BOOK REVIEW: Forest Walking by Peter Wohlleben & Jane Billinghurst

Forest Walking: discovering the trees and woodlands of North AmericaForest Walking: discovering the trees and woodlands of North America by Peter Wohlleben
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: April 26, 2022

Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees” was one of those rare books that profoundly changed the way I looked at the world, and so I was eager to read his forthcoming work. This book is at once narrower in focus (i.e. intended to appeal to the North American market, specifically,) but also much much broader (i.e. reflecting upon not just the trees but the other species that reside among them as well as how humans can best get around within the forest.) It might seem strange for Wohlleben (a German forester) to do a book on the North American forests, and I suspect that’s one reason that his one-time translator / editor (Jane Billinghurst) became his co-author. [I don’t know where Billinghurst is from, but she does add many North America-specific vignettes to the book.]

Like “The Hidden Life of Trees” this book is packed with intriguing insights into woodland environments. The twenty-one chapters aren’t explicitly divvied up, but there’s a clear logic to the grouping of chapters. An opening chapter focuses on the importance of having a multi-sensory experience in the woods, and then chapters two through five are concentrated on trees and their various parts.

Chapters six through eight explore species that work on, with, and against trees, with particular focus on fungi and other species that break down and recycle forest material. Chapters nine and ten turn the attention to how to help kids get the most out of their forest experience. The next couple chapters consider how to get the most of seeing the forest at unconventional times, i.e. night and during varied seasons. Then there are a few chapters investigating how to observe other lifeforms of the forest, particularly animals and insects.

Several chapters follow that explore how humans can survive and thrive in wooded ecosystems, including everything from wilderness survival / primitive living skills to dressing to save oneself from ticks and chiggers.

I learned a lot from this book. As I mentioned, it’s full of intriguing little tidbits about the forest.

The opening sentence of the book’s Introduction did mention it being intended as a book one would take into the forest with one, and I would say it’s not that book at all. It’s the kind of book one reads before going out (and probably returns to after coming back) but it’s just not organized in such away to make it worth lugging around (i.e. it’s not like a field guide – set up to allow one to rapidly find what one is interested in on the fly.)

That said, you’ll learn a lot from reading it, and I’d highly recommend it.


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DAILY PHOTO: Walking in the Tall Grass, Chitradurga

Taken in Chitradurga Fort in September of 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Walking Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh & Nguyen Anh-Huong

Walking Meditation (With DVD)Walking Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This brief guide to walking meditation lays out a basic practice linking breath and stride, and then explores such topics as: how to apply the practice to varied environments, coping with emotion through [and during] walking, the social dimension of walking meditation, and a few thoughts on applying the practice to jogging. The book is nominally attributed to the beloved Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk who recently passed (i.e. January 2022,) Thich Nhat Hanh, but it seems the bulk of the book was written by the co-author (Nguyen Anh-Huong.) That said, it’s a clearer distribution of labor than usual for mega-guru books; not only does the author get a co-author credit but the words of Thich Nhat Hanh are presented as textboxes with bylines.

The book is less than a hundred pages of text, but the edition I have came with a CD and DVD (if anyone still has a player for these antiquated technologies. If you’re paying full price, I’d make sure you have some means to play the CD and DVD. I obtained a used copy at a low price, so it wasn’t a concern.) The book’s brevity has both pros and cons. On the pro side, it keeps things simple. The practice is a straightforward one of linking one’s breath to one’s stride, and there’s no tedious elaborations or variations with which to contend. On the con side, if one is looking for insight into improving alignment or biomechanics of walking, that’s not covered in this book. That is probably for the best, because it’s hard to avoid overthinking the practice if one is given extensive directions on stride and the like. This isn’t so much a criticism as an attempt to temper expectations for those who may feel they would benefit from some sort of anatomical or biomechanical insights on walking or physiological insights about the breath.

If you’re looking for a quick and straightforward guide to practicing walking meditation, give it a read.

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Walking [Common Meter]

The columns of the forest lift
the vaulted canopy.
I walk down below on the trail
that parts understory.

Each step through the loam brings me home
to barefoot days of yore.
When I thought nothing of placing
skin to the forest floor --

while letting the woods become me
as I grew into it;
I would yield my identity.
To nature, I'd submit.

And in a walk, I did become
everything and nothing,
falling into a peace at once
humbling and stunning.

BOOK REVIEW: On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz

On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert EyesOn Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a field guide to getting the most out of walks in the city; though it’s presented through a series of essays. City-centeredness is the book’s niche. There are tons of books that teach one how to get more out of the subtle signs and signals seen in nature, but we tend to miss the nature (and a good deal of the culture) in our city walks because we view them in a utilitarian fashion and because there is so much shouting for our attention that it’s easy to miss nature’s subtle cues.

The book consists of 12 chapters—each of which is organized around a city walk. Eleven of these walks are with experts who offer the author (and her readers) greater insight into some dimension of the city walk experience that is often lost to the limits of our attention. When I use the word “expert,” I use it broadly. The reader may find some of these individuals more worthy of the title “expert” than others—e.g. two among them are the author’s 19 month old son and her dog—but they all offer a unique insight. [You may recognize the author’s name from a popular book she wrote on dog behavior, and that’s a particular area of interest for her.] Others are the kind of experts that might testify in court or be asked to give a consultation at a corporation. Along the way, Horowitz inserts more general information on the psychology and science of human attention–and its limits—as is relevant to the larger discussion.

The twelve chapters are organized into three parts. The first part deals with the inanimate dimension of the city. Its four chapters deal with the things that children notice owing to either their height or their unjadedness, the natural materials of the city (rocks and biomass), fonts and signage, and the under-appreciated ordinary.

The second part explores the animate part of the city, including insects, animals, and humans. The reader will learn that–despite the fact that they may only see the occasional bird or squirrel—the city is teeming with non-human fauna. The two chapters that deal with humans take quite different perspectives. One is with the Director of the Project on Public Spaces, an expert on how cities are organized (by planning, organically, and by default) and the effect that this has on people and their movement through cities. The last chapter in this part is by a doctor whose expertise is making diagnoses in the style of Sherlock Holmes by means of close observation of the minutiae of a person’s appearance and posture.

The final part is about the sensory experience of a city walk. The first chapter in this section details a walk with a blind woman who is attuned to moving about the city using her other senses. There’s a chapter with an expert on sound, and the walk she takes with her dog—whose experience is largely informed by its olfactory sense. The last chapter is a short summation of what the author has learned and begun to apply in her own solo walks.

The book has few graphics, e.g. depictions of relevant art. There are source citations arranged by chapter in end-note form.

I found this book to be intriguing and beneficial. I think we could all benefit from city walkers who were more tuned in to what was going on around them. (Sadly, the trend seems to be going the other way.) I’d recommend this book for anyone who likes to take a walk, and nature lovers may find it unexpectedly fascinating.

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DAILY PHOTO: Sign of Our Times

Taken in Great Himalaya National Park in July of 2015

Taken in Great Himalayan National Park in July of 2015

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Back in my day, we had the “Scenic Overlook.” Now when you’re trekking they have the “Mobile Phone Access Point.” Thoreau would cry.