Peter Wohlleben, (b 1964) is a forester, managing a small, primarily beech forest in Hummel, Germany, who is also a close observer of nature, a deep and imaginative thinker, and an excellent writer. Following the work of Beresford-Kroeger, Wohlleben tries to explain the language of nature, the details of the “joyous entanglement” in the web of being, the vision of the forest as a cooperative community.
His three books argue that trees have feelings and communicate with each other, that animals have emotions and sensibilities, and that the health and balance of ecosystems depends on complex interactions that are often hard to appreciate.
The Hidden Life of Treesstarts with observing the differences between deciduous forests that are allowed to develop on their own and coniferous commercial plantations. It then proceeds to examine the many ways trees share information and nutrients. It explains the fascinating work by Susan Simard at UBC that has detailed how the interconnected networks of roots and fungi share chemical and electrical information. This leads to an awareness of trees having sensibilities that are not usually acknowledged, including memory.
Another main theme is the different time scales that different life forms operate on, and the very long time lines for trees. The main features of sunlight, water, nutrients, length of day, temperature, and so on lead to decisions and behaviours that each species and each tree needs to make for their own survival. At the same time each tree contributes to the underground network of roots and fungi constituting a true social network.
The Inner Life of Animalsmakes a clear argument that there was no big break in evolution, and that humans need to “infuse our dealings with the living beings with which we share our world with a little more respect”. Acknowledging that we share emotional lives and sensibilities with the rest of life and are part of nature implies the loss of our special status, something that is upsetting to some. A blend of the scientific and the personal wonderfully describes our shared lives.
The book is rich with detailed examples of how all species experience fear, grief, joy, and happiness. The discussions of crowd intelligence and individual intelligence in bees bring out the idea that individual bees are self aware. An analysis of altruism in bats leads to examples of free will choices and group interactions. Topics of deception and selfishness and manipulation in birds make great reading.
The Secret Wisdom of Nature takes the concepts developed in the first two books and applies them to the bigger picture, ending with “then I can lead a full sensory tour of nature, because that way I can communicate one thing above all: the joy our fellow creatures and their secrets can bring us.” Again, the complex is described in clear and fascinating detail, and the subtle links brought out are amazing.
The big issue of humans’ role in nature, the development of forests since the ice ages, the impacts of farming and plowing is central. One clear conclusion that Wohlleben comes to is that much of modern forestry practice is badly misguided or actually damaging. To only value forests as commodities or sources of timber is very short sighted.
These three books are a refreshing take on humanity and the dynamics of life, the intricacies of nature and our very limited appreciation and understanding of it all. Presented in an exciting manner they clear the air on some important questions and stimulate great ideas about life in all its forms. Very hard to put down.
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