Peter Wohlleben is standing on a forest path, talking about the sex life of snails. He knows tons of stories and anecdotes — ticks feeling hungry, jealous maggots driven to eat the rubber on your tires. Ever since he learned about that, he said, Wohlleben avoids leaving his car outside overnight.
In the true-life yarns he spins, the animals seem human, like in a fairy tale. He's been perched on top of the German bestseller list with his book "The Hidden Life Of Trees" — first published in 2015 — in which he describes trees' feelings and their ways of communicating. As a matter of fact, trees "cuddle," "nurse" and "educate" their tree-offspring, the forester explains.
The book has been sold over half a million copies so far, translated in 26 languages. It will be published in North America and the UK in September 2016, and distributed soon after in other English-language territories worldwide.
Last week his new book "The Spiritual Life Of Animals" was published in Germany. Wohlleben had been writing since 2007, mostly guidebooks about nature, and he can't really explain his current success. He says he does nothing more than explain universal truths that have been obvious to him since his childhood, a longing for something more natural and original.
It's not easy to meet Wohlleben who lives largely sealed off from the world. The forester takes me in his small black cross-road vehicle to the "Forest of peace," which he says should stand as an example for other forests in Germany.
He criticizes the conventional forest industry that prioritizes cleaning and profiteering. If trees have to be chopped, no heavy Harvester-machines must be used as they would only destroy the soil with their weight and large tires. He relies on horses instead.
Forest park in Berlin — Photo: Zhang Fan/Xinhua/ZUMA
The forest is financially sustainable by leasing parcels to "godfathers" who want to save it from deforestation. In one part of the "Forest of peace" one can even bury the deceased. Wohlleben says he's achieved one of his childhood dreams: the fewer the people, the more nature becomes whole.
As he strolled through the forest on a recent visit, Wohlleben recalled his early interest in biology. Once as a teenager he wanted to find out if a baby bird could get attached to him, so brooded an egg with a heating pad and a scarf, talking to the embryo behind the shell. After it hatched, the small cheeping little ball of feathers wound up following Wohlleben non-stop.
The father of two grown-up children often smiles when thinking about his experiences and the impressive capacities of animals. "I want people to be more attentive. If you understand what's going on in animals, it's much more fun to observe them," he says. Flies founder their wings when sleeping, just like dogs, horses – and humans. "They probably even dream," Wohlleben adds.
In his new book, the animals have a human side. But actually, it's the inverse. "Humans are a lot like animals. Feelings are the language of instincts. If you say an animal follows its instincts, then you have to allow them the whole array of feelings and emotions." Wohlleben gives an example: Someone who wants to lose weight and can't resist the chocolate on the table. "The instinct has won over the mind. The only difference with the animal — it wouldn't feel guilty about it."
When driving back to his house, he points at the ash trees on the roadside. "We're currently passing by tress that are actively communicating. We eject sound waves, and they do it electrically over the roots or a fragrance vocabulary," he explains.
"The Hidden Life Of Trees" triggered a lot of criticism. Some complain his narrative style is too whimsical for the scientific subject matter. Wohlleben expects criticism following his second book too. Again, he thinks of an anecdote: "Things have been different in the past by the way. In medieval times processes have been led against rats. They had lawyers," he says. "With the enlightenment we have gotten used to seeing animals as "machines."
But Wohlleben says the medieval ideas were "the other extreme — a happy medium has to be found." It's worth noting that the acknowledgments page in his new book begin with thanks to his family and editor, then he makes sure not to forget "Maxi, Schwänli, Vito, Zipy, Bridgi" and all the other four-legged and winged beings that may have helped him along the way.