A version of this article appeared in Issue 76 of Cosmos Magazine, October 2017
An acoustic trek into the connected lives of trees
The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors
By DAVID GEORGE HASKELL
Black Inc. (2017)
There is virtue, we are told, in stopping to smell the roses. David George Haskell, in his new book The Songs of Trees instead asks us to sit back and listen – to the rain falling on the “leafy drumskins” of the Amazonian Ceibo tree, to the wailing of the wind through Ponderosa pine needles, or even to the crisp snap of a Japanese banknote made from the bark of Mitsumata, the oriental paperbush.
The purpose is not to bask in the restorative properties of nature, but rather to reflect on the role of trees in the earth’s ecosystems, and to explore their place in our own lives, histories and politics.
The book opens in the lush rainforests of the Ecuadorian Amazon, at a canopy-piercing Ceibo tree. With its giant buttress roots that can be pounded to herald a successful hunt or to call for help when lost, the Ceibo is a central figure – known as the Tree of Life – in creation myths of the local Waorani people. The grandness of the Ceibo tree, and the richness of the ecosystems it belongs to make it an almost obvious choice in a book that is, ostensibly, about trees.
But other trees, of the dozen that Haskell visits, are less exemplary arboreal specimens: a cottonwood, gnawed away to its base each year by beavers in a central Denver park; a centuries-old bonsai tree that was gifted to the United States in 1976 after surviving the Hiroshima bombing; and the charred remnants of a Mesolithic hazel tree in Scotland.
Haskell is an eloquent and extraordinarily knowledgeable guide through these varying landscapes and contexts in which trees appear. In many cases, he visits a tree repeatedly, observing its place in daylight and night, across seasons and years, through life and death.
As he describes the acoustics of his surrounds, Haskell depicts life at every scale imaginable. Black-capped chickadees harvest balsam fir seeds; monkeys call and mosquitos buzz in the Amazonian rainforest; microscopic beasts lurk in a droplet of water pooled inside a fallen green ash tree.
Stethoscopes, ultrasonic detectors, and sensors strapped to a tree’s skin allow even deeper exploration of a tree’s world. We are introduced to the subterranean microbial networks that are an extension of a tree’s root system, as well as the “ultrasonic clicks and fizzes” of a stop-start water column within a tree’s twig that tell of a tree’s constant quest to harvest water.
Throughout the book, the stories of indispensible connections and networks build layer upon layer, revealing trees to be the great connectors of the book’s subtitle. Yet Haskell – a professor of biology and environmental studies at the University of the South in Tennessee – doesn’t just stop at the biological or ecological connections. Haskell’s writing seamlessly springboards from the trees he is eavesdropping on, to the history of human populations in recent centuries, as well as the ebbs and flows of ice ages over geological time.
The Songs of Trees is a delightful reverie on the intricate relationships that exist in nature. But it also implores us to see ourselves as a part of that nature, our lives and histories inseparable from the natural world we live in.
(You can listen to a sampling of Haskell’s recordings at dghaskell.com)