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Book Report: The Songs of Trees

A Callery Pear tree at W. 86th St. and Broadway in New York City. David George Haskell details the wonders of this tree and its relationship to the city’s inhabitants, in one chapter of The Songs of Trees. (Photo by B. Lorraine Smith / 2018)

Remember going on those school field trips — the kind where you were outside all day, walking on woodsy trails with your classmates, listening to a knowledgeable stranger in a patch of woods that was a bus ride away?

Remember hearing amazing factoids about that patch of nature, such as how the White-breasted Nuthatch, the little bird making that intermittent laugh-and-squeak, is rare among birds for being able to hop head first down a tree? Or that you can eat the larva of the goldenrod gall fly that forms on the stalks of the tall goldenrod flowers rustling in the wind on the edge of the woods?

If you are like me and you fondly remember such excursions, then you will find David George Haskell's second book, The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors (Viking 2017), to be very moving as it takes that field trip feeling to a whole new level.

To stick with the grade school analogy, it would be like taking the guide’s appreciation of the noisy, nimble Nuthatch, adding relevant information from all the other subjects you were taking in school that year, and topping it up with the latest scholarship in forestry, climate science, human biology, sociology and a dash of economics to awaken your consciousness to the fact that not only does the Nuthatch go down trees head first, but you and the Nuthatch are practically family, as is the tree it’s hopping down.

In The Songs of Trees we learn how we are in this together with birds and trees, among others. We hear the stories of these foreign relatives in a language we can at last comprehend, and some of what they’re telling us is cause for alarm. Haskell’s book has been described as “scientific and lyrical.” It takes us — with scientific vigor and lyrical story-telling — into a dozen places where trees have songs to sing.

The opening story is set in the rainforest near the Tiputini River in Ecuador. Before being shown the interactions between the local Waorani people and the oil company — which are problematic, as one might anticipate — we first meet the Ceibo tree that serves as an anchor, biologically and culturally, in this biodiverse part of the world. We meet the raindrops, the leaf tips, the ants, the frogs, the birds and many more parts of the local ecology. But most importantly: we meet the connections in between them. And we meet the Waorani who only value individuality, autonomy, and mastery in the context of relationship and community — values that are manifested in their interactions with the forest.

There is a chapter set in northwestern Ontario that explores life from the point of view of the Balsam Fir. This chapter hit home on many levels, and not just because years ago I worked as a tree-planter in industrial clearcuts near Kakabeka where the chapter takes place, nor because I got to rekindle my curiosity about Nuthatches through a beautiful passage describing how they eavesdrop on their Chickadee neighbors to glean when predatory owls are near. The resonance was so much wider than any one person’s experience, as the author leads us gently but surely into what happens when Boreal forest temperatures rise, when fire patterns shift in response to global warming, and what this feels like from the point of view of the Balsam Fir and its many collaborators. (I won’t spoil the ending of this chapter, but here’s a hint: we’re not finished yet and there is something you and I can do.)

The whole book is an A+ school field trip as far as I’m concerned, but the chapter that really brought it home for me was the tale of the Callery Pear at 86th and Broadway in New York City. Interpreting the sounds and pressure waves this one city tree absorbs courtesy of the subway below, Haskell writes:

The city dwells within the pear. When a plant is shaken, it grows more roots, investing proportionally more of its bodily resources in anchorage. Roots stiffen, making them more resistant to sway and bend. Their lengthwise strength increases also, ropes adding extra strands of cellulose and lignin. A city tree therefore clings more tightly to the earth than its countryside cousins.

Something about this Callery Pear hanging tight at a busy intersection, gripping the earth more tightly because of the noise, not in spite of it — struck a chord in terms of how we hang on in this unsustainable ruckus of an urb. Later in the same chapter he notes profoundly — though it’s couched in the physiology of how human hearing works: “There is no distinct boundary between ‘environs,’ the outside, and our innermost experience, consciousness.” Amen.

If you have plans any time soon to be in the woods, near trees in urban spaces, or any place with a hint of nature seeking purchase, I encourage you to let Haskell guide you on the greatest school field trip ever.

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