Learning the Subtle Language of Nature

The Weather Detective / Dutton

The Weather Detective: Rediscovering Nature’s Secret Signs is the new book from forester Peter Wohlleben, who wrote the international bestseller and modern natural history classic The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate–Discoveries from a Secret World. Meandering from the forest to the garden, Wohlleben asks us to pay closer attention to our environment — to “recognize and understand the signs of nature.” With climate change, a deeper understanding of nature has only become more critical — it’s only then that “we will appreciate what we stand to lose.”

For Wohlleben, closely concentrating on what’s going around you outside is a source of pleasure but also discovery. In the first sections of the book, he plays detective — deducing temperature, time, and atmospheric conditions from how plants, animals, and insects behave.

A few tidbits:

Plants can tell you if it’s going to rain: If we closely watch water lilies, we can discover they are a “reliable indicator of a coming change in weather. The flowers close when they sense rain, often hours before it comes.”

Birds and plants can tell you what time it is: If all birds were singing all the time, they wouldn’t be able to hear each other. Somehow they have reached agreement to sing at different times, so as to better communicate with potential mates or rivals. According to Wohlleben, each bird species tends to “observe its relative time slot, day by day, with astonishing accuracy.”

Flowers also open their blooms at particular times of the day with “impressive reliability.” Carl Linnaeus, a great Swedish natural scientist and father of modern taxonomy, planted a “very special flower bed in Uppsala Botanical Garden,” arranging the plants into the shape of a clock face, with twelve sections. “In each section, the flowers opened at the appointed hour, enabling passersby to tell the time.”

If you see bumblebees out, it’s at least 54 degrees Fahrenheit. This precise temperature seems to be the “magic threshhold” for a number of species, including grasshoppers and crickets. Wohlleben notes that to make a decent sound, the air temperature must at least be 54 degrees. And this may explain why that temperature is so significant for some insects — it’s when insects that communicate through rapid vibrations of their legs and wings can start to hear each other.

But as the book progresses, it somewhat awkwardly transitions into discussion about the seasons, climate change, and then, surprisingly, hands-on guidance for gardeners, with some broader insights about nature thrown in. While the structure is disjointed, the book is still enjoyable because it’s interesting to perceive nature as Wohlleben does.

In dealing with climate change, Wohlleben has some advice for gardeners: “Some experts recommend choosing plants that are better equipped for a warmer climate in the face of rising temperatures. I think this is very unhelpful advice. Rising average temperatures mean that dry hot summers and damp winters without snow will become more frequent. But even in the future, winter will still bring hard frosts, only much less frequently than nowadays.”

For him, the best strategy is the most natural: “The closer your garden management style resembles natural conditions, the less impact there will be. Nature is well prepared for climate change.”

He then argues the longer the lifespan of a native tree species, the more tolerant to climatic change they will be. For example, a beech tree, which can live up to 400 years, has seen many different climatic conditions over its lifespan and can tolerate those changes. It’s not about adaptation, but tolerance of a “broad spectrum of temperature and precipitation levels.” Still, trees and other plants have a better chance of survival if they are living in their “climatic comfort zone.”

The end of the book is a dive into practical gardening tips, with detailed guidance on how to measure the temperature of your garden, assess soil types and quality, incorporate native plants, and deal with invasive ones. A final chapter on how the territories of wildlife overlap suburban gardens is fascinating. Who knew that squirrels occupy a territory of 10 acres, foxes 50 acres, and black storks, 25,000 acres?

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