Books & Literature

Book Review: The Secret Network of Nature, by Peter Wohlleben

A fascinating look at the vital inter-dependencies between we humans and all aspects of the natural world.

I thought I understood how everything in nature was interconnected. After all, my high school biology textbook was called The Web of Life, but this book truly opened my eyes to not only the interconnections but the even more vital inter-dependencies between we humans and all aspects the natural world.

The first chapter highlights these inter-dependencies through the amazing story of wolves in Yellowstone National Park in the USA. Wolves had been eliminated from the park by the 1960s, mainly through pressure from ranchers with grazing leases surrounding the park who feared for their livestock. Peter Wohlleben details step by inexorable step how the disappearance of wolves impacted even the course of rivers in the park.

The first step was an increase in the elk population leading to overgrazing of fragile riverbank foliage which in turn displaced beavers who struggled for food. Fewer beavers equal fewer dams to slow the water from spring melt and flood waters leading to increased soil erosion and water spreading out over the park, resulting in more meandering rivers washing away even more soil. And on and on it goes.

But this is, mostly, a good news story as the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone has had a positive impact on all the aspects detailed above, and even more. For example, more beaver dams mean more ponds are formed providing habitats for amphibians. I say “mostly good news” as the technology used to track the introduced wolves and monitor them is also used by hunters to find the wolves when they leave the park and kill them.

The author is a forester in Germany and much of the book is concerned with how we could do a much better job of forest management even if re-establishing ancient mixed woodlands, as opposed to conifer plantations, is not practical. He discusses the impact of disrupting the natural order including the smallest insects and fungi which are all important in nature’s grand plan.

Wohlleben argues one of the major reasons behind human beings’ disruption of nature is simply a lack of understanding due to a lack of research. There is so much we don’t yet know about how flora, fauna, fungi and bacteria interact and depend on each other and we have examples from all over the world of the dangers of introducing a foreign species. Just think of cane toads in Queensland, which are now more of a problem than the beetle they were introduced to control.

Like many books about the natural world, this book considers nature as being ‘out there’ and ignores what gardening can teach us about interconnections and inter-dependencies. Surely, learning about nature literally begins in our own back yard and I’m pleased that more and more of us are realising that and getting our hands dirty.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Rating out of 10:  8

Distributed by: Penguin Random House Australia
Released: September 2018
RRP: $39.99 hardcover, $29.99 trade paperback

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