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.

My Bearings

The bear track halted my run. It and a string of identical cousins imprinted the sandy trail ahead of me. If I paid no attention to the crescent moons pressed by the claws, the tracks resembled a child’s delicate footprint. Rounded, plump indents. Chubby toes.

The cherubic tread traveled north on the trail, the same direction I was going.

A thought shoved stiff rebar down my spine: how fresh were these tracks?

I am no practiced or professional tracker. I have friends who are. If only they were there with me. Or, if only I had cell service! Then I could beam them some pics and they could tell me, “Bah, those tracks are weeks old. You’re fine.” Or, “GET THE HELL OUTTA THERE!”

The other shoe prints and horse hoof indents decorating the trail all appeared mottled with time or wind-smudged; their edges indistinct. Only my marks and the bear’s were crisply defined, trodden atop all the others.

A wintry gust shoved through the canyon. It pried under the insulated clothing and licked goosebumps across my skin.

I traced the tracks backwards. How long had I shared the trail with them without notice?

Quite a while.

My stomach dropped somewhere below my knees. That bear might be only a few yards ahead! And I was miles from the trailhead, completely alone.

With clumsy, shaking hands, I unsnapped my water pack and rummaged its pockets. I heard in my stooped position nothing but the chrrgg-chrrgg-chrrgg of adrenaline-laced blood surging through my system. At last, I procured the little canister of pepper spray.

As I slid the pack back on, my nostrils scoured the breeze for that unmistakable tangy, musky bear body odor. When I smelled nothing but the cold, many thoughts crowded in. I was being irrational. Bears avoid people at all costs. Even if those tracks were fresh, odds were good that my scent and my noises had probably prodded the bear to jog way ahead and hide to evade me entirely.

I resumed my run. Calm returned gradually and with it came the question I’d been taught to ask whenever my overactive imagination led me too far into fear’s terrain: Does this feel familiar?

While my imagination serves my writing well, it often skews reality for me. When I am afraid, I can spin a thousand fictitious narratives around the potential causes and outcomes. But those scenarios bear zero connection to the reality of the moment. They are usually a facade, a replica or facsimile, compiled from some past trauma.

Essentially, from a young age I became adept at buying fear’s tickets and riding the panic coaster through every loop dee loop.

When I asked myself if this fear in this moment and in this place felt familiar, I readily answered: yes!

On another wintry day in this very canyon where the sandstone cliffs resemble shortbread castles and baggy elephants, I had experienced fear. Perhaps exactly a year ago, I hiked this trail. At that time, I was facing the last winter and holiday season I’d ever get with my beloved best friend. On some level, I’d probably elected to do a strenuous hike because I needed to prove that I could endure. That I could survive the looming loss.

How could I possibly go on writing without this most trusted reader delighting in my creations? Who would I be without this person in my life? I was certain the answers to these questions awaited me at the end of the hike.

Back then, this trek was arduous for me. I’d packed gobs of food and water. The eight or so miles took most of the day for me to walk, with plenty of breaks to rest my aching feet and legs. I can still remember how I wanted to turn back after the first couple miles. No way could I complete this hike. But I did, practically staggering the last mile back to the car.

Fast forward, and here I was, out for a leisurely run. I knew I’d finish the circuit in hardly more than an hour.

The irrational fear dusted up by those bear tracks had nothing to do with the present moment. They stirred up fear I’d known in the past.

I marveled at my transformation. My skill. My strength. My power. That girl in that situation was a thousand miles away.

And the bear tracks? Gone. Although I never saw them veer off the trail, they did vanish, freeing me to forge my own way forward.

 

 

Photo credits: “Rock Creek Trail” and “Sandstone Castles” copyright Jennifer Mason; featured image “Canyon Curves” also copyright Jennifer Mason; “Black Bear Tracks” by K Young CC 3.0.

The Anthropology of Turquoise by Ellen Meloy

Eyes do not see; they touch. Vision evolved from skin gathering light in minute detail. The brain does not think; it smells. It evolved from a large olfactory nerve in skull. It helped us sew memories and scents together.This book will change how (and who) you are in the world.

Meloy, Ellen. The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky. New York: Vintage Books, 2002. Print.

Genre: nonfiction (nature essays)

Summary: A collection of essays explore color’s spiritual, emotional, and biological importance to humans; how our humanity has been shaped and how our impact on the planet shifts as our connection to colors diminishes.

Critique: Touch. Contact. Connection. Having a tactile experience with the physical, natural world is at the heart of each essay in this collection. Meloy demonstrates through her own adventuring how to be fully alive and awake and seduced and ecstasied in the great outdoors.

To bring readers into her experience, she converts our ability to perceive colors–especially one as slippery as turquoise–into a haptic experience. More than that, she stretches into synesthesia when she reminds us the eyes can touch and the brain can smell. It can even smell colors. Turquoise, in its hybrid not-quite-blue-not-quite-green existence is really just the scent of the wind (or so said ancient Middle Eastern cultures). Native cultures across the Americas transcribed the color into sound, one that guided souls to the afterlife.

