Ottawa Writers Festival: Author, forester, Peter Wohlleben traces the intricate wisdom of nature

Detail from the cover of The Secret Wisdom of Nature by Peter Wohlleben. Illustration: Brianna Garelli

Peter Wohlleben is a tree-hugger — literally. He is a forester in Germany where he manages a beech forest. He is also an author of many books on the value of trees and the complexity of the natural world. He has recently published the last book in a trilogy of works on natural systems that operate within the forest. The book, The Secret Wisdom of Nature (Greystone), talks about the importance of the interactions that benefit flora and fauna. Wohlleben is bringing his message to Southminster Church on Saturday. before he gets there, he answered some questions from ARTSFILE.

Q. Mr. Wohlleben, why are trees your passion? When and where did it start?

A. It started when I was a little child. Since the age of six I wanted to become a conservationist. I spent much of my childhood out in the forest researching frogs, snails and spiders. The interconnection between all the living creatures in the forest, including trees and plants along with all animals fascinated me as a child. It was a natural progression after I finished school to go on to study forestry in order to become a tree keeper.

Q. This book is the third book in a trilogy. What are the other two books and what are they about?

Peter Wohlleben. Photo: Tobias Wohlleben

A. My first book in The Mysteries of Nature Trilogy, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries from A Secret World, reveals how the forest is a social network. I blend scientific discoveries with personal reflections to describe how trees are like human families: tree parents live together with their children, communicate with them, support them as they grow, share nutrients with those who are sick. I hope that after reading this book you will think a bit differently when you go for a walk in the woods!

My second book, The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief, and Compassion — Surprising Observations of a Hidden World, is again a personal reflection on the most recent science of animal communication. The complexity and diversity of animals’ emotional lives and the opportunity we have for both observation and connection excites me still. First and foremost, I would like readers to enjoy their interactions with animals more. For example, many people watch wild animals, but few stop to consider that the animals are watching them, too.

This final book, The Secret Wisdom of Nature: Trees, Animals, and the Extraordinary Balance of All Living Things — Stories from Science and Observation, continues to revel in the amazing connections that hold the natural world together.

Q. Why should we care about the connections that exist between trees and other flora and fauna?

A. Because we are all still a part of nature. By understanding the many complexities of the network we are so much better situated to recognize why and how we, as humans, continue to be so connected to it. It’s also important to acknowledge and care about these interconnections because many parts of this network are still unresearched, making them potentially very vulnerable. Accepting that there is complexity at work, and that we do not yet know much of what goes on between plants and animals, means that it is best to leave nature on its own, wherever it is possible. My motto is: Keep your hands in your pockets and just enjoy. But not in the case of climate change – for that my motto is: Less is more (concerning consumption).

Q. I’m hoping to can tell readers about why they should love (or at least not hate) the mountain pine beetle?

A. I would absolutely say please don’t hate the pine beetle. It is just able to successfully attack weakened trees. And why are they weakened? Of course it is climate change, in combination with very harsh forestry practices, which destroy this beautiful ecosystem. Heavily thinned forests or, even worse, clear-cut forests, are not able to sustainably withstand repeated hot and dry summers. Most forests, meanwhile, are too young to create their own cool and humid climate. So it’s no wonder that the pine beetle is able to take over one forest after another. All the factors of this “beetle catastrophe“ are man-made — so we shouldn’t condemn insects.

Q. Mind telling me about another system that connects an animal with a tree? Why does it matter?

A. Another similar system of connection can be found between wolves and trees. “Where wolves walk the forests grow” is a traditional Russian proverb. For example we can look to how wolves impact deer numbers. Deer, which prefer feeding on delicate and tasty seedlings, can’t destroy a forest because their numbers are regulated by predators. In Germany wolves are coming back, and so we can once again experience what you in Canada have not lost in your forests: An intact system is resilient.

Q. In Ottawa we have a well-known advocate for trees, Diana Beresford Kroeger. She is an advocate of, among other things, the healthfulness of being in a forest. Do you subscribe to this? Why do you think it is so?

A. Our senses are still intact and attuned to the natural world — regardless of whether we live in a city or the countryside — and it is well researched that our bodies respond to and interact with tree communication. Not in a way that we necessarily register consciously, but our blood pressure sinks while being under trees. We breath in the chemicals tree leaves release, and that has an impact even on our immune system. So it’s always a good idea to spend as much time as possible outside in a forest for your mind and your body.

In town: Peter Wohlleben, author of The Secret Wisdom of Nature (Greystone), will be at Southminster United Church, 15 Aylmer Ave., March 16 at 2 p.m. Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.