I was a little late to the party – I found mention of Peter Wohlleben’s “The Heartbeat of Trees”, published in German in 2019 and in English only last year, and being the treehugger that I am the title sang to me, of course. Just a little poking around revealed that Wohlleben had written three previous books that have been collectively called the Mysteries of Nature trilogy – “The Hidden Life of Trees”, “The Inner Life of Animals”, and “The Secret Wisdom of Nature”. So of course I got them all and started at the beginning.
As a broad statement, before I speak of each book individually in turn (starting with the 2015 volume “The Hidden Life of Trees”), let make a few comments that stretch across all four books. These are –as I have read them, in English – obviously works in translation, and as such what I say next may have as much to do with the actual translation as it does with the original material because it is REALLY difficult to translate “tone” and render something linguistically complex in an entirely different language. But whether the author or his translator are responsible for this… I did not care for the English “tone” of these books. Despite being drawn to them because of their themes, and despite being eager to learn more about this subject matter, I found myself increasingly turned off at the manner in which the material was being presented. I might say that I felt patronized, in a way – as if on occasions it might have been forgotten that these were books aimed at presumably reasonably educated adults as opposed to middle-schoolers. If I were to encapsulate this in an anthropomorphic form, it sounds as though I am being addressed by an avuncular, occasionally dismissively supercilious, ever so slightly malicious schoolmaster who takes great pleasure in informing me that what I am being told is important, that there will probably be a quiz on it soon, but not what I can expect to be on said quiz and then drowning the important information in a camouflage of semantic trickery and anecdotes so that I would really have to work hard to separate the underlying facts out from it all. The books are presented as being scientific and factual but their tone is all wrong for that and I feel like I am an adult forced to bend my too-large frame into a school desk meant for a pre-teen and then expected to be grateful for the opportunity.
There are books I read and treasure and place on my bookshelves as a permanent gift, to return to on future occasions – the keepers. While I am happy to have read the Mysteries of Nature books… they fail to make that mark. There is something numinous about nature – about animals, about trees – and somehow Wohlleben gives the impression of trying to shoot his literary arrow at that target and hitting something he was never even aiming at, instead. Although it is rooted (forgive the pun) in the real world that surrounds me rather than the vastnesses of outer space I felt more in common with and in sympathy with Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” than I do with Wohlleben’s subject matter.
I’ll try and tell you why.
- The Hidden Life of Trees (subtitled, “What They Feel, How They Communicate; Discoveries from a Secret World – is this capitalization thing a carryover from the German where all nouns are so?…)
I don’t know if it was coined here because I’ve heard the words bandied about, but it’s definitely referenced and used in this book – I’ve heard before of a network of communication that exists between trees, via roots and root-connected fungi, but this might have been the first time I saw the probably obvious coinage of the “wood wide web”, or a sort of woodland “cyberspace”. I kind of love that idea. And this was introduced early, so I had a good feeling about this, moving forward. And for the duration of this first volume – despite itches I had at individual issues, it didn’t quite fall apart. But it sure BEGAN to.
Wohlleben as an author has a bad habit of waxing on about something… and then telling us that he doesn’t know all that much about it. He starts out with something like, “When I began my professional career as a forester, I knew about as much about the hidden life of trees as a butcher knows about the emotional life of animals.” (reading between the lines, while it sounds self-deprecating and even folksy, it doesn’t establish his authority, but merely his feeling of assumed competency because of his current line of work. This may not necessarily qualify anyone for writing a book, though). The final paragraph of this particular volume is illustrative of what I speak: “..we should care [about trees] because of the little puzzles and wonders they present us with. Under the canopy of the trees, daily dramas and moving love stories are played out. Here is the last remaining piece of Nature, right on our doorstep, where adventures are to be experienced and secrets discovered. And who knows, perhaps one day the language of trees will eventually be deciphered, giving us the raw material for further exciting stories.” You will note that in this conclusion to an entire volume devoted to the “hidden life of trees” he is basically saying, well, some day we might know about that – but we certainly do not know anything about it now. Which does kind of put a damper on what you have just finished reading. As for the rest, the vexed question of that tone, which I mentioned earlier, begins to rear its head. Things like this:
“It’s a shame you can’t transport entire beeches or oaks into the laboratory to find out more.” (yes, isn’t it. How kind to point that out.)
“…the forest ants, which love the honeydew that aphids excrete so much that they slurp it up right from the aphids’ backsides. To speed up the process, the ants stroke the aphids with their antennae, stimulating them to produce the honeydew…” (I mean, EW. I know he’s trying for a patented Attenborough voiceover but this is kind of WAY too much information, thank you, and the mental images of ants stroking aphids’ asses with tender antennae took a while to leave my head. There, now you have them too.)
“Trees can’t walk. Everyone knows that. Be that as it may, they need to hit the road somehow. But how can they do this without feet?” (who were these books written for? Five-year-olds?)
But the first book was finished, and on we went to #2.
