“I invite you to join me in the forest, where we will discover that the ancient tie that binds humans and nature exists to this day and is as strong as ever.” (Wohlleben 2021)
In the first few chapters he takes us through a journey of considering the ways in which we can attune and understand our five senses (or maybe six), using contemporary scientific research to support his claims. Given the prevailing rhetoric, one might be led to think that our senses have, over time, lost their connection with things and signs on which we might depend for our survival. Not so, according to Wohlleben, and in fact with some concentrated effort and attentiveness, we can reconnect with the world around us. Much of the disconnect, it appears is borne out of simply taking nature for granted. What Wohlleben does in this book is to provide us with hope and knowledge from which we can renew the magic of forests.
While, I have been privileged to spend time with trees and in forests and woods and have experienced some of their magic, I perhaps inevitably focus more on the visual stimuli, at the expense of using my other senses. So, as Year 2 beckons and with an intensive period of practice and relevant academic research planned, it is timely to be reminded just how important all our attentive skills are. For me, it may make the difference in my search for the reality of the forest and capturing the moment with my camera.
In focusing on our visual senses in Chapter 1, Wohlleben dispels the myth that we have lost the need to attend to the signals and evidence that provides us with information for survival. Like many things it is a case of exercising those skills rather than bemoaning our comparison with our fellow creatures. For example, our ability to see in different colours is not a skill our fellow inhabitants in the forest possess. Whilst some differentiate between colours to a certain extent, none of them experience the colour green in the way that we do nor can they distinguish between red, green and yellow as we can. Wohlleben also provides tips to improve the quality of our long sight by simply using it to scan the horizon more often and also by attuning our eyes to movement in our peripheral vision.
Similarly, Wohlleben suggests we give our ears a workout to avoid routinely blanking out the background chatter of birds in our world and encourages us to focus specifically on re-engaging with the higher register sounds of our feathered friends. He compares our audio abilities with dogs that are often considered as having more acute hearing however he suggests that we can improve our performance by simply cupping our hands behind our ears to mimic the ears of our canine friends. Training our ears and eyes are interconnected in the sense that if we see a curlew, as I often do on the beach, then we only need to attune our ears to hear the recognisable high-pitched ‘cur-lee’ whistle.
In terms of our sense of smell, Wohlleben suggests that in his experience, people rarely engage this sense as a matter of course and we need to explicitly switch it on to experience the smells around. He questions the claims often made, that dogs have a much better sense of smell than humans suggesting that dogs and humans are attuned to sniffing out different smells – that is, those that are important in their lives in terms of avoiding or seeking out danger or food, for example. He also makes the obvious point, often overlooked, that dogs, with their four legs are much better equipped to seek out smells close to the ground.
In Chapter 4, he considers our sense of taste and the fact that most tastes of the forest are in fact bitter – apart from fruits that appear for relatively short periods of time and are quickly snaffled by the inhabitants of the forest. In contrast, our refined sense of taste, and the foods we enjoy are not bitter but sweet, with the exception of coffee and pickle.
And the final sense, touch, that Wohlleben considers to be the most important. He suggests a game, that sounds great fun, where you blindfold a partner, spin them round and then guide them to a tree. They are then asked to touch as many aspects of the tree as they can – the bark, the lichen, the leaves, broken boughs and things around the base of its trunk. After returning to first base and without the blindfold they are asked to identify the tree that they had explored through touch. The relative success of this exercise suggests that we interpret signals derived from touch into a visual picture of the object we are exploring.
But there is another sixth sense that Wohlleben refers to. . . That is, for example, the hunch that you are not alone, maybe a deer or something more dangerous? The sense that a storm is imminent. The body in its entirety is continuously receiving data from within and externally and processing that data and determining our response.
I have experienced first-hand how our senses can be attuned by slowing down, paying attention, and working through the five senses one by one – by sitting, looking, listening, smelling and touching. I admit to not having tried the tasting senses very often! But it is something that I continuously need to attend to in my photographic practice – spending time, focusing on different senses, and recording the information in my journal. All data is important in recording the being of the forest.
Peter Wohlleben’s latest book provides us with detailed information about tree sentience and the life of trees of which most of us are unaware – all of it supported by the scientific research of others. It is a book of hope that our busy lives have not put paid to us experiencing the wonders of nature in a fully-attentive way if we put our minds to it. Nor, have our actions of the past fifty years, taking nature for granted, caused irreparable damage and fracture that with concerted efforts could not be reversed.
Wohlleben, P. (2017). The Hidden Life of Trees. London, William Collins.
Wohlleben, P. (2021). The Heartbeat of Trees – Embracing our Ancient Bond with Forests and Nature. Munich, Random House.