“The Songs of Trees” opens in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador, with the author perched high up in the crown of a several hundred-year-old tree from which the verdant expanse of the threatened forest can be both seen and heard: musical raindrops, flying moss, dangerous ants and snakes, and plenty of bats and monkeys, too.
Here, we meet the sacred and mystical ceibo tree.
The Waorani people of Ecuador know it as the Tree of Life (it figures, as trees often do, in their creation myth) and they talk of the tree reverentially as they would a person; not an object, but a thinking, breathing, behaving creature with a past, a present, a future and a memory. As such, the worker who created the tower of ladders allowing climbers access to the crown sought the tree’s forgiveness for having violated it with bolts.
The ceibo is the first of a fascinating litany of the world’s trees we come to know through the extraordinary observations of author David George Haskell.
Haskell, a literary biologist and Pulitzer Prize finalist for “The Forest Unseen” (2012), roamed the world over several years revisiting a dozen special trees across different seasons and assorted conditions. Each of the 12, like characters in a nature novel, is the focal point of a chapter, each tree with its own “song” or life story, and sometimes shouldering the weight of its own local politics.
Yet the emphasis here is never on the individual but always on the relationships that are the heart of the living world. For instance, scientists have discovered that at least half, and maybe more, of a forest’s species reside high in the tree crown, or canopy. The penthouse. The other half — including a network of bacteria, fungi, insects and animals — live in some variant prepositional relationship to the tree: in, on, under, beneath, beside. A tree condo.
From the ceibo in Ecuador to the redwood in Colorado, from the Mitsumata in Japan to the olive in Jerusalem, Haskell introduces us to trees that live apart from humans, long-dead trees and trees that live where humans rule, giving voice to their similarities and differences, the communities they foster and the perils they face at the hands of climate change, industrialization, politics and greed.
Some of the other characters:
• Haskell travels to Echizen, Japan, to visit the Mitsumata, whose pulp became a prized paper that turned the area into a papermaking hub and the home of Japan’s written culture.
• From a street-wise Callery pear in New York City we learn that when a plant is shaken, it grows more roots — better for anchoring: “A city tree clings more tightly to the earth than its countryside cousins.”
• In Israel, the ancient olive tree yields more than oil, providing a shaded place for people to share goods and stories. When those who tend the trees are lost, so is that history.
• In a museum in Washington, D.C., sits a true survivor: a 390-year-old Yamaki white pine that somehow survived the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima. The bonsai’s origins date to the 1600s, surrounded by shrines, and thus tended by prayer.
The book is dense, with a high dose of necessary scientific reference, but always with a lush embrace of the musicality of language, sometimes with a beautiful antiquated lilt. Haskell has the eyes and ears of the naturalist, the sensory gift of the poet. Among other things, his trees and their companions drill, chirp, saw, tinkle, whine, murmur, howl, yelp, whistle, squeal, whirl, wail, whisper, dirge and sigh. This is how a tree “sings” and the emotions this stirs in us is one way we can hear that song.
This is a wise and eloquent reminder of the interconnectedness of all things and a lesson in how being open to the wisdom of trees, the great connectors, can help us understand ourselves and our place in the world. “The belief that nature is an Other, a separate realm defiled by the unnatural mark of humans, is a denial of our own wild being,” Haskell writes.
So the next time you think you’re headed out for a “solitary” walk in the woods, think again. “The Songs of Trees,” says National Geographic’s Neil Shea, “reminds us that we are not alone, and never have been.”
Michiela Thuman is the news design director at the Star Tribune.
The Songs of Trees: Stories From Nature
By: David George Haskell.
Publisher: Viking, 292 pages, $28.
Hear tree songs
Want to listen to the heartbeat of a twig? Biologist David George Haskell has gathered an assortment of data-to-sound conversions that enable us to literally hear the music of trees. Listen to a sampling at dghaskell.com