THE SECRET NETWORK OF NATURE
Bodley Head, 2018, 264 pages
Hardback, £14.99 ISBN 978-1-847-92524-4
Review by Peter Taylor
This unassuming book is a little gem of nature writing – part of a German trilogy well-known on the Continent, including The Hidden Life of Trees and The Inner Life of Animals. Wohlleben is a forester with a keen eye both for the web of ecosystems and the human fascination with the improbable aspects of Nature. Generally, the ecology is not only sound, but enlightening – I learned many things.
The author excels in treatment of the way natural forests have been altered, in particular how several hundred years of forestry have shifted central Europe’s forest cover from mixed conifers and beech, to single species stands of spruce. These forests now respond to warming in less resilient ways, in particular, their vulnerability to water stress and beetle damage. He relates how natural taiga forest, for example, produces terpenes which seed cloud, and how mixed forests absorb less solar heating than tracts of dark green conifer.
However, on climate change, he falls as so many do, for the media hype and campaign activism about rates of warming, which in actuality, are not unprecedented. Forests have coped with a cycle of Little Ice Ages with a period of 1000 years and there is no good evidence that modern rates of change of temperature, rainfall and weather patterns are greater than in those past cycles.
The little chapter on fire is salutary – modern humans have created ideal conditions for massive forest fires, which he argues were not a feature of Europe’s natural mixed forests ecosystems, with the possible exception of the Taiga where old trees survive regular fires because of their thick bark.
There is also much discussion of the ‘original’ forest cover of central Europe and the role of mega-herbivores. Wohlleben comes down on the side of a forest with very limited areas of open space, grassland and populations of the big herbivorous mammals, which he argues are fundamentally herd species of the plains.
I recommend this book. Each chapter provokes thought and it makes ecosystem dynamics accessible in ordinary language and stories.