It is a Monday morning and I am reading the Hidden Life of Trees on a packed Virgin East Coast train with just a single operational lavatory, but I am in a world of happiness. This book is a crash mat for the mind - a gigantic mossy pillow into which I could fall headfirst. I want to get off the train, find a wood, slow down, breathe, and listen.
For those who have not come across this book, it is a must. Peter Wohlleben has worked as a forester in the ancient beech forests of Hummel, in western Germany through most of his life. Wohlleben writes simply, but with great force. He tells how modern research reveals that trees pass chemical signals to one another through their roots, warding off disease, signalling attacks by animals, keeping one another alive. What emerges in the book are two ideas. The first is that in the filament-like root tips that explore the earth we can think of trees as having a distributed, rudimentary “brain”. He describes these filaments as nosing their way towards water, turning against stones, sensing impending insect attack like a very slow, powerful ant colony. He does not humanize – there is no suggestion of intelligence or emotion – but there is a very basic awareness that they have.
The second, and this is where the fun really starts – the second is that these root systems are linked through an underground cottony web of fungal mycelium that allow trees to “see” underground. There has been a great deal of research into this area over the past decades but Wohlleben’s genius is to describe it vividly as a “forest internet”, sending messages from one side of the wood to the other, creating great woody “social network”. You can almost see the Morse code of a woodpecker being carried underground through billions of winking, glittering microfibre.
Writers are inspirational when they change the way we see everyday things. We humans are so damn good at seeing the particular, the individual. We tend to see trees the same way that we painted them when we were children – one at a time, a lollipop on a trunk. We buy them in pots from garden centres, nurse them in our gardens one by one and then celebrate them as “champions” in old age. Like so much of our modern life, they are atomised and separated from the things around them. What Wohlleben does is pan the camera back, puts the background in, and then make the background as important as the foreground so we see a universe, a system, rather than a particular thing, and that is when it really comes alive.
This book has real resonance for us at Moorland Spirit. The interconnected liveliness of our surroundings at Hepple is what we think of as “wild”. We feel have our own mycelium linking the distillery with our ancient, deep-rooted juniper out on the hills. Being at Hepple provides total sensory immersion – and our distillery with its advanced flavour capture techniques allows for us to find the closest possible reflection of our wild, clean and very real environment in our gin. We are aware that we are part of a system that is very sensitive, but when used carefully, is equally strong in its support. Quite what the junipers would do if they heard that we wanted to make a “Rhubarb and Ginger Gin” hardly bears thinking about.