Wohlleben’s Wonder World of Nature

by Adele A Wilby

In this world of divisive and indeed, not infrequently, ugly politics, particularly in the United States under the present administration, and the British pursuit of an exit from the European Union, any opportunity for finding relief from the ‘angst’ of day to day politics is to be welcomed. The reading of Peter Wohlleben’s The Mysteries of Nature Trilogy: The Hidden Life of Trees, The Secret Network of Nature and The Inner Life of Animals provided me with such an opportunity.

Wohlleben draws on his twenty years as a government forester, and then manager of his own environmentally friendly forest in Germany, and his scientific knowledge, to share with us his experience of the inter-related, yet complex lives of a myriad of life forms in the plant and animal worlds. The result is a joy to read.

Each of his books can be read, and appreciated, in their own right, but collectively they amount to what is, in effect, how Wohlleben relates to and the respect he has for all life forms that constitute nature. The trilogy is successful, in my view, for the way he makes accessible to us his experience of working with nature, moderated by a judicious use of biological jargon. However, it is also his use of personification in his exposition of his subjects that makes it possible for the reader to realise just how integrated are the lives of all living creatures. The books are for people like me who do not have the time to take up the environment and the biological sciences as new disciplines to study, but are nonetheless interested in the natural world amidst which we live. In reading these texts we are provided with sufficient knowledge to deepen our understanding and appreciation of the natural world, and to wet our appetite to learn more about the subjects.

Wohlleben’s  purpose is not to offer complicated evolutionary expositions to account for how this harmony and order within and between the animal and plant world came into existence, nor is his empathy towards his subjects sentimental; he balances respect for the lives of nature’s creatures with a pragmatic approach as to how they can survive and thrive amidst the human world. Thus, he does not advocate interfering in the natural cycle of the lives of the life forms he discusses, but he does argue that woodlands for example, for them to thrive, should remain as undisturbed as possible. His fostering of a greater appreciation of the different life forms contributes towards that objective.

My first jaunt into Wohlleben’s wonder world of nature was into The Hidden Life of Trees,where individual trees live communal lives in the woodlands they inhabit.

A perusal of the content pages of the book immediately informs us that Wohlleben understands trees and views their lives in not dissimilar terms to that of human beings when he writes on such issues as friendship between trees, the language of trees, and tree school. Thus, Wohlleben has challenged my assumption that the moss-covered shallow grave-like structures scattered through the woodlands are nature’s way of enfolding the remains of a fallen tree and slowly absorbing them back into the earth. If I were to look a little closer I might find that there is evidence of life hidden away in the stump under the cover of moss, with its neighbouring trees pumping sugar to keep it alive. Wohlleben however, did confirm my view that the beeches I have seen with their intertwined roots along the sunken paths I have trudged, were in fact supporting each other. I can now appreciate that the many beeches with various amounts of moss creeping over their bodies were not just random instances of natural sculptures that I stopped to admire on my rambles through woodlands, but the moss is a way to access the age of the tree.  Similarly, I have often wondered about the ‘intelligence’ of oaks when I have seen the crowns of two trees growing close to each other forming one perfectly shaped crown. Two trees, ‘friends’, are careful not to grow overly thick branches in each other’s direction, and develop very strong branches at the outer edges of their crowns. Indeed, so tightly connected at the roots are these partners, Wohlleben points out, they might even die together.

We know that the great heights of oaks, beeches, ashes and other trees is the outcome of a successful race to be the tallest, and therefore gain access to the feast of the sun’s energy and to fatten up on all the sugar that the tree’s metabolism will produce as a result, add another band around its midriff, and store energy for the cold winter months. But what happens to the many trees that don’t make it to the top? Do they die a stunted death, their potential unfulfilled, or is there another process going on? Wohlleben informs us that the smaller trees we see so often in the woodlands have to be content to wait it out for a turn in fortune or the death of an older tree before they can participate in the race to the top again, and that wait could be for hundreds of years. Likewise, we should not be lulled into thinking that small trees literally in the shadow of the branches of bigger and older trees have arrived randomly at the point where they stand. Instead, the small beech or oak is likely to be the offspring of a ‘parent’ tree who is spreading its arms and providing shelter to its ‘child’, giving it space and time to build up its strength. The longer a tree spends in growing and strengthening itself, the longer it is likely to live. When old age or injury finally sends the parent tree back to humus, its ‘child’ will have another chance in the competition to fill its space.

We might also wonder how the tree can tolerate the myriad creatures crawling over its plentiful body threatening to gobble it up if it dares so much as scratch itself and acquire a wound on its body. Perhaps if we look around and see a tree that is flagging we will feel its neighbour sending its stored sugars through its network of roots to its unwell neighbour of the stand to give it a helping hand. If we are very fortunate we might smell the chemicals a tree sends out to its ‘friends’ in the woodlands warning them of any approaching danger. It is also possible that if we get very close to a tree we might hear it pumping fluid upwards to its crown, or hear a deep sigh of relief as it breathes out through its leaves.

