The Secret Wisdom of Nature by Peter Wohlleben

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Wohlleben_secretnatureHe who writes about nature’s intricate webs needs a quick tutorial from he who writes about Charlotte’s web.

Wohlleben, Peter. The Secret Wisdom of Nature: Trees, Animals, and the Extraordinary Balance of All Living Things; Stories from Science and Observation. Trans. Jane Billinghurst. Vancouver, CAN: Greystone Books, 2017. Print.

 

Genre: nonfiction (nature)

 

Summary: Wolves impact river levels. Beavers influences where trees grow. Earthworms control wild boar populations. Forest trees eat salmon, which helps the trees grow faster and healthier. Wohlleben illuminates and explains all of these curious, unexpected, seemingly impossible connections scientists are discovering between organisms and nature.

More than merely fascinating, these organic bonds and interactions are crucial. Once disrupted, the broken relationships lead to ever more cataclysmic ruptures. When any one population disappears or booms beyond the balance, all other organisms across a natural system are threatened. As one example, Wohlleben looks at how a proliferating elk population mows down soft, sweet riparian trees that beavers eat and build with. If beavers can’t dam rivers, then other water-dependent plants go thirsty and die. The animals relying on those plans for food must relocate or else also die.

The consequences intensify when we stop to consider the mass extinctions of entire animal species over the last several hundred years. Human activities have largely divested the planet of some 8,000 plant and animal species, according to the Smithsonian Institute. Add to that another 15,000 species under threat.

Our booming cities and suburban sprawls erase entire habitats. Our lifestyles chew through fossil fuels which rapidly alter the planet’s temperatures, further disrupting ancient cycles and the mysterious relationships Wohlleben chronicles.

Spoiler alert: Wohlleben proffers slender hope. He advises readers to join a local forestry class or outdoors survival group. Perhaps get more time outdoors in order to cultivate a passion for the spaces we need to preserve.

 

Critique: I am not certain this text adopts the most effective structure for an international translation. In nearly every chapter, Wohlleben’s examples begin with a global context, then narrow down to a specific instance isolated to his native Germany. No doubt, this structure appealed to German readers who could conceptualize a world problem through a familiar lens. But an American readership can’t really relate to Berlin’s wild boar dilemmas. And wouldn’t all readers everywhere feel more compelled if a chapter’s scenario began with an isolated, local predicament that mirrors or micro-illustrates a broader, global crisis?

Besides structural setbacks, the text also suffers from translation hiccups.

Wohlleben is a natural storyteller. His tone feels as cozy as A.A. Milne (Winnie the Pooh) and as animal-loving as E.B. White (Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, The Goshawk). Unfortunately, the translation to English corrodes this intrinsic style. As I read the opening chapters, I found my attention continually sliding off the page. Paragraphs bogged down with the clause-y, conditional verbs that I continually tell my students to beware.

For example:

“Forest agencies are offering to step in and help…”

“Timber was becoming increasingly scarce because it was being used so heavily as fuel and building material, and people were not giving trees time to grow old.”

“In Yellowstone, however, in addition to declining elk numbers, there was something else going on. Thanks to the presence of wolves, the elk’s behavior was changing, and what was triggering this change was fear. Elk began avoiding open areas…”

This passage goes on to describe how the elk “were retreating…”or else “were constantly scanning” and so on.

For writers, the poor writing red flags are not just rising, they’re blasting out of bazookas in these examples. Anytime a sentence involves a “to be” verb phrase (there is/was/were/are…), that sentence has veered into passive voice territory. Passive voice describes when the typical order of operations in a sentence inverts. Usually, a sentence lines up the subject and verb. A someone or something does something. The cat sleeps. The boulder fell. A change occurred.

 Passive voice use a “to be” phrase and puts the doing before the thing. There was a change.

What’s the big deal? As E.B. White (same as above and of the classic Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style) notes, that inverted structure creates a wordier sentence which bogs down the reading experience. Thus why my attention slid off the page.

Another tell-tale sign of passive voice are diluted, weak, clause-y verbs. Were retreating. Began avoiding. Are offering. Was being used. “To be” verb clauses barnacle themselves to perfectly good verbs. Why waste ink on were retreating when you could say the elk retreated?

I have my students find and fix these problems in the news articles and ad brochures I bring to class or tutoring sessions. Below are the problematic passive sentences and a quick, concise fix:

Forest agencies are offering to step in and help.
Forest agencies help.

