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 Secret Network of Nature: The Delicate Balance of All Living Things
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
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Peter Wohlleben shows how wolves in an area can change the course of rivers. Alamy