2. The Inner Life of Animals (or, Love, Grief, and Compassion; Surprising Observations of a Hidden World)
This is the book that my cat was sick on, TWICE, as it sat on the bed waiting to be read. I don’t want to say that this was a hint – oh, EVERYONE’s a critic! – but this was a book dealing with animals and apparently my own domestic companions had an opinion on the matter.
This is where things become excessively disjointed – it’s like this is a gunny sack of shapes that fit together very uncomfortably and the sack is full of bulges and sharp angles and the only thing that the contents have in common is that they are all in the gunny sack together. The author seems very unfocused and disorganized, flitting from one idea to the next, touching on some ideas that I found interesting but then veering off to explore something else altogether and never quite coming back to that original thing that I wanted to know more about. He scatters a lot of statistics about (for instance, this one: “Every day the earth is negatively impacted by people, and every day we lose more of the wild as it used to be. We have already cleared, built on, or dug up an unbelievable 80% of the Earth’s land mass.” – oh I don’t find it difficult to believe and can only be sorrowful about it…) but somehow the facts and the more literary approach to the things he wishes to discuss never quite marry together. It’s like reading two parallel works, one factual, the other full of personal cogitations and opinions. For instance –
“When people reject acknowledging too much in the way of emotions in animals I have the vague feeling that there’s a bit of fear that human beings could lose their special status.” (see what I mean? We have gone right away from facts and statistics and are now in the realm of ‘vague feelings’, which is quite another kettle of fish altogether…)
He introduces entire CHAPTERS of metaphysics – as in, “…do animals have a soul? It’s a really tricky question… one definition suggests ‘the principle of life, feeling, thought, and action in humans’ …” but then veering from even just vaguely ‘scientific’ definitions like this, he wonders, “… do animals go to heaven?” I mean, as far as I am concerned, of course they do, and as has been said elsewhere, if dogs and cats don’t go to heaven then I want to go where they went – but is a book like this the place for that discussion? It just feels weird, as though I’ve just been taken aside by somebody not wearing clerical attire and accosted on the subject of what immortality entails. At the very least that would have a dogmatic basis in a religious sort of way – but discussion (in a desultory enough way) of the souls of animals in a book that purports to be natural history is entirely strange.
3. The Secret Wisdom of Nature (“Trees, Animals, and the Extraordinary Balance of All Living Things; Stories from Science and Observation”)
…and this is where it just all began to completely fall apart for me.
Quite aside from anything else things start to be repetitious because stuff discussed in the earlier books makes a reappearance, as though the author is starting to run out of material. I suppose if you were reading these things as stand-alone books it wouldn’t matter – but even the books themselves self-reference as a “Trilogy” which implies that they are seen as a unit of three and when you start repeating yourself in book 3 of a trilogy it seems to be a clear indication that you might have wanted to stop writing a little while ago.
Things feel… old. A bit of space is devoted to the problem of wolves in Yellowstone national park, which is something that I have heard of before – animals wearing radio collars so that they can be tracked and followed by scientists trying to learn about their behavior are also open to being tracked by unscrupulous hunters, who then know precisely where the wolves are, and since they can’t read signs and don’t precisely obey human boundaries the hunters can lie in wait for them and gun them down as soon as they step paw out of the protected areas of the national park. Which I find reprehensible. But even with that behavior in place – in Yellowstone, and in Germany – the wolves are apparently returning to places in Germany where they had been exterminated, slowly extending their range from places where there is still enough wilderness to sustain them. I was glad to learn this. I do want to stick a radio collar onto the ambushing “hunters” and shoot at THEM whenever they leave their house, though. It’s only fair.
And then this book slides deeper into that “tone” problem. Here’s a few examples:
“A person – depending on how active they are – burns up between 2500 and 300 calories of food a day….a mature beech stores enough solar energy to feed a person for forty years – if the human gut were able to digest wood.” (…if I’d been the editor of this book I would have wielded the red pen COPIOUSLY. “if the human gut were able to digest wood”? Really? You thought it necessary to make that clear, did you? You thought the readers would go out and try gnawing at a beech, now?)
“If it stays too cold for too long the larvae pass on to insect Nirvana without seeing spring.” (insect “Nirvana”? What was that, again…?)
Wohlleben (or his translator) seems particularly fond of referencing critters by any number of euphemistic and patronizing ways – for instance wild boars become “the bristly porkers”; squirrels turn into “these pretty little creatures”, and ticks into “the little bloodsuckers.” Bears are called “bruins” on a number of occasions and it started to make me grind my teeth when I saw it because it is so pretentious – it’s like someone wandering about talking about “kine” or “beeves” when they are referencing cattle. Yes, how sophisticated of you to know those names. Can we stop showing off now?
I can’t leave this book without mentioning something that literally appalled me, and borders on libel. On the subject of forest fires, and people who fight them: “… perhaps even worse are the motives of some firefighters. Firefighters put their lives on the line every time they go out to make sure that people and property are safe, which makes it all the more reprehensible that there are a very few who, to ensure their jobs are secure, start fires themselves when things slow down.” Are you… are you really accusing firefighters of being firebugs? *WITH WHAT EVIDENCE?* Honestly, I’d take great umbrage at this if I were one of those firefighters – especially after watching the West Coast of America burn over the last few years. Accusing the people who tried to fight fires that destroyed hundreds if not thousands of acres of pristine wild woods and annihilated entire towns of potentially committing arson because “things were slow” is insulting, if not actionable. I am literally astonished that this was permitted to be published in a widely distributed book – and even more astonished that somebody hasn’t responded to it, by now.
