Tag Archives: Peter Wohlleben

The Secret Wisdom of Nature: Trees, Animals, and the Extraordinary Balance of All Living Things by Peter Wohlleben

Summary

  1. Wohlleben describes how interconnected, systematic, nature is

Key Takeaways

  1. Nature is like the mechanism in an enormous clock. Everything is neatly arranged and interconnected. Every entity has its place and its function.
  2. It’s important for us to realize that even small interventions can have huge consequences,  and we’d do better to keep our hands off everything in nature that we do not absolutely have to touch.
  3. This was the year wolves caught in Canada were released in Yellowstone to restore the park’s ecological balance. What happened in the years that followed, and continues to this day, is what scientists call a trophic cascade. Basically, this means a change in the entire ecosystem via the food chain, starting at the top. The wolf was now at the top of the food chain, and what it triggered could perhaps better be described as a trophic avalanche.
  4. In undisturbed ancient forests, youngsters have to spend their first two hundred years waiting patiently in their mothers’ shade. As they struggle to put on a few feet, they develop wood that is incredibly dense. In modern managed forests today, seedlings grow without any parental shade to slow them down. They shoot up and form large growth rings even without a nutrient boost from added nitrogen. Consequently, their woody cells are much larger than normal and contain much more air, which makes them susceptible to fungi—after all, fungi like to breathe, too. A tree that grows quickly rots quickly and therefore never has a chance to grow old.
  5. Forget-me-nots, however, can only conquer new territory so successfully because they have an army of tiny allies: ants. It’s not that ants are particularly fond of flowers—at least, they are not attracted by their aesthetic qualities. Ants are motived by their desire to eat them, and their interest is triggered when forget-me-nots form their seeds. The seeds are designed to make an ant’s mouth water, for attached to the outside is a fleshy structure called an elaiosome, which looks like a tiny cake crumb. This fat- and sugar-rich morsel is like chips and chocolate to an ant. The tiny creatures quickly carry the seeds back to their nest, where the colony is waiting eagerly in the tunnels for the calorie boost.  The tasty treat is nibbled off and the seed itself is discarded. Along come the trash collectors in the form of worker ants, which dispose of the seeds in the neighborhood—carting them up to 200 feet away from home base. Wild strawberries and wood violets also benefit from this distribution service: ants in nature’s employ as gardeners, as it were.
  6. Ravens have a role to play here: they spot bears from afar and help wolves by alerting the pack to approaching danger. In return, wolves allow ravens to help themselves to a share of the booty—something the birds wouldn’t be able to do without the wolves’ permission.  Wolves would have no difficulty making a meal of ravens, but they teach their offspring that these birds are their friends. Wolf pups have been observed playing with their black companions; the young wolves imprint on the smell of the ravens and come to regard the birds as members of their community.
  7. There are two forces at work here. Sick or weak animals separate themselves from others of their kind to hide in the undergrowth, or on hot summer days they wander near or into small streams to cool any wounds they might have. Here, they wait for death. That makes sense, because this way they don’t endanger their kin—weak animals attract the attention of predators. Also, in a secluded spot, there’s no one to disturb them in their final hours.
  8. Pigs were driven into forests in fall to fatten up on acorns and beechnuts. In those days,  animal fat was still prized. The term “mast years” comes from these times. Mast years are years when there is massive production of acorns and beechnuts, and they cycle around every three to five years.
  9. Natural deciduous forests left to their own devices do not burn, and fire was not part of the ecosystem in these latitudes.
  10. Insects exploit laws of nature to protect themselves against freezing. They use sugars they produce naturally to create a kind of antifreeze, and they empty their gut to minimize their water content because tiny amounts of water don’t freeze until temperatures fall far below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Five microliters of water (which is a vanishingly small two ten-thousandths of a fluid ounce), for instance, doesn’t form ice crystals until it reaches 0  degrees Fahrenheit.
  11. In winter, this percentage increases to 41 percent, and this is especially dangerous for the wild boar, because in the cold months of all years except mast years the forest is mostly empty of food—as you would expect the stomachs of the wild boar to be. Without the hunters’ intervention, many of them would starve, and then the population would match the carrying capacity of the habitat once again. But this is not what happens when they never have to adjust to periods of scarcity.