Many readers might find it difficult to accept an analysis of the life of trees in terms of human behaviour, nevertheless, Wohlleben continues this approach in his book, The Inner Lives of Animals.  For him, ‘wherever you look, animals are out there, loving each other, feeling each other’s pain and enjoying each other’s company’. As controversial as such an approach to the observation of the life of animals might be for some, Wohlleben’s empathy with animals and approach to writing about them cultivates a different way of seeing and understanding animals. As he says in his Introduction: ‘I would like to act as your interpreter and translate fascinating scientific research into everyday language for you, assemble the individual pieces of the puzzle so that you can see the big picture, and sprinkle in a few observations of my own to bring it all to life. I hope this will help you to see the animal world around you… not as mindless automatoms driven by an inflexible genetic code, but as stalwart souls and lovable rascals’. Thus, we learn about the ‘grief’ of a doe when she repeatedly returns to the place of her dead fawn until she comes to terms with her loss; of a bear wading into a river and rescuing a bird stranded, as an example of ‘empathy’ between species; of crows that return favours done to them by human beings, and many more examples that reveal to us the ‘inner life of animals’.

Wohlleben urges caution on the part of scientists when it comes to dismissing feelings in animals, and that some life forms such as birds might have greater ‘intelligence’ and be capable of emotions not yet fully understood. My own observation of birds certainly challenged any notion that I might have had that they are ‘mindless automatons’.

Years ago, when living in a South Asian country where crows are prevalent in domestic environments, I was disturbed one afternoon by the squawking of crows so overwhelming I had no alternative but to seek out the source of the ruckus. Scores of crows were perched all around the extensive fence surrounding my house. Initially I was unable to decipher the source of the distress the crows were obviously experiencing, and then I peered into the deep water well to see a crow bobbing on the water. I have no idea how it got in the well in the first place, however, I called for assistance, and a young man descended the well, took hold of the crow, and brought it to the surface. We wondered what to do with the drenched and slightly flagging bird, and finally put it on the roof of the house where it could dry out, and had the greatest chance of flying off. After a short time, the squawking stopped, the crows flew off, and the crow on the roof had disappeared. A demonstration of empathy on the part of the crows?

Likewise, late one evening I was disturbed by the behaviour of my cat scratching at the ground. I was curious to see what had caught the cat’s intense interest, only to discover a small bird curled up on the ground. I picked up the chick and warmed it in my hands, until the sound of bird chirping in the same vicinity roused my attention; another chick was crouched on the ground: both had fallen from the nest in the mango tree. The birds responded to the warmth of my hands, and I was compelled to consider what to do with these chicks at that late hour of the day. I eventually prepared a small ‘nest’ of cotton wool in one of my wardrobe drawers, and kept an eye out for them throughout the night. Next morning I was surprised to see two little birds, their red mouths wide open chirping for food. I had no small worms or insects to satisfy their obvious hunger, and so I fed them with what I thought was the next best thing, coconut scrapings, and hoped that would suffice. The birds got through the day and another night, and the following morning I discovered them perched on the edge of the drawer; presumably they had fledged. If they had fledged, I knew they couldn’t return to the nest, and I had to secure their existence as soon as possible. I put them into a small basket with good ventilation for safety from the cat, constantly aware that I must free them, but do so in the safest environment. I was familiar with this species of bird; they travel in flocks and are prone to making a great clatter when they ‘sing’ as a chorus. After seeing a few of these birds flitting around the mango trees in the compound, I decided to put the basket with the birds onto the ground, and stand back and observe. Soon after, I was surprised to see one of the species of bird land next to the basket, and then another bird, and they hopped around curiously. Encouraged by this behaviour, I took the little birds out of the basket and placed them on the sand and waited and watched over them to see how events unfolded. It was not long before one bird of the species flew down again, and hopped up and down in front of the young birds, and then another bird arrived and engaged in the same activity, and then another, and another, until there was a flock of birds surrounding these two chicks and teaching them to hop up and down. The chicks got the message, and started to hop up and down, up and down. I then noticed one of the birds hopped away to a short distance and started to hop up and down. Then, to my astonishment, all the birds, constantly encouraging the chicks to hop, escorted them along the way until they reached the low-lying branches of cashew nut trees. The chicks and the flock disappeared amongst the branches. To what can we attribute the behaviour of the birds? Was it instinct, or was it the memory of the mother bird for her chicks, even after two days, that started off the rescue process? Can we call the behaviour of the birds a manifestation of intelligence? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I feel it was a rare opportunity to witness this remarkable caring behaviour by this flock of birds.

However, Wohlleben goes one step further in his explanations about nature when he brings together the world of trees, plants and animals in his third book The Secret Network of Nature. He makes an excellent simile in the first line of the book when he says, ‘nature is like a giant clockwork mechanism. Everything is neatly arranged and interconnected’.  The book is therefore an exposition of this interconnectedness between species in nature, and what happens when a piece in the cog goes wrong, and the efforts it has to make to right itself.

After amazing the reader with such wonderful description of such things as the way red wood ants turn their backside up and spray a pungent, sour acid to fend of intruders into their colony, he returns at the end of the book to question his initial simile of nature working like a clockwork mechanism, and posits that nature is far more complicated than the old clock. Unlike the clock that can be disposed of should it stop working altogether, repairing or healing nature takes much longer, and he concludes with a plea and a strategy to protect nature, or more specifically woodlands, by suggesting that nature should be left alone on as large a scale as is possible.

Thus, the breadth of knowledge, the personification of nature, and the use of the second-person pronoun ‘you’ at intervals throughout the texts, contribute to the trilogy furthering a more empathetic understanding and appreciation of the life forms that inhabit our planet. It reminds us to observe more closely what is going on in the natural world around us: we might be amazed, and develop a greater respect for the delicate balance between species that form an incredibly complex network that constitutes the natural world of which we are part.