A blackbird makes its distinctive call. Daisies peeking above the ground shut their petals tight. Billowing clouds loom in the sky. An orchestra of small critters chime below.
These are not a random assemblage of observations, but hints you can wield to produce a reliable weather forecast, piecing clues together like a veritable weather Sherlock Holmes. In Peter Wohlleben’s The Weather Detective: Rediscovering Nature’s Secret Signs, the German forester and The Hidden Life of Trees author invites us to forego the apps and forecasters we’re oh so dependent on in favor of using our natural acumen outdoors.
Though the book primarily focuses on gardens in Europe, the subject matter can be translated to almost any natural environment. Wohlleben tells us matter-of-factly about the prophetic abilities of plants and animals when it comes to approaching rainfall, what everyday objects can reveal about wind speed, and even what sunspots can illuminate about the upcoming winter. Just over 200 pages, it’s a succinct guide to making sense of what nature is telling us.
I’ll be the first to admit that I rely chiefly on phone apps for day-to-day weather planning—and that probably won’t change. But since reading the book, a casual walk through the park ensnares my senses a bit more. Something as simple as a bird’s call feels like a thread ready to be unraveled.
Below is an excerpt from The Weather Detective in which Wohlleben explores how getting a whiff of nature’s perfume—from the smell of roses to the stench of a furry mammal marking its territory—can help us understand nature in ways our eyes cannot.
The first-ever English translation of the book was published on June 5, 2018 and is available for purchase here.
From Chapter 11: Experiencing Nature With All Our Senses
Incensed by scent
We’ve established that humans are visual animals, but this doesn’t mean that our other senses are completely useless. In the modern age, the flood of information we’re exposed to naturally means that the gap between our senses is growing: the screens we rely on appeal to our eyes, after all, rather than our nose. All around us, however, are a great many different scents and smells. Recently, researchers have made a groundbreaking discovery: it turns out that plants talk to one another. This doesn’t mean that plants have vocal cords, of course. No, instead they communicate by wafting different “scent messages” through the garden.
It’s by no means news that plants can communicate to animals by dint of smell. The aromatic scent of flowering plants invites certain insects to stop by for a sip of nectar (and to pollinate them while they’re at it). Plants use their flowers and scent to target particular species of insect. The pawpaw uses pretty purple flowers and a repulsive carrion-like stench to attract flies, while our European fruit trees prefer the attention of honeybees, releasing fragrances that are more pleasing to us. We’ve been aware of this method of cooperation, this style of communication, for thousands of years. What’s new now, though, is the concept of plants chatting among themselves. Trees, for example, warn one another about insect attacks by giving off a chemical distress signal. This message prompts trees of the same species to produce defensive chemicals that are then stored in their bark. Researchers now believe that most plants communicate with others in their species.
This is a notable discovery for several reasons. Firstly, the arbitrary lines humans have drawn between plants and animals have become blurred as demonstrated by fungi. We must now concede that plants have senses and feelings, such as pain, hunger, and thirst. Secondly, it’s becoming clear that there are a great many natural processes that we still don’t fully understand and that cannot be reconciled with our—often very basic—explanatory models.
Let’s return once more to your garden. You and your nose also play a part in the garrulous conversation taking place between the shrubs and perennials. Let’s consider roses for a moment. Roses are sought after for their color, as well as their scent, so the signal they send out in a garden center is an alluring “Come hither!” Of course, we can also describe this in a more detached, scientific formulation: a breeder selects a certain plant variety for its marketable scent, and this is what makes that variety successful.
This is the same scenario; it’s just expressed in a less frivolous way. We’re not used to letting our feelings influence how we describe science. But then again, why shouldn’t we? By translating plant language into our own, by translating the scent into a direct request, we get much closer to the true meaning the scent is intended to convey.
Plants emit warning signals when under stress, and this also applies to the plants in your garden. If the conditions aren’t right, your wards start to feel uncomfortable and this negative mood soon wafts over the grass, trees, and shrubs. Conversely, when plants feel comfortable, when they’re happy with their location and have enough food and water, these stress signals are absent.
Is it a coincidence that gardens like this are such a great source of relaxation? No one can really explain why, but surely, it’s not inconceivable that our sense of smell may be able to alert our subconscious to recognize an intact ecosystem, one where all is well and life is good.
Smells of a completely different nature also waft through our gardens. Cats leave malodorous signals on cars, flowerpots, and fence posts, warning other cats to stay out of their territory. As we have seen, many other mammals, such as martens, foxes, and mice, add their own scent to this potent mix.
There are so many different smells waiting to be discovered, from the sweet, aromatic fragrance of pine trees on a warm summer’s day (the needles’ essential oils), the tangy aroma of oak leaves in autumn, to the damp, musty greeting sent out by ground fungi after a rain shower. If you’re open to the different “scent messages” around you, you’ll get much more out of your garden than you can with your eyes alone.