  12. As insurance, they extend many filaments parallel to each other, and they simply switch the connection to neighboring threads. Incidentally, that’s why when you’re out collecting ceps, boletes, or chanterelles in the fall it doesn’t matter whether you twist the mushrooms or cut them off (a perennial bone of contention among nature lovers). Any damage is quickly bypassed underground.
  13. Fungi can be every bit as long-lived as trees. Ancient honey fungus networks have been found underground in North America. The record-holder is a fungus belonging to the species Armillaria ostoyae. It is 2,400 years old and has spread to cover 3.5 square miles.
  14. In contrast to a human brain, a woodpecker’s brain sits firmly in its skull so that it doesn’t bounce back and forth while it’s using its beak to deal staccato blows to a tree. As an added precaution, there’s a special springy support behind its beak that cushions the blows before they travel to its skull. Despite this, fresh wood is simply too dense. But the black woodpeckers are patient. They start their construction project by hacking out the entrance in the outer growth rings. They then abandon the site, sometimes for years. In the woodpeckers’ absence, fungi take over. They’re on the job mere minutes after the first turn of the shovel—or, in this case, the first blow of the beak. There are a multitude of their spores in every cubic foot of air, and they immediately land on the site of the damage. Fresh fungal growth appears and starts to decompose the wood by eating it alive.  The wood becomes soft and mushy, so, after years of waiting, our woodpecker couple can finally return to building their home without getting a headache. Once the cavity is ready, the woodpeckers can start a family.
  15. Trees have only two strategies to survive this roller coaster. First, most can survive in a  wide range of climates. You can find beeches from Sicily to southern Sweden and birches from Lapland to Spain. Second, the genetic bandwidth within a species is very wide, so in a forest, you can always find individual trees that can deal with the new conditions better than most of the others.
  16. Deciduous trees, after all, show that there are other ways of doing things. As long as they’re alive, they’re absolutely immune to fire. This is something you can easily test for yourself (but please with just a single green twig). No matter how long you hold a flame underneath it, the twig will not burn. Spruce, Pines & Co., in contrast, ignite easily even when they’re fresh. But why? The opinion among forest ecologists is that in northern latitudes—the place most conifers call home—fire is a natural force for regeneration and even serves to preserve species diversity.
  17. There is, for example, the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), one of the mightiest trees in the world. It can grow more than 300 feet tall and live for many thousands of years. Its bark is soft, thick, and slow to burn. If you find one of these in a city park (and you can find them in many city parks all over the world), step right up to it and press your thumb into the bark. You’ll be surprised how soft it is. It holds a great deal of trapped air,  which insulates the tree most effectively. Thanks to the insulating qualities of its bark, the trunk can survive unscathed a quickly moving front of flames, such as those created by summer grass fires or fires in the undergrowth.
  18. One simple standard definition is that nature is the opposite of culture—that is to say,  everything that people have not created or changed.
  19. Researchers from the United States suspect that there are definite disadvantages to our powerful brain. They compared the self-destructive programming of human cells with a  similar program run by ape cells. This program destroys and dismantles old and defective cells. Their comparison showed that the cleanup mechanism is a lot more effective in apes than it is in people, and the researchers believe that the reduced rate at which cells are broken down in people allows for larger brain growth and a higher rate of connections between cells. This improvement in intelligence probably comes at a high price, because the self-cleansing mechanism also gets rids of cancer cells. Whereas apes hardly ever get cancer, this disease is one of the top causes of death in people. Is the price for our intellectual capacities too high? If our current level of intelligence is not suited to the survival of humankind, it must either be increased or lowered. The latter is probably unacceptable thanks to our ideas about self-worth.
  20. There’s a simple reason these treeless landscapes delight us so much. We are, from a  biological perspective, animals of the plains, and we feel secure in landscapes with extensive views where we can move around easily.
  21. Over the years, an undertone of emotion crept in, which was much more in line with my personal thinking. In other words, I relaxed and let my heart do the talking instead of my brain.
  22. It is more important to me to state the facts so that people can understand them emotionally. And then I can lead them on a full sensory tour of nature, because that way I  can communicate one thing above all: the joy our fellow creatures and their secrets can bring us.