Magical and sensual though that is, Meloy laments the modern world’s loss of color. Or, it’s increasing colorblindness to the natural world which has been dammed, funneled, paved, monetized, and commodified. Either every scrap of this planet is put to our direct use and benefit, or those scraps which will not submit to our utilitarian desires will be removed. However, this very practical and clever war-rationing approach to nature strikes Meloy as too narrow.

On a recent trip to Moab, I marvel at a stone’s skin.

Instead of using the world, why not enjoy it? Marvel at it? It is a place we can revel in. Get lost. Drown. We can be bedeviled. Seduced. Overwhelmed. Ignored. All these things, and more, the world can do to us if we only let it. But why allow it to take such liberties with our bodies and souls?

Because it cracks us out of our slumbering shells. It enables us to live in a constant euphoric state of quivering, goose-prickled tingles.

Even better, enjoying the world enables us to be what we truly are, rather than what we think we are. And what we are, according to brilliant biologist E. O. Wilson, is a species of biophiliacs. Forget sapiens! Biophiliacs are insatiable lovers when it comes to nature.

“Our sense of wonder grows exponentially,” Wilson writes, “the greater the knowledge, the deeper the mystery and the more we seek knowledge to create new mystery.”

Or, as Meloy phrases it, “Lives without access to sensation are lives that edge out the earth’s raw, pervasive sweetness, that deeply biophilic connection to all life.”

But these essays come from an almost gentler, more idyllic time: the late 1990s and early 2000s. Back when we were taking our first baby-steps into sustainability and renewable energies. Today, we cannot be sure the EPA will survive the current White House administration. We cannot be sure our public lands will remain in our hands or wind up so privatized that in order to enter them (let alone enjoy them), we will first have to download and accept a standard EULA.

Now more than ever is the time to read this book and feel the world in a whole new way. Now is our best chance to confront the essential questions: are we locusts or lovers to this natural world? And, given the savage, ravenous course love takes, is there any difference between those roles?

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.

 

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

abbey_desertsolitaireThe perfect book for anyone feeling, of late, as though the barbarian hordes are besieging all that is sacred and precious.

Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire. New York: Ballantine, 1968. Print.

Genre: nonfiction (nature/politics…enviropolitico?)

Summary: Edward Abbey, a rebel-rousing UNM graduate, goes to work for the National Parks Service. He endures a year in Arches, Utah, where he struggles with the merciless scrape of desert heat, as well as his swelling misanthropy for tourists and park administrators who seem to nimbly defile the sensuous landscape at every turn.

Critique: Like Abbey himself, the writing and narrative within this text are wayward, willful, fluid, stubborn, and unconventional. First and foremost, the book is an ode to the outdoors. A long, luxurious love poem honoring geology, praising desolation, and admiring stark vistas.

Second, the book may also serve as one of the most engrossing horticultural guides you’ll ever read.

Finally, Solitaire may be one of the timeliest treatises you could read this year, as the NPS picks up up the diapers and debris following the massive, record-busting influx of visitors during its 2016 centennial celebration, despite the endemic budgetary strangleholds imposed by Congress which have produced massive infrastructural failures. But will there be National Parks to flock to in the coming years? There is plenty of reason to worry and doubt, given the most recent White House Administration appointments, which have included powerful figures who oppose the fundamental premise of “public lands in public hands,” who ignore the studies linking spiritual and psychological healing with regular exposure to wild lands, who instead subscribe piously to a religion of nature as a source of untapped economic pulp.

Have we been through territory like this before? Yes, says Abbey. And we survived with our Parks–a unique notion in the world when they were first protected for the enjoyment of all people now and in the future, regardless of income, gender, religion, political leaning. Will we, and our Parks, survive this unfolding predicament? On that, Abbey cannot rightly say (and not just because he died in 1989). Since Abbey’s time, the Parks have come to face a truly dire duo of fresh challenges: appealing to minorities and Generation App.

What Edward Abbey might say is that the disconnects these populations experience when they visit a National Park links to the very infrastructure designed to attract them–an infrastructure he vehemently opposed and actively obstructed. Roads. Scenic pull-overs. Clean, running water. Flushing toilets. In Abbey’s view, these conveniences prevent people from breaking past the surface of what it is to be in the wild and witness its jaw-dropping miracles and horrors. Our predilection with comfort inhibits our chance to be and feel exposed…at risk…immersed…swallowed…challenged…basically, alive.

Read this book and take from Abbey a view of what the Parks are and were; what they’ve lost and what they could be. Glean from his feral trompings through the needling canyons what it is to be an animal outdoors, your civilized skin eroding like the stone arches, your spirit expanding, fed fat on the eternal nutrients of sun and space. Read this book and take heart; the revolution will, at least, have campfires!

(Photo credit for the teetering rock: NPS/Neal Herbert.)