books environment

Book review: The Heartbeat of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben

Peter Wohlleben is Germany’s Lorax. He speaks for the trees through his books, documentaries, the forest academy that he runs, and in his work as a forester. He’s best known for The Hidden Life of Trees, an international bestseller that introduced many people to the emerging science around how trees cooperate and communicate.

After writing about animals and weather, he returns to the subject of trees with The Heartbeat of Trees: Embracing our Ancient Bond with Forests and Nature.

The book is a series of short essays, 31 of them in all, that ramble freely through topics such as nature connection, forestry management, history, science and activism. The first few essays look at the senses, one at a time, and how they help us to experience the forest. They combine personal stories with the science of how natural settings affect our psychology – such as a human preference for the colour green. There are musings on earthworms, trees in cities, medicinal plants. There are encounters with ancient trees, conversations with philosophers.

A unifying theme is human connection with woodlands. While much has been written about nature deficit disorder and disconnection from nature, Wohlleben sees the situation as entirely retrievable: “The ancient tie that binds us to nature is not and never has been severed. We have just ignored it for a while.”

Perhaps we need some coaxing to get out there in nature, and the book investigates Japanese ‘forest bathing’ as a way of giving us permission to be in the woods without an agenda. It celebrates the joys of walking in the woods with children, and being open to stopping and looking at things. Understanding can build connection too, and the book is full of scientific oddities and new findings, such as how bees read electric fields, or how older trees ‘compost themselves’ in their last decades.

Of course, one of the risks of ignoring nature is that it can be destroyed or paved over while we’re not paying attention. In the last handful of essays, the author visits forests at risk in Poland, Germany and Canada, lending his influence to communities protecting trees. He writes about the importance of trees in a changing climate, and the perverse incentives around biomass. It’s a book rooted in wonder and appreciation, but also in action.

Wohlleben writes with real freedom, jumping from topic to topic, following his curiosity. Sometimes essays start on one subject and end somewhere else entirely. In some books that might call for some editorial discipline, but not here. Reading these essays feels like a walk in the woods with an enthusiastic expert, pausing to look and listen, diving off the trail to point out an unexpected discovery. As he says right on the first page, “I invite you to join me in the forest”.

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