What I got out of it

  1. An interesting book but nearly as good as The Hidden Life of Trees

The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief, and Compassion by Peter Wohlleben

Summary

  1. Shows through some great examples how animals think, feel, and behave in some very complex ways

Key Takeaways

  1. Science uses the term “instinctive behavior” to describe actions that are carried out unconsciously without being subjected to any thought processes. These actions can be genetically hard-wired or they can be learned. What is common to all of them is that they happen very quickly because they bypass cognitive processes in the brain.
  2. It should be clear by now that whether they are driven by their circumstances or our desires, whether they want to or not, animals love people (and, of course, the reverse is true).
  3. Can animals lie? If you define the term loosely, then quite a few can. The hoverfly, whose yellow and black stripes make it look like a wasp, “lies” to its enemies by making them believe it is dangerous. It must be said that the fly is unaware of its deception, because it doesn’t actively undertake it; it was just born looking that way. It’s the same with the  European peacock butterfly. With big “eyes” on its wings, it signals to its enemies that it’s bigger than it really is and is too large for them to tackle.
  4. But what exactly is courage? Once again, this term has a variety of vague definitions (I  invite you to try to come up with a definition off the top of your head), although one general concept seems clear: courage involves realizing that it is important to act despite recognized danger and then doing so.
  5. So Nature is nothing like a neat set of compartments. No species are inherently good or bad, as we have already seen in the case of squirrels. But it is much easier for us to empathize with or at least take an interest in squirrels than it is for us to relate to the ticks mentioned at the beginning of this chapter.
  6. The prickly little guys roll up into a comfortable ball in a cozily padded nest that is often buried deep beneath a pile of leaves or brush. Here, they fall into a deep sleep that can last for months. In contrast to many other mammals, instead of keeping their body temperature at a hedgehog-appropriate 95 degrees Fahrenheit, they simply shut off their energy intake, which means their body temperature falls to match the ambient temperature and sometimes drops as low as 41 degrees. Their heartbeat slows from up to two hundred beats to only nine beats per minute, and they breathe only four times a  minute instead of fifty. Dialed down like this, a hedgehog uses hardly any energy at all and can make it through to the next spring on its reserves.
  7. It has now been proven that animals can turn off the sensation of hunger. Hunger is, after all, a signal from the unconscious that it’s time to eat. And this feeling should only trigger the desire to eat when adding calories would be beneficial.
  8. Social insects believe in division of labor. Early on, scientists coined the term  “superorganism” to describe a collective in which each individual is part of a greater whole.
  9. For example, bees can definitely remember people. They will attack people who have annoyed them in the past, and allow people who have left them in peace to venture much closer. Professor Randolf Menzel at the Free University of Berlin has discovered other amazing things. Young bees leaving the hive for the first time use the sun as a kind of compass. With the sun as their guide, they develop an internal map of the landscape around their home and use it to record their flight paths. In other words, they have an idea about what things look like around them. In this, they orient themselves much the same way we do, for people also create mental maps.
  10. It had to be the two of them because herd animals should not be kept alone, and the fact  that only one of them could be ridden was just fine with me, because I was out of the  picture
  11. Let’s come back once again to the feeling of fairness, for that definitely exists in the animal kingdom, and not just among horses. If you live in a social group, things need to be fair. According to the dictionary definition of the term “justice,” every member of a  community should be treated equally. If they aren’t, resentment quickly bubbles to the surface and, if this resentment is constantly fed, it can lead to violence. In human communities, laws are supposed to protect everyone’s interests. However, emotions such as shame when we behave badly and happiness when we behave well are considerably more important than the law when it comes to our daily dealings with each other.
  12. Stressed individuals are less affected by the suffering of others.
  13. They assume that all animals that live in herds or large groups possess similar brain mechanisms because social units function only if individuals can see things from the perspective of others in the group and feel what they are feeling.
  14. You see, the bats recognize one another and know exactly which of their acquaintances are generous and which are not. Those that exhibit especially altruistic traits are the first to be looked after if they themselves ever run into a string of bad luck.59 Does that mean that altruism is selfish? In evolutionary terms, certainly, because the individuals that show these traits have a higher chance of survival in the long term. But there is something else we can learn from the scientists’ observations. Clearly, the bats have a choice—free will—and they can decide to share or not to share. If that wasn’t the case, there surely would be no need for the complicated social network of mutual recognition, attributing particular traits to particular individuals, and the behavior this gives rise to. Altruism could simply be genetically fixed as another reflex so there would no longer be any recognizable character differences between the bats. However, selflessness is meaningful only if it happens of the individual’s own free will, and vampire bats clearly exercise their ability to make this choice.
  15. Often the fawn has not yet experienced how serious life can be, and it dawdles behind mom—an ideal target for wolves or lynx. These predators can spot the pair from a long way off and easily grab a meal. That’s why mother deer prefer to separate themselves from their little darlings for the first three to four weeks and leave them in a safe place. It is almost impossible to sniff out a fawn. Because they smell of hardly anything at all, their scent doesn’t alert predators to their presence.
