Society

The Hidden Life Of Trees, And Spiritual Path For Animals

Peter Wohlleben wrote an unlikely bestseller about trees. Now the lifelong forester explores the spiritual side of animals.

Sunlit foliage in Berlin
Kristian Frigelj

Peter Wohlleben is standing on a forest path, talking about the sex life of snails. He knows tons of stories and anecdotes â€" 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" â€" first published in 2015 â€" 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 â€" 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 â€" 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 â€" 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 â€" 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.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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