Scribe UK, 2021-10-31

ISBN: ‎978-1913348243

Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain

Every living thing actively sends and receives information and is therefore able to communicate…even the living organisms in the stillest forest, from the smallest fungus to the biggest tree, have quite a bit to say to each other. Those who think the forest is silent just haven’t listened properly yet.

Non-fiction books, like TED talks, can either be primarily inspirational or primarily informational. This one doesn’t lack inspiration, for I challenge anyone to read it and not be amazed by the incredible range of ways that messages are exchanged by other beings in the more-than-human world. But when it comes to information, it contains more than any book I have read in many, many years. It is like an entire university course condensed into the space between two covers. Although it is never boring – in fact in a way it reads more like a  textbook – it falls squarely in the ‘informational’ category, and some reviewers have complained that it goes into too much detail, probably because of the author’s desire to explain the fundamental principles, e.g. of physics, that underlie the phenomena she is describing. It is nevertheless easy to read.

Ziege’s passion for her subject is very much in evidence throughout the book, as is her sense of humour and I particularly enjoyed her often whimsical section headings, such as:

What do advertising billboards and animal toilets have in common?

Locusts listen with their legs

Why do fish have little stones in their ears?

The paramecium strikes back, and

Why fungi cause ants to burst.

We humans are creatures who, at a conscious level, rely so much on the spoken and written language for our exchanges with each other that we tend to forget all the other, more subtle ways in which we communicate. But this book certainly widens our everyday concept of ‘communication’ How many of us, for example, would have thought to list smell as a communication method? Yet according to these authors, chemical information is in fact the oldest form of communication in Nature and is extensively used by all manner of life forms from plants to humans (yes, us too – think pheromones.)

The book is full of fascinating stories of the interactions between different species. For example, I had to marvel at the symbiotic relationship between the carnivorous pitcher plants of the Borneo rainforest and the local ants, and even more at the complex set of interactions between the tobacco plant, the hawk-moth caterpillar, the assassin bug and the wasp.

The parallels between humans and other creatures are interesting too. Did you know that if you disturb the sleep of a slug by playing the radio all night, the slug won’t be able to solve a puzzle so efficiently the next day? Or that some creatures, just like human scammers, have perfected the art of deception? Like for example the female firefly who makes a point of learning the mating calls of a different firefly species so that she can lure the randy male ‘foreigner’ and make a meal of him. Or the fish who pretends to be one of the type that performs skin-cleaning duties for larger fish but who then, on gaining their trust, proceeds to gnaw off strips of their flesh.

The next time you walk in the woods and enjoy the sound of the birds, think of all the other hundreds of conversations that are also going on all around you, above you and even in the soil under your feet.