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.






Witch hazel’s obstinacy

In the bleak mid-winter…time to bloom? Witch hazel, Hamamelis, proffers its flowers to the snow. Such willful disregard for the seasons is a refreshing sight, suggesting that we, too, might sometimes deck ourselves in vernal finery, despite the weather. Expect little reward, though. So few pollinators visit that fewer than 1% of flowers form any seed. Why, then, such obdurate insistence by witch hazel on winter blooms? Perhaps to keep the few flying pollinators on warm winter days to itself and thus avoid cross-pollination with undesirable kin? Perhaps.



According to OED via Etymology Online, “witch” is “probably from Old English wice ‘Applied generally or vaguely to various trees having pliant branches'”. Bending the rules.

Literary protest, Jan 15th.

On MKL Day, January 15th, I’ll be joining other writers at a literary protest and march. PEN America and Writers Resist are co-organizing these events in response to threats to the press and to free expression under the Trump presidency.

The literary protest is on the steps of the New York Public Library. It will include readings of “inaugural” poems by American poet laureates Robert Pinsky and Rita Dove. The march will deliver a petition in support of press freedoms to the Trump transition team.

Please consider joining all living US Poets Laureate and over 150,000 others by signing the petition in defense of freedom of expression and a free press. If you’ll be in New York on the 15th, you can register to attend the literary protest and march here (or show up on the day, 2 p.m. on the steps of the New York Public Library’s Schwarzman Building at 42nd St.). Seventy five other Writers Resist events are happening across the country on the same day, listed here.

PEN America’s overview of the protest and summary of programs describe the many ways that the organization helps defend press freedoms in the US and abroad.


Some good news about land conservation from the Southern Cumberlands

From the Open Space Institute:

“In a series of six targeted land conservation projects completed within a short six-month period, nearly 13,000 acres have been acquired and added to Tennessee state parks and wildlife management areas.”

These lands add to the 17,000 acres already protected by OSI in the last few years in this region. The grants that made possible these projects aim to protect biodiversity in a changing climate. The conservation lands will also provide public access to open space and encourage sustainable forest management.

Partners in these projects included The Nature Conservancy, The Conservation Fund, The Land Trust for Tennessee, and the State of Tennessee (TN Wildlife Resources Agency and TN Dept Environment and Conservation).

Read the full press release here.


Tree guards of New York: story fragments.

The rails, gratings, and fences that enclose the trunks of New York’s street trees are signifiers and indicia. Some of the nature of the human community is revealed in these constructions. A sampling of this diversity follows, photos mostly from Brooklyn, a few from Manhattan. Each is a sculpture — sometimes self-consciously so, sometimes without such intention — or a fragment of narrative captured in concrete, metal, wood, and soil. I’ve photographed these tree surrounds in many seasons. Those that follow are from late December, 2016.

(Click on any of these images to see them in slideshow format:)


Post-truth chestnuts?

After editorial discussions that were “a bit more serious and somber …[than] in some other years,” Oxford Dictionaries has named “post-truth” as its international word of 2016. But of course we’re not “post” any truths, especially not the truths of biology and physics that don’t bend in the foul winds of demagogues.

Nor in the errors of bloggers like me. Some taxonomic truths have come to light about the not-so-somber matter of tree identification. So, with many thanks, I share my colleague Dr. Hill Craddock’s take on the “chestnuts” from my last post.

He writes that the plants in the “photo could be in the genus Castanea, with the true chestnuts…but I think they may really be fruits of trees in the genus CastanopsisCastanopsis is a large genus (more than 100 species) of Asian trees closely related to, and very much resembling Castanea.  Some species share characteristics of Quercus [oaks] and Lithocarpus [“stone oaks”].”

So, the chestnuts from China (see additional photo below) are in fact close relatives of chestnuts, sometimes called “chinkapin”. These trees are evergreen and generally not frost-hardy.

Dr. Craddock continues with “a curiosity:  ‘Shii’ is the Japanese name for Castanopsis.  Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) are grown traditionally on Castanopsis cuspidata in Japan, although in the US, they are mostly grown on oaks, or other hardwoods. Shiitake literally means ‘Castanopsis mushroom.'” So, next time you are eating some US-grown shiitake mushrooms, consider their genus-crossing journey. I’d be interested to know whether the different tree substrates result in different experiences on the palate. Does oak-grown shiitake taste the same as Castanopsis shiitake? I know that local shiitake growers here in Tennessee claim a much richer flavor for shiitake grown on solid logs rather than sawdust bricks. Perhaps the species of wood also makes a difference?

I send many thanks to Hill Craddock for taking the time to share his knowledge and to Todd Crabtree for making the inquiry that led to our exchange.

Truthiness in nuts. Castanopsis.

Truthiness in nuts. Castanopsis in southern China.