How the Language of Trees is Everywhere Around Us
Peter Wohllenben on the Way We Talk About Forests
Our deep relationship with the forest is echoed in language. The word “book” reveals an early connection. If you trace its origin, you come to the Brothers Grimm of fairy tale fame. In a dictionary of the German language that they published in 1860, they mention that old German characters were scratched onto wooden boards. And because these boards often came from beech trees (Buche in German, which is pronounced “boo-huh” in English), the name for such writing tablets was transferred from the tree to the functional object—Buch, the book.
But the term could possibly have arisen much earlier, when runes were carved into wooden sticks made of beech. In German, where letters are Buchstaben (Buch = beech and Stab = stick), this gets us one level deeper, for with Buchstaben, it is much easier to see the origin of the word. Although neither this nor the assertion made by the Brothers Grimm has been proven with absolute certainty, I like the idea that every book has us looking back to the forest.
Whereas the word “book” is pronounced in almost the same way as the German word for “beech tree” (and in German differs from the word for the tree by only one letter), the origin of other words is more difficult to track down. Take the word “true.” It, too, has to do with trees, specifically the oak. The wood of oak trees is hard and resistant to weathering, just as human relationships should be, figuratively speaking. The original word in Indo-European is dru, which means “oak.” In English it turns up as “true,” and in words such as “trunk,” a wooden chest in which important things are kept safe.
References to the forest can be found in idioms, as well, even if some have now fallen out of fashion. “She’s shaking like a leaf,” for instance. Leaves, particularly the leaves of quaking aspen, tremble when the wind blows through them. Aspen leaves have stalks that allow them to twist in the lightest breeze. This might allow them to gather more light so they can produce more sugar. Whatever the reason, no other tree has this striking response to wind. But who today still encounters quaking aspen? A long time ago, the rustle of aspen leaves must have been so common that everyone had a good idea how much a person had to tremble to resemble the tree.
Old place names also reveal our deep forest roots—although it’s probably more accurate to say that old place names reveal how we have uprooted the forest. In the dim and distant past, the residents of settlements chopped their way through forests to make space for buildings and agricultural fields. In the middle of the 8th century, Central Europe was still 90 percent forested and all the forest was primeval. There was no form of forestry at that time because it was not necessary. Population density was low and forests seemed practically endless.
Areas for agriculture, in contrast, were in short supply, and it took a great deal of effort to wrest them from the clutches of nature. Not only were the trees in the way, so were their roots. Each and every one had to be dug out and dragged away by teams of oxen. Without this preparation, plows would have gotten stuck every few yards. It’s little wonder our ancestors decided to use place names to memorialize their laborious clearing of the land.
Some of the place names even reflected the clearing method used. In the German-speaking Alps, if trees were simply felled and burned, leaving the roots, schwenden (which means “slash and burn”) might be part of the name. This quicker method was not suitable if you wanted to plant crops, but it was fine if you were not going to plow the land and all you needed was a pasture for livestock. Schwenden (the past participle of which is schwand) appears either as a place name in its own right (as it does in Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, both of which have towns called Schwenden) or as part of the name (as it does in settlements such as Herrenschwand or Untergschwandt). O
ther variations can be found in city names such as Bayreuth. Reuth is another term for Rodung, and Bayreuth means a clearing in Bavaria or a clearing made by Bavarian people. Then there is Stockum, where the name tips its hat to the tree stumps (Stock) that remain after the trees have been felled. In the British Isles, names ending in –lea, –ley, –leigh, or –leah indicate forest clearings, and –thwaite indicates a forest cleared for tilling, often with a dwelling on it.
The influence of conservative science is clear in the latest terms used to describe nature. Emotions are out; long live technical descriptions. Thus, the workings of the wonderful network of life are dubbed “ecosystem services.” That sounds less like paradise and more like a heading from a contractor’s catalog. And that connects neatly with the discussion I had with Emanuele Coccia—all creatures are servants of humankind. They have services to offer and must accept their assigned place in the rankings. They earn our protection based on their contributions to our well-being. Even if we are not aware of it, we find it almost impossible to avoid subconscious emotional responses to words.