Timber was becoming increasingly scarce because it was being used so heavily as fuel and building material, and people were not giving trees time to grow old.
Timber became scarce…

(That’s ok, but if I choose better verbs, the whole sentence improves by leaps and bounds.)

Timber dwindled as people relied on it for fuel and building material; trees lacked essential time to grow old.

In Yellowstone, however, in addition to declining elk numbers, there was something else going on. Thanks to the presence of wolves, the elk’s behavior was changing, and what was triggering this change was fear. Elk began avoiding open areas…
In Yellowstone, other anomalies unfolded. Elk behavior changed. Fear triggered new habits as the elk avoided open areas…
They retreated…
They scanned…

I’d love to recommend this book to all the world’s would-be Greta Thunbergs and passionate climate change fighters; however, I’ll most likely recommend it to writing coaches who are passionate about fighting writing change.

Apocalyptic Planet by Craig Childs

Gearing up to see Al Gore’s return in An Inconvenient Sequel? Be sure to add some good mental trail mix to your rucksack.

Childs, Craig. Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Future of Earth. New York: Vintage, 2012. Print.

Genre: narrative nonfiction

Summary: Craig Childs travels around the world to showcase the impacts of climate change — those we can readily observe, as well as those more hidden in surprising chain reactions. Childs’ work won the Orion Award, presented only to those outstanding books which deepen a reader’s connection to the natural world. Childs is also the author of previous award-winning and thought-provoking books including The Animal Dialogues, Finders Keepers, and House of Rain.

Critique: With his usual devil-may-care penchant for bedlam, Childs takes readers — and anyone else crazy enough to tag along — to every deadly brink he can find on the planet which may (or may not) chart the course of our demise. He rafts an uncharted Himalayan river…with his stepdad…during flood season. He traverses the base of a glacier…while it is calving…at unprecedented speeds. He monitors the stormy, hostile waters around the Bering Straight…under gale-force winds hurtling stone-hard rain…with his mother.

From Greenland’s white water deserts to Mexico’s sandy no-man’s (and no-waters) lands; from Hawaiian lava flows to Iowan corn vistas, Childs presents a dazzling tour of destruction. Over and over, he covers the planet’s 4.6 billion years of cyclical renewl and collapse. Digestion and regurgitation of landmasses and species. He points out the research suggesting what we are going through now is perfectly normal…and yet perfectly exacerbated by our mode of modern life.

Sure, the earth will most likely survive any severe turnover — life always finds a way. But we homo sapiens might not be so lucky. We may have already triggered irreparable sequences; destructive dominoes already litter our path. Or do they? Only time will tell.

I’m not just being coy about the end of this book as a way of tempting you to read it. I am reflecting Child’s even greater penchant for sharing more tough questions than easy answers. Which is wise, considering how few complex issues are ever cut and dry. Not every debate has a right or wrong side. Sometimes both sides’ positions stink equally. In this case, Childs holds us accountable to answer the toughest questions. What will we do in the face of global demise — wait and see if we’re really boned, or act in every way possible to avert calamity?

We know what plays better at the movie theater when the clock on the nuclear bomb ticks down its final seconds before detonation. Rarely does the hero just sit and wait.

Because this is a critique and not a review, I am obligated to point out that this book’s greatest feature is also its most tragic flaw. It stems from a stylistic habit I share with Craig Childs, and thus, I comment with deepest respect and sympathy. Every page, every paragraph, is loaded with stunning similes and metaphors to evoke the settings.

Back in February, I had the distinct pleasure and privilege of meeting Craig Childs several times during his week-long visit in town. Apocalyptic Planet was the common reading experience for the college freshmen (and the wider community). Often, he noted the goal of his writing was to bring readers out of their easy chairs and into the wilds, out on the trails where most cannot follow. To that end, he leaned heavily on figurative language. However, the text held so many of these descriptive gems, they eventually dulled into common minerals. I lost sight and sense of the place, or else lost the scope and stakes of the environmental issue under scrutiny. As a result, the pacing slackened and my desire to keep reading waned (the very thing my writing advisers and mentors always warned me about).

Perhaps if the earth generally benefits from gobbling up its most precious places, then Craig and I might also benefit from wiping away our more darling descriptions.