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2018 John Burroughs Medal: The Songs of Trees

The Songs of Trees has been awarded the 2018 John Burroughs Medal for distinguished natural history writing. I’m honored that the book has been recognized in this way and feel very humbled to have the book listed among the list of awardees.

The book was also selected as Best Science Books of 2017 by NPR Science Friday and Favorite Science Books of 2017 by Brain Pickings.

I’m so grateful for the support of my readers. It is an honor and delight to be able to share these stories of the interconnections among trees and people.

Thank you.

And now, back to the woods where the first bloodroots are pushing into the rain-drenched litter.

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The bolt of natural selection

Oberon:

“Yet mark’d I where the bolt of Cupid fell:
It fell upon a little western flower,
Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound”


Hepatica unfurls its advertisements in both white and purple. This is true of North American species and those in Asia. Why the variation? Natural selection or genetic drift eliminates variation in a population unless some force keeps these purgative pressures at bay. In the case of Hepatica, the costs and benefits of white and purple flowers have not been measured in the wild (readers, correct me if I’m wrong here, please!).  Midwestern populations are more purple than their eastern cousins.

Could pollinators or the light environment be creating different selection pressures? Many populations contain a mix of colors (white is the most common here in Sewanee, but purples are scattered among them in significant numbers), so selection does not seem to favor just one color in each location.

In spring beauty flowers (Claytonia), flowers come in red, white, and intermediate. Natural selection acts on flower color in this species complex ways. Redder flowers are more attractive to pollinators, but whiter flowers have more flavonols, chemicals that act as herbivore deterrents. So, white flowers receive fewer pollinators but red flowers get more damage from slugs. Damage from herbivory changes from year to year and from place to place. So two opposing forces — pollination and herbivory — vary in space and time, resulting in a mix of flower colors. Perhaps a similar turbulent, Puckish convergence of forces also acts on Hepatica?

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.