  16. Thousands of years of breeding have delayed the socialization phase in dogs, and today it starts when they are four weeks old. With both wolves and dogs, the formative period lasts only four weeks. While not all the wolf pups’ senses are fully developed at this important time, puppies explore their environment equipped with their full sensory repertoire—and in the final days of this phase of their life, people are part of their environment. This means that whereas dogs basically feel most at home in our company,  wolves retain a certain distrust of us all their life.
  17. Rabbits live according to a strict hierarchy, which is different for each sex. Each rabbit vigorously defends its rank, and for good reason: dominant animals reproduce more successfully. Although the top males and females are more aggressive, overall they suffer less from stress. That sounds logical. After all, rabbits that are constantly being pushed around live in constant fear of the next attack. High-status rabbits experience elevated levels of stress hormones only in short bursts when they are attacking. No wonder  Professor von Holst reported that the high-ranking rabbits experienced lower levels of stress overall. In addition, high-ranking rabbits had especially close social contact with rabbits of the opposite sex, which helped them relax.
  18. You can only talk about war, as we use the word, to describe conflicts in species that live in large social groups. In the Central European latitudes, that means bee, wasp, and ant colonies, which mount raids as we do. If, however, an animal attacks another individual on its own, then we talk of a fight, something you can see between many male birds or mammals.
  19. If they want to sleep, they do so while airborne. That is highly risky, of course, because sleeping birds aren’t in total control of their actions. And so they spiral upward a mile or more to increase the distance between themselves and the ground. Then they begin to glide downward, tracing a wide circle that slows their descent. Finally, they are free to doze for a few moments. They don’t have time for anything more, because they need to be wide awake again before the first rooftops loom dangerously close and their situation becomes precarious. Is this brief shut-eye sufficient for the birds to get any rest?  Definitely, because although sleep allows all species to exclude or reduce outside influences so the brain can run its internal processes undisturbed, sleep is a little different for every species. The different phases of our sleep with their varied depths show that even human sleep is not a uniform affair. Our horses, for example, don’t need much in the way of really deep sleep. Often just a few minutes are enough, which they take while lying down on their sides looking as though they’ve been shot. They’re so deep in dreamland that they are indeed dead to the world, and their legs twitch as though they were galloping over an imaginary prairie. Other than that, they stay on their feet and doze away a few hours of each day just like the airborne swifts.
  20. They rely less on sight when they hunt and more on ultrasound. They make high-pitched calls and then listen to the echo sent back by objects and potential prey. Visual camouflage doesn’t help one little bit, because the flying mammals are “seeing” with their ears. Therefore, the moths must make themselves invisible to hearing. But how do you do that? One possibility is to absorb sound instead of reflecting it. And that’s why many moths are covered with a thick furry layer that traps the bats’ calls or, to put it more precisely, muddles it up and reflects it back all over the place. Instead of receiving a sharp image of a moth, the bat’s brain gets a fuzzy something that might just as easily be a bit of bark.
  21. I find it endlessly fascinating when I think that every species of animal may see and feel the world in a completely different way, so you could say there are hundreds of thousands of different worlds out there. And many of these worlds are waiting to be discovered,  even in the latitudes where I live.
  22. In the forest I manage, the lush green moss at the bottom of thick beeches is often brown and crispy dry come summer, and the little bears have absolutely no access to water.  Then they fall into an extreme form of sleep. Only well-nourished tardigrades survive,  and fat plays an important role. If moisture is lost too quickly, death follows; however, if moisture evaporates gradually, the tardigrades adjust, dry out, draw their tiny legs up into their bodies, and reduce their metabolic rate to zero. In this state of suspended animation,  they can withstand almost anything: neither searing heat nor bone-chilling cold can touch them. Absolutely no biological activity takes place. They do not dream, because that inner projector requires energy to roll. You could say it’s a kind of death, which means there’s no aging either. In the general scheme of things, tardigrades are not long-lived, but under extreme conditions, they can survive for decades, waiting for rain to reanimate them. When rain comes and saturates both the desiccated moss and the tardigrades, it takes no more than twenty minutes for the tiny creatures to extend their legs and get their internal structures back online. Life as they know it resumes.
  23. Depending on which studies you want to believe, the verbal content of a conversation might convey as little as 7 percent of its meaning.
  24. We can experience joy and peace without giving anything much thought, and that is the crux of the matter: emotions have no need for intelligence. As I have stressed, emotions steer instinctive programming and therefore are vital for all species, and therefore all species experience them to a greater or lesser degree.

What I got out of it

  1. Not much new or surprising but some great anecdotal examples of the depth and complexity animals have

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben

Wohlleben goes into the nitty-gritty of how trees survive, communicate, protect themselves, grow, are social (much like human families), share nutrients, and so much more.