Natural Symphony

The Secret Wisdom of Nature: Trees, Animals, and the Extraordinary Balance of All Living Things, Stories from Science and Observation
by Peter Wohlleben; Translated by Jane Billinghurst
Greystone Books, 2019, 272 pages

Ecosystems are communities of interdependent species, or as poet Gary Snyder puts it, systems of “joyful interpenetration for all.” The Secret Wisdom of Nature is set in this space of orchestral complexity. Peter Wohlleben’s insights on the many ways in which species interact with one another will provoke rumination while his affinity for new biological research keeps the book’s content sharp and relevant.

The final book in the author’s Mysteries of Nature trilogy, The Secret Wisdom of Nature, translated from German by Jane Billinghurst, delves into both the macro and micro aspects of the living world and explores what makes life on Earth possible and what happens when this finely-tuned system gets out of sync.

book cover

Wohlleben’s affection for microfauna is contagious. The famous German forester examines microscopic biodiversity found in groundwater with the brio of a Serengeti biologist, marveling at how these creatures have adapted to life under enormous pressure, total darkness, and temperatures of up to 2500 degrees F. Wohlleben describes subterranean microbes as “immune to the pressures of time,” imagining the joy in procreation for a bacteria that only divides once every 500 years. When Wohlleben addresses the (terrifying) long-term implications of fracking for water quality, his concern is the death of innumerable aquatic species we have never even identified. This may qualify him as having the most advanced case of biophilia in our time.

Wohlleben also looks at nature on a large time scale: When we talk ecological restoration, for what century are we to aim? He advocates for restoration that reflects pre-agricultural landscapes in Central Europe, once primarily forested, thus rejecting current restoration projects that create meadow-forest mixes.

Wohlleben’s first love is German beech forests, and much of the book explores his iconoclastic views of forest health and resilience that question just how much we should intervene to help nature. In the context of Central Europe, he notes that sweeping bark beetle infestations target weakened trees, taking out non-native conifer plantations of spruce and pine. Ideally, native beeches and oaks could recolonize the devastated areas. Wohlleben boldly asserts, “A whole generation of trees, including many that are deciduous, is standing by to form a solid foundation for the old growth forests of the future, which means that bark beetles are more than just funeral directors, they are midwives as well.”

In opposition to some management discussions in the United States Wohlleben feels the idea that forests are fire-adapted is exaggerated and, in the case of beech forests, outright incorrect. His argument: Pre-Neolithic Europe had non-fire evolved forests — beech trees grew for millennia without fire. Addressing species that are fire adapted, he observes that it’s only adult coastal redwoods that can withstand fires, and that ponderosa pine can survive only low-level fires. Wohlleben writes, “In my opinion, the much-vaunted supposed benefits of releasing nutrients by flames and recycling dead biomass through fire are myths that downplay the disruption caused to this sensitive ecosystem by people playing with fire since prehistoric times.”

He comes down hard on current logging practices as well, disparaging the trendy mixed conservation-forestry model. “Instead of attempting a rescue mission by saving scattered individual trees from being harvested, large areas of forest should be taken out of commercial forest,” he writes.

Looking to a warmer future, Wohlleben thinks trees can best handle climate change if left to their own devices. In the wild, when seeds are dispersed, the saplings that find adjacent venues more conducive to them will thrive. Thus, over hundreds of years, a forest can advance north, if given the space.

Wohlleben’s prose (and the translation) shines, pulling readers into his perspectives on ecological function and new science. At the end of a long work day, this book is a treat. Each chapter works as a stand alone, so the book reads like nested essays. I recommend a slow read. The beeches would approve.

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