1117 The pulse of Białowieża & Kwiakah
The Heartbeat of Trees: Embracing Our Ancient Bond With Forests and Nature
by Peter Wohlleben, translated by Jane Billinghurst
Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2021 available June 15, 2021
$32.95 / 9781771646895
Reviewed by Luanne Armstrong
The Heartbeat Of Trees: Embracing Our Ancient Bond With Forests and Nature is both a wonderful and an irritating book. It’s a bit like a condensed book of current tree lore and research; it’s fascinating, but with every chapter, I wanted to know more and now I will look up many of Peter Wohlleben’s references to see what more I can learn. It’s clear that Wolleben reads a lot, and so he does us all a great favour by picking up the threads of new knowledge and new research and condensing it into an accessible readable version. His tone is friendly — he says kind and thoughtful things about humans as well as trees. It was a relief to me to find out that there was something I could do in the forest as well as or even better than my dog, who doesn’t see the same colours I do. I can stand very still and pick up flickers of movement from my peripheral vision.
So much of what Wolleben describes in this book is amazing and despite the amount of reading that I do about plants and animals, much of The Heartbeat Of Trees was new and exciting, for example, the research showing that trees have a “heartbeat,” just a very slow one, and that there is some evidence that plants have various forms of hearing. Peas, for example, can hear things such as the sound of water flowing underground.
Peter Wohlleben has made a career out of rounding up and packaging new scientific research, and his previous books, The Hidden Life of Trees (2015), The Inner Life of Animals (2016), and The Secret Wisdom of Nature (2017) have been bestsellers. In this, he is doing the world a huge favour.
Real understanding and knowledge of the non-human beings with whom we share this earth is scarce. There is a quiet but titanic struggle going on now between industrialized capitalism, which sees everything, including people, as a resource to be monetized, and the people trying to convince governments and industry that the ecocide of plants and animals cannot continue indefinitely without an eventual environmental collapse that will be very bad for humans.
With most people in North America, Europe, and Asia now living in cities, a lot of the new awareness of the consciousness and culture of plants and animals is still constrained in research labs and to researchers and field biologists. Wolhlleben is one of the few popular writers really trying hard to bring this awareness to readers. He is a great storyteller as well, and flavours his book with tales of scientists he has visited and research trips he has undertaken.
But for me, one of the shortcomings of this book is that Wohlleben, as a German with a position as a forester in a primarily deciduous forest in Germany, has little sense of how a truly wild wilderness forest might operate. For that knowledge, we will have to wait for Suzanne’s Simard’s research to come out in her book, Finding the Mother Tree, due out on May 4.th
This limitation in no way invalidates Wohlleben’s work, but it does limit it. The only example of him extending his research in North America is a trip he made at the invitation from Frank Voelker, the band administrator of the Kwiakah Nation (part of the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw), on the central coast of British Columbia. And although Wohlleben does his best to explain the multiple complexities and politics of tree mining on the BC coast, there’s not much he can do in one chapter of a book with multiple topics.
Wohlleben is definitely at his best when he is outlining the many kinds of teaching he does with school groups and the research trips he undertakes to look at forests other than the one he manages. Along the way, he manages to write mild and non-political observation on areas in Europe that have been the site of huge political battles such as the Białowieża Forest, in northern Poland and Belarus. The whole forest has been recognized as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations. This however, has not stopped the Polish government from using the presence of beetle-killed trues to cut a large swath of the park. Wohlleben makes the case that, in fact, the spruce beetles were selectively killing only spruce trees, which then left areas in the park for new trees to grow, and that tree beetles very likely have an ecological niche in the forest which forestry ignores.
Another tree Wohlleben makes a kind of pilgrimage to see is what may be the oldest tree in the world, a windswept, relatively small spruce tree in northern Sweden that is close to ten thousand years old. Now, of course, the trick is to prevent pesky and intrusive humans from finding the tree and destroying it by all the myriad ways humans find to destroy precious things, such as everyone taking one bit of the tree as a “souvenir,” or trampling over it because it looks quite small and insignificant. With unlimited access, soon there be no tree left.
Of course Wohlleben ends his book with an appeal for hope rather than despair and urges everyone to get out into the forest and enjoy it and learn about it. Personally, I am rather tired of appeals to hope, although I understand the reasons why almost every environmental book ends this way, and I certainly agree with walking quietly in the forest and learning what you can about it.
I loved reading The Heartbeat Of Trees for the degree of complex information Wohlleben manages to summarize and pack into this one book, and for the long list of notes at the end — which give me more places to look and to continue to learn.
Luanne Armstrong has written 21 books including young adult, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. She has contributed to many anthologies and edited Slice Me Some Truth (Wolsak and Wynn, 2011), an anthology of Canadian non-fiction. She has been nominated or won many awards, including the Moonbeam Award the Chocolate Lily Award, the Hubert Evans nonfiction Book award; the Red Cedar Award, Surrey Schools Book of the Year Award, the Sheila Egoff Book Prize, and the Silver Birch Prize. Luanne lives on her hundred year-old family farm on Kootenay Lake. She mentors emerging writers all over the world on a long-term basis, and in the last three years has edited eight books through to publication. Her most recent books are Sand (Ronsdale Press, 2016), and A Bright and Steady Flame: The Story of an Enduring Friendship (Caitlin Press, 2018; reviewed by Lee Reid). Armstrong is now working on a book of essays, Going to Ground, as well as a new book of poetry, When We Are Broken. Editor’s note: Luanne Armstrong has also reviewed books by Cheryl Alexander, Wayne Sawchuk, Katie Mitzel, Tom Lymbery, Richard Vission, Deni Béchard, Robert Bringhurst & Jan Zwicky, Briony Penn, Ann Kujundzic, and Lee Reid for The Ormsby Review.
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