The journalist George Monbiot described this very well in an article he wrote. If Moses had promised the Israelites a land not where milk and honey but the secretions of mammals and the vomit of insects flowed, Monbiot asked, would they have followed him? He argues for a different way of speaking and a new terminology that touches our hearts so issues around environmental protection finally gain traction. A case in point are phrases that are constantly misused by lobbyists in current debates around protected areas. Thus, in Germany, forests that are being designated as national parks are “decommissioned,” to use the official term. What does “decommissioned” conjure up in our heads? It brings to mind something we don’t need anymore. A fleet of vehicles that has become obsolete, for example. Things that are decommissioned are things that we no longer use and, above all, they are things.
A forest, in contrast, is a living organism and, as such, cannot be decommissioned and certainly not by us. Intellectually, we grasp what is meant by this term: no more trees can be cut down. In reality, it is only the heavy tree-harvesting machines and chain saws that have been decommissioned, while people are expressly invited to enjoy an area that is now free to return to nature. Mammals, birds, and insects arrive in far greater numbers than when the area was a dreary working forest, and none of them are obsolete. In contrast to a fleet of vehicles, a national park after the forest has been decommissioned is far more active than it was before.
So what word should be used instead? A protected area? An area, then, that we need to protect? From whom? The answer is clear: from us. The term “protected area” reminds us that we are the ones that are being kept out (even though we are only talking about a certain profession). The term brings with it a subtle undertow of guilt that is not beneficial in the long term. Many environmental groups have realized, quite correctly, that alarmism and the continual cries of doom and gloom tend to exhaust us instead of helping us rethink the situation.
My recommendation is this: untouched forests should simply be called “forests.” That is not necessarily an improvement, but there is a second part to my recommendation. It means that everything else must be relabeled “working forests” or, even better, “plantations.” Other countries have no problem with this. Oil palms in Borneo, plantings of eucalyptus in Portugal and Brazil—it is clear that all of these are plantations. In Germany, however, the dreary, uniformly aged plantings of usually non-native trees are called forests. Local forest agencies avoid the term “plantation” like the plague. If it were used, however, the general public would have a much clearer idea of how little real nature we have left around us. So we don’t notice, managed plantations are called “forests” because this word has many positive connotations.
This sleight of hand with language exists in the United States, as well. There, lands designated as “national forest” are not simply places where you can go out and enjoy nature. They are expected to contribute financially, as well. Many parts of them are not wild places free to develop in their own time, but are managed spaces where timber is harvested and money flows to federal coffers.
The word “forest” carries an aura of wildness with it. Other words are studiously avoided. Fellow foresters are outraged when I compare foresters with butchers in my presentations. But what is felling a tree if not slaughter? The only difference is that a tree is killed, not an animal. If we know from the latest research that beeches and oaks are also capable of feeling pain, then it makes sense to use the same terms we use for animals.
Yet the covering up, the de-brutalization, has also slipped into our daily speech. Isn’t wood a piece of nature (and therefore something positive)? Doesn’t it still live and breathe even after it has been processed? That sounds like a second chance, a sort of rebirth as a living-room suite or dining table. Processed wood is completely dead, of course. All it can do is absorb moisture and then dry out again. Earthenware pots, clay plaster, and bricks all do this, too. Just to be clear: wood products are in and of themselves beautiful, and they remind us every day of the ecosystems to which we belong, but going into raptures about wood products does nothing to advance current science and makes it more difficult to seriously argue against modern forestry.
What we need, therefore, are not new words but simply more honesty. And if people still want to go out into their nearest forest, the real forest, but find only mechanically exploited plantations, then perhaps they would advocate more strongly for more protected areas so that they could find nature on their doorstep. That is something we can all hope for.
Excerpted from The Heartbeat of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Greystone Books. Copyright © 2021 by Peter Wohlleben.