4. The Heart of Trees
The fourth book in the “trilogy” feels even more of a retread than the one before – down to revisiting the propensity of Vito the billygoat to kick off amorous pursuits by covering himself with his own urine (really, it was quite enough to read about that the first time…) The book suffers from the same issues as the previous ones – namely, the usual statement of something but then backpedaling as to what is really know about it – for example, it tangles into the dire possibilities of cell phones to do damage to the human animal but then countering with “…there is nothing official to suggest that these transmissions can cause cancer” – so why imply that they might?
Other problems surface – the definite hint that we are now straining for material, and resorting to padding to solve that problem. Consider the idea of concerning communication with trees using ‘electricity’ – the difference between you and the object you touch has to be at least 1000 volts for you to be able to feel an electric shock – but that’s only at the tips of an oak’s branches. To get there you’d have to climb the tree but you’d be grounded by virtue of the fact that you started out at the same ground level as the tree and you are connected to the ground by it – so the difference in charge would not be noticeable. To experience the voltage discrepancy properly you would need to “start like a bumblebee – that is to say without touching the ground. One way to do this would be to stand on a cherry picker on a rubber mat which isolates your feet from contact with the metal bucket in that case if the weather were extremely dry… it should be possible to receive a slight electric shock when you come into contact with the extremities of a tree. But this is not a situation you are likely to find yourself in.” As in, no kidding. So why bother introducing the cherry picker with the rubber mat in the metal bucket in very dry weather at all?
And sometimes cryptic references are made to things that may not be obvious to people not of the author’s age and geographical provenance. For instance, he invokes the spirit of German author Karl May, whose fanciful invocations of the American “wild west” were something of a rite of passage for European teen readers (myself included) – and I know where he is coming from but someone reading these books from, say, an American point of view would have no clue as to why May was an important cultural icon and referenced in this way.
One of the things that does grate quite a bit in this last volume is the self-deprecating self-referential aspect of it. He *talks about himself*. A LOT. Consider:
“In the beginning, bookstores often relegated my book ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ to the fiction section, even though it was based on facts. They did this because the way I write is considered unscientific…” – well, it kind of IS… and I know it’s annoying to be misfiled but this sounds rather, you know, childishly peeved at the occurrence. There’s more: “It was readers and the overwhelming interest they showed in ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ that made that and my later books into international bestsellers.” – hey, don’t sprain your shoulder with all that back-patting, ok? (As in, if you feel the desperate need to reference your own books as international bestsellers instead of letting them speak for themselves on that subject are they really bestsellers or are you just using that word because it sounds nice…?) And then he kind of says the quiet part out loud: “…[I’ve heard people level this criticism…a work of imagination] at my bestselling book about trees. They align it with works of fiction as though it were a detective novel. That in itself is not a negative judgment – who doesn’t enjoy reading a good story about tracking down what’s really going on? – but people who read the book this way miss out on the opportunity to engage seriously with one of the most numerous life forms that surrounds us. Instead, reading my book becomes another escape from today’s world, which can also happen when you play video games, watch soap operas – or read other, similar nature books.” – I mean, wow. This boils down to a severe entitlement complex at its roots. A resentment that anyone would dare diss these books as ‘non-scientific’ (which by the way they are, in a lot of ways) and then a direct condescension to ‘real’ fiction (as well as ‘other, similar, nature books’) as being directly inferior to his own august product. As in, let other people blow your horn, sir, if horn-blowing is required. Doing it yourself in your own narrative is a little bit cheesy.
I LIKE reading non-fiction books, natural history books, popular science books. But when I am left feeling like I had been spoken down to as though I were an acolyte at the feet of a great sage, someone who has come humbly to drink from a fount of wisdom, without ever having really signed up to be more than an interested reader – well – it kind of kicks off an entirely unwanted set of responses. I resent coming out of these books not as someone who might have learned something new about a topic of interest but rather as somebody who had just been forced to sit through a series of increasingly irrelevant and subjective lectures on the subject – and then being taken to task for not being properly appreciative. As I said, I don’t know if it is the author or the translation – or it may be neither, it may be that the man who wrote these books is a perfectly nice person if you are there with him and he is telling you about the woods and the birds and the bees in an oral as opposed to a written form. The books may or may not (as he insists) have been international bestsellers – but when people say that everyone ‘has a book in them’ that does not necessarily mean that they should go ahead and publish it. I find the subject matter that these books touch on fascinating – I’ve hugged many a tree in my time, I’ve looked eagles and dolphins and wolves (not to mention several cats and dogs) in the eye and I like to think that I could in some way communicate with these animals – but these are not the books I will be returning to in order to discover more about this material. There are definitely other roads to take into the Mysteries of Nature.
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