Author Archives: David George Haskell

Alder in bloom. Now a common sight in February.

On the lakeshore, a smell of springtime mud and wet leaves. Soil microbes are getting a boost from the unseasonably warm air and our noses are soaked in their festivities, an aroma-pulse of decomposition.

I push forefinger against thumb, then flick, I tap an alder catkin. A cloud of lime-yellow pollen drifts down to the lake water.

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Smooth alder (also called hazel alder, Alnus serrulata)

Alders are monoecious, that is they have separate male and female flowers on the same plant. The male flowers mature before the females, preventing self-pollination.

Male flowers hang in pendulous catkins. They are furry, soft, floppy, cute. Like kittens, hence the name. From 16th century Dutchkatteken, a little cat.

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Female flowers just before they mature and receive pollen.

Female flowers several days later. Their sticky surfaces are now covered by captured pollen.

Female flowers several days later. Their sticky surfaces are now covered by captured pollen.

 

Later in the year the female flowers will swell and harden into small cone-like strobili. These look like cones, but alder is a flowering plant, an angiosperm not a cone-bearing gymnosperm like a pine.

Last year's strobili, their seeds now either shed into the wind or stolen by birds.

Last year’s strobili, their seeds now either shed into the wind or stolen by birds.

A little early for flowering? Not any more. Plants are shifting their bloom and bud-break earlier as the climate warms. For example, a study in the Washington DC area found that over the last 30 years of the 20th century, alder moved its blooming date 11 days earlier. Most species are following suit, but not all at the same rate. Non-native species like privet, bittersweet, and multi-flora rose are less tied to native seasonal rhythms and so are better able to exploit the early springtime warmth.

Coyote pack howling in a Tennessee mountain cove.

A pack reunion on a warm afternoon. The coyotes are calling from a jumble of sandstone boulders on a south-facing slope near Sewanee:

 

At this time of year the pack comprises a pair — expecting pups any day — and last year’s offspring, perhaps with a few other kin hanging about. Not being multilingual my ears didn’t catch the cause of the howling. The return of a pack member with a fang-snared squirrel? Rabbit stew or kimchi?

On the same slope, sun-warmed Eastern comma and spring azure butterflies were in flight. Billows of winged queen ants emerged from the ground. One queen landed on a tree trunk at human eye level, revealing the tiny male attached to her abdomen. He’ll be discarded within hours, his life’s telos complete, hers just starting.

Meanwhile, a few hundred miles northeast, braying of an ugly kind continues in Washington. Here’s the list of senators who voted to put lead in our drinking water, soot in our lungs, and willful ignorance in the seat of power. You might discern a pattern in the voting records.

Having set in motion the destruction of the EPA, the mob has now set its sights on the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Please consider signing the PEN America petition opposing the proposal to kill these programs. From the petition: “Funding for the NEA and NEH each constitute only .003% of federal spending, an investment that supports some of the world’s greatest literature, art, and cultural institutions. Eliminating these vital agencies would lessen America’s stature as a haven for free thinkers and a global leader in humanity’s shared quest for knowledge.”

The Songs of Trees, pre-publication comments

The first round of “advance praise” for The Songs of Trees is in. I’m thrilled and humbled that Elizabeth Kolbert, Deborah Blum, Peter Wohlleben, Neil Shea, DJ Spooky, Peter Crane, and Carl Zimmer read the first proofs and shared their thoughts.

“David George Haskell is a wonderful writer and an equally keen observer of the natural world. The Song of Trees is at once lyrical and informative, filled with beauty and also a sense of loss.” Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sixth Extinction, staff writer at The New Yorker.

“David George Haskell may be the finest literary nature writer working today. The Songs of Trees – compelling, lyrical, wise – is a case in point. Don’t miss it.” Deborah Blum, Pulitzer winner, author of The Poisoner’s Handbook, and director of the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT.

“Here is a book to nourish the spirit. The Songs of Trees is a powerful argument against the ways in which humankind has severed the very biological networks that give us our place in the world. Listen as David Haskell takes his stethoscope to the heart of nature – and discover the poetry and music contained within.” Peter Wohlleben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees.

