3.5 out of 5 stars

The more that we learn about the natural world the less we realise that we know. The interdependency of every living thing from the alpha predators to the nutrients that move through the system is finely balanced. The way that we have been disrupting and to be frank, most of the time ruining it, is now bringing to light issues that we never even contemplated.

In this book by Peter Wohlleben, he brings to life this web of intricate connections between the most unrelated of animals and plants. These crucial links are not just the predator and prey that ripples up the food chain to the apex predators that you’d expect. These are very important as an overabundance of a particular species can affect countless others if it is not kept in check by its natural predator. He compares it to a clockwork mechanism and in particular to a clock of his grandfathers that he thought that he could take apart and put is back together. He couldn’t and his grandfather was not best pleased.

We’ve already seen that most attempts at fixing things come to nothing, so why not simply trust mechanisms that are millions of years old to carry on functioning without us.

Using this analogy of how tinkering with a system can have massive unknown implications is the theme of the book. He explains how a lack of predators in Yellowstone meant a rise in elk populations who stripped swathes of the vegetation and caused a fall in insects and beavers whose habitats disappeared from the riverbanks. With nothing there to stop the flow, the rivers flooded more often. They released wolves in 1995 who found large numbers of easy to catch elk. As elk numbers dropped, the dynamic of the ecosystem changed, the elk no longer favoured open spaces, i.e. riverbanks, and the plants and trees began to grow back reversing the decline and stabilising the riverbanks once again. The main point of this is that the scientists had never even thought that this one change would have such a multitude of different positive effects in the park.

If you know where to look then you can find these links all over the place. He explains how salmon and trees have mutually beneficial links, why trees don’t like the taste of deer and how ants and aphids have a close relationship. He even looks at some of the folklore myths about the production of beech mast and acorn and given plausible reasons as to why these trees release masses of seeds every few years. Where there is life there is death too, each living thing that passes, from a tiny fly to a huge tree has a range of creatures that are waiting for that very moment; death becomes life and so the cycle repeats.

We need to leave things alone – on a large a scale as possible.

This is not a bad book overall. It is not full of flowery prose, rather it is a concisely written and pragmatic book that uses numerous examples of how the intertwined links in the natural world actually work. The main point that he is making in the book goes back to his clock story at the beginning of the book; namely that these systems are just so complex that even all that we know from scientists studying them, we know so very little of just how they work. It has similar themes to Tapestries of life by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson that has been recently published and is worth reading as a pair.

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