic Peter Wohlleben, a renowned forester with 25-years experience in forests and deep knowledge of the biology and ecology of trees, it is an entry into a secret world where trees communicate with each other and work together to benefit the whole.

It has a magical ring to it but Peter Wohlleben’s lessons are rooted firmly in science – plant biology and ecology – and his years of experience tending forests. Wohlleben is the author of the 2015 non-fiction book “The Hidden Life Of Trees,” the basis of this documentary of the same name. The non-fiction book, an international bestseller, presents scientific fact in the form of an accessible tale of the secret, social lives of trees. The documentary offers Wohlleben narrating immersive tours of the forests, along with generous excerpts from his non-fiction book presented by a narrator, footage of Wohlleben teaching classes that introduce lay audiences to what plant science knows about how trees interact with each other and their environment, and Wohlleben interacting with loggers, gently making the case for sustainable practices and imparting his knowledge of forests in a friendly, respectful way, drawing on his standing as someone with years of expertise in forestry to strengthen his points.

When looking at animals, we are never surprised to learn that they are social or that they have ways of communicating with others in their group. But people have a different perception of plants. Because they don’t get up and run around, and do not vocalize, it is easy to think of them as being like rocks. But as any student of plant biology quickly learns in class, plants do indeed move, but more slowly and in more subtle ways, something the documentary points out. Actually, it makes sense that a living thing that is rooted to one spot like a tree, which cannot get up and flee from threats, might have other ways to defend itself, and moreover, might want to help out others of its species survive as well. Such examples are all over the animal kingdom, but Wohlleben reveals how they exist in plants as well, specifically trees. Trees release chemicals into their cells and structure to discourage predators, such as insects and deer, and they also disperse chemical signals on the air to warn others of their species, to let them prepare for the threat.

The documentary has a good deal of such scientific information but Wohlleben, natural storyteller, always presents it in an accessible, even entertaining way. We cannot help but be caught up in his enthusiasm for trees and forests, as the charming, upbeat forester takes us on a tour of the woods – several woods, in fact – in his native Germany as well as Poland, Sweden and Canada. In his affable but clear way, he introduces us to the ways in which trees communicate and cooperate with others of their species, shelter and nurture young offspring trees, and form partnerships with other species like fungi for mutual benefit.

Director/writer Jorg Adolph avoids the usual documentary structure of talking head interviews and archival still and footage. Instead, we get lots of cinematographers Jan Haft’s and Daniel Schonauer’s immersive, beautiful photography of leafy forests, combined with imaginative graphics, making the documentary a visual delight. There is just the right amount of scientific detail, so the audience feels informed but not overwhelmed. Part of the documentary is Wohlleben’s nature walks, where he points out aspects of forest, and contrasts the health of old growth natural forests with mono-culture tree plantations of species not native to the region. Another part is sections of his non-fiction book, read by a narrator over images of trees and forests. A third part is Wohlleben talking about how to sustain forests, and people’s ability to use them, and visiting various location to talk with people who work with forests.

He also gently but persuasively presents the case for sustainable forest management to loggers, and to us in the audience, noting that conventional forestry is like putting a butcher in charge of animal care. Such an approach to forest management has a particular focus, which is not the benefit the trees or forest health. But Wohlleben is no unreasoning purist; he makes clear he is someone who enjoys wood products and understands the use of forests, and the people who work in them, from lifelong professional experience. That background gives him standing and credibility that other ecologists might lack, when he talks to those who make their living with trees. Wohlleben thinks people should be allowed to use forests, to harvest trees, but in a more sustainable way. His focus is on sustainability for people more than nature.

As an example of sustainable logging, the documentary presents footage as logger selectively harvests large trees, leaving the smaller ones to grow into the space now opened, and then instead of using heavy machinery, the weight of compacts soil, hauls the log out by heavy draft horse, a traditional method that leaves the forest floor intact and logging to continue with the next generation. In fairness, the documentary also lets other loggers have their say about their methods, and costs, although Wohlleben notes that one needs to look at the whole expense of growing and harvesting trees, not just a portion.

Wohlleben, always upbeat and informative, also visits sites in Sweden to see a tree believed to be the world’s oldest, carbon-dated to 10,000 years old, and a site in Germany where locals are trying to preserve a beloved local forest from development. He visits the site of a forest fire in a stand of non-native pines farmed for timber, to access re-growth and natural regeneration versus replanting. He talks about the hazards of cultivating non-native species of trees and threats like wood-boring beetles. He also goes to a site on Vancouver Island in Canada, where a small tribe of indigenous people are asking for more of a say in what happens in the forest of their traditional lands. It is a pretty wide-ranging documentary but always focused on trees and forests in temperate climates.

“THE HIDDEN LIFE OF TREES” is both an informative and enjoyable science-based nature documentary, elevated by fine forest photography and the charismatic, positive presence of its knowledgeable leader of our adventure among the trees, forester Peter Wohlleben. If you have not yet read Wohlleben’s fascinating book, this first-rate documentary may prompt you to seek it out – along with a nice walk in the woods.

THE HIDDEN LIFE OF TREES, in English and German with English subtitles, opens Friday, July 16, at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinema and other theaters nationally.

RATING: 4 out of 4 stars