“This book breaks down barriers. At a time when we are constantly asked to choose sides, to dig in, to rally around ever smaller ideas, David Haskell examines the walls that would imprison us and, armed with science and patience, dissolves them. The book is nominally about trees, but it’s really about connections, the networks that link plants, animals, bacteria, humans, and the forces that have made such webs possible. Haskell’s trees are guideposts on a fascinating and refreshing road trip—the sort of listening tour we should require of all politicians. With a poet’s ear and a naturalist’s eye Haskell re-roots us in life’s grand creative struggle and encourages us to turn away from empty individuality. The Songs of Trees reminds us that we are not alone, and never have been.” Neil Shea, writer and photographer for National Geographic and other publications.

“This book makes you remember the fragile nature of humanity’s relationship to the world around us. David Haskell has opened up a new dimension in sound – and given us a powerful tool to rethink the way we look at the roots of our reality and how trees are the best way to guide us. A tour de force of sound and symbol. Read. Listen. Learn.” Paul D. Miller aka Dj Spooky

“David Haskell writes with uncommon insight and sensitivity: listening and giving voice to the ineluctable networks in which trees and all human experiences are embedded.” Sir Peter Crane, FRS, President of the Oak Spring Garden Foundation, former Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, former Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, author of Ginkgo.

“David Haskell does the impossible in The Song of Trees. He picks out a dozen trees around the world and inspects each one with the careful eye of a scientist. But from those observations, he produces a work of great poetry, showing how these trees are joined to the natural world around them, and to humanity as well.” Carl Zimmer, author of A Planet of Viruses.

Underwater: fossils, drowned history, pipelines.

Fossils appear, blinking in the sun, uncovered by the annual winter draw-down of water in Percy Priest Lake in middle Tennessee. These fossils were creatures of shallow tropical seas, out of place now, stranded on a cold shore next to oaks and cedar trees.

Actinoceras. A mollusc that swam in the open water. Its shape is like an uncoiled Nautilus.

Actinoceras. A mollusc that swam in the open water. Its shape is like an uncoiled Nautilus.

A honeycomb coral (Favosites). The coral animals lived inside closely packed columns of calcium carbonate. Like modern corals, these were reef-building animals.

A honeycomb coral (Favosites?). The coral animals lived inside closely packed columns of calcium carbonate. Like modern corals, these were reef-building animals.

This stack is, I think, the remains of a stromatolite, a layered community of bacteria and bacteria-like cells.

This stack is, I think, the remains of a stromatolite, a layered community of bacteria and bacteria-like cells.

The presence of these species in a decidedly untropical locale hints at the back-story. The waaaay-back-story. A pink bull’s eye sits in the middle of the geologic map of Tennessee. Unfortunately the rocks don’t conform to the geologists’ color codings. Cream or gray limestone is wan in comparison. These rocks date from the Ordovician, ~450 million years old, deposited when what is now Tennessee sat closer to the equator, a bathwater sea under a tropical sun. The good times couldn’t last, though. As more sediment arrived and the Earth’s drunken crust staggered northward, the Ordovician deposits got buried.

But burial was not forever. A cross-section reveals the peculiar history of this area. The pink, Ordovician rocks are older than those that ring them and were pushed to the surface by the upward poke of the Earth goddess into the crust, a gesture powered by the collision of continental plates. Because the Ordovician rocks are made from highly erodible limestone, the center of this dome wore away and now sits lower than its surroundings. A dome turned into a bowl. Hence the improved gas mileage as you drive into central Tennessee and the labored engine when you depart.

Reefs are not the only remnants of life hidden under the lake’s waters. People forced by the US government onto the Trail of Tears (1838-1839) came through the old town of Jefferson. Then, in the 1960s, when the Army Corps of Engineers built the dam and filled the lake, they drowned roads, fields, and communities. As one former resident of old Jefferson recalled, the area “was the center of business for this end of the county. There wasn’t no Smyrna then.”

The Cherokees were forcibly bent to the will of the government. The Tennessee landowners in the path of the lake had no choice. History now repeats itself: today the Corps announced its intention to impose the desires of Andrew Jackson’s replacement on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, to forego environmental review, and waive its own policies. Soon, liquid fossils will flow through the pipeline. Expect water levels to rise.