It’s hu­man na­ture to foul things up...

This study of mankind’s dis­rup­tion of the nat­u­ral world is nar­row in fo­cus and awk­ward in tone, writes Alex Pre­ston

The Observer - The New Review - - Books -

The Se­cret Net­work of Na­ture: The Del­i­cate Bal­ance of All Liv­ing Things

Peter Wohlleben

Bod­ley Head, £14.99, pp272 Peter Wohlleben’s best­selling Mys­ter­ies of Na­ture trilogy – The Hid­den Life of Trees, The In­ner

Life of An­i­mals and his lat­est, The Se­cret Net­work of Na­ture – taps into a very hu­man in­stinct: pat­tern recog­ni­tion. Whether it’s the sat­is­fac­tion that comes from the com­pleted cross­word or jigsaw or the per­cep­tion of pre­vi­ously over­looked link­ages and affini­ties in the func­tion­ing of the world, we draw plea­sure from per­ceiv­ing or­der where once there was chaos.

This tech­nique – the rev­e­la­tion of sur­pris­ing causal­ity – has been em­ployed by many of our most suc­cess­ful au­thors of pop­u­lar non­fic­tion, from Mal­colm Glad­well, who ap­plied it to the study of so­ci­ol­ogy, to Yu­val Noah Harari in an­thro­pol­ogy and Nas­sim Ni­cholas Taleb in eco­nomics.

Wohlleben is a forester in the Eifel moun­tains of western Ger­many and his Hid­den Life of Trees brought to­gether a great deal of schol­arly work on the way that trees in­ter­act and “com­mu­ni­cate”. Trees of the same species send mes­sages to one an­other via net­works of my­c­or­rhizal fungi, en­abling them to is­sue warn­ings of po­ten­tial dan­ger, even to share nu­tri­ents. Where once we saw trees as iso­lated in­di­vid­u­als, we now per­ceive a wood as a place of mul­ti­ple and so­phis­ti­cated in­ter­re­la­tion­ships, many of them oper­at­ing deep be­neath the earth.

The In­ner Life of An­i­mals sought to prompt a sim­i­lar rev­o­lu­tion in our at­ti­tudes to­wards an­i­mals. Like Tim Birk­head in Bird Sense and Charles Fos­ter in Be­ing a Beast, Wohlleben demon­strated that an­i­mals ex­pe­ri­ence the world with a depth and rich­ness we of­ten choose to ig­nore. The book’s ob­ser­va­tions were more fa­mil­iar than those of its pre­de­ces­sor; the ground bet­ter trod.

Now comes The Se­cret Net­work of Na­ture, which feels like a com­bi­na­tion of the two ear­lier books, an at­tempt to show the ex­ten­sive and com­plex pat­terns of the nat­u­ral world and, cru­cially, how hu­man ac­tiv­ity is de­stroy­ing re­la­tion­ships that have ex­isted in per­fectly bal­anced sym­bio­sis for tens of mil­lions of years.

The open­ing chap­ters of the book take an ea­gle’s eye view of the “gi­ant clock­work mech­a­nism” of na­ture, show­ing how the pres­ence of wolves in a land­scape can change the course of its rivers, how trees re­pel graz­ing deer or the way wolves and ravens con­spire to share a rot­ting car­cass. Hu­mans al­most never un­der­stand the full con­se­quences of our in­ter­fer­ence in na­ture, Wohlleben is say­ing, be­cause we are only just be­gin­ning to un­der­stand how pro­foundly sym­bi­otic the lives of our flora and fauna re­ally are.

Later chap­ters, which deal with cli­mate change, for­est fires and a Harari-like dis­qui­si­tion on hu­man evo­lu­tion, are less suc­cess­ful. It is here that prob­lems that be­set the whole of Wohlleben’s trilogy be­come most ev­i­dent. First, for a Bri­tish au­di­ence, the books nec­es­sar­ily lose some­thing, be­cause the en­vi­ron­ment they come out of is dis­tinctly mid­dle Euro­pean. I kept think­ing of the raw power of Mark Cocker’s as­ton­ish­ing Our Place, which was bril­liant be­cause it was so par­tic­u­lar and fa­mil­iar in the nat­u­ral world it anatomised. The ex­am­ples that Wohlleben draws on are all from the for­est around the moun­tain lodge in which he lives and it makes you re­alise how lo­ca­tion-spe­cific are the nat­u­ral world and its prob­lems. It’s not that it isn’t in­ter­est­ing to read about the tra­vails of a quite dif­fer­ent ecosys­tem, just that the whole project of the book is to make us look at our en­vi­ron­ment through dif­fer­ent eyes – it’s dif­fi­cult when many of the ex­am­ples come from an en­vi­ron­ment quite alien to our own.

The sec­ond prob­lem is stylis­tic. Wohlleben’s voice is that of a jaunty, hail-fel­low-well-met nat­u­ral­ist, some­times plain speak­ing and af­fa­ble, but more of­ten awk­wardly phrased and with the wag­gling fin­ger of the pub bore. When his ob­ser­va­tions are so strik­ingly stim­u­lat­ing, one can over­look the dodgy jokes and cliches (and his trans­la­tor Jane Billinghurst’s com­pul­sive split­ting of in­fini­tives).

In the less grip­ping pas­sages, his per­son­al­ity be­gins to grate badly. Wohlleben’s sac­cha­rine nick­names for trees and an­i­mals, the clunk­ing segues be­tween chap­ters, the shop­worn id­ioms he em­ploys all un­der­mine the im­pact of a trilogy that, with a bet­ter ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the im­por­tance of style, could have been truly rev­e­la­tory.

When his ob­ser­va­tions are stim­u­lat­ing, one can over­look the dodgy jokes, but his per­son­al­ity be­gins to grate badly

To or­der The Se­cret Net­work of Na­ture for £10.99 go to guardian­book­shop. com or call 0330 333 6846

Peter Wohlleben shows how wolves in an area can change the course of rivers. Alamy

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