Q & A with the author

The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors

On sale: 4th April, 2017

Q & A with David George Haskell

What is a tree’s song? How did you find and write about these songs?

Songs are the sounds that emerge from trees and echo within their wood. Songs are also the stories behind these sounds, telling of life’s many interconnections. We hear these songs when we experience trees through a convergence of our senses, intellect, and emotions.

I returned repeatedly to the trees around the world, listening to the trees and their many inhabitants, talking to people whose lives are linked to the tree, seeking the stories that center on each tree. I did this to experience how trees live in forests, cities, conflict zones, and areas on the front lines of environmental change. Trees are the great connectors of the living world, so by listening to them I touched a stethoscope to the skin of the landscape, hearing what stirs below the surface.

My own emotional and intellectual connection to each of these trees became very deep as I returned over the years. As I wrote about each tree, I integrated these personal bonds and experiences with extensive background research at each site. I want readers to experience the tree through their minds, hearts, and senses, to understand the tree’s life at many levels.

As I traveled, I found that people were always part of the trees’ songs. This was just as true on the sidewalks of Manhattan as it was in the remote Amazon rainforest or the olive groves of Jerusalem. So listening to trees also gave me a new perspective, a “tree’s view,” on human nature.

Do trees really make sound?

Trees are full of sound. Wind clatters and hisses through leaves and needles, insects gnaw on wood, and ice rends weakened limbs. Other tree sounds are too high or low for our ears, but by listening with sensitive microphones I heard water pulsing through branches like a slow heartbeat, ultrasonic clicks of distress in droughted twigs, and the vibrations of city life burrowing into the heartwood of trees. These sounds combined with the voices of market vendors working in the trees’ shade, birds singing amid traffic noise, and surf sucking at palm roots on an eroding beach. People laughed as they gathered fruit from tree branches or cried as war severed them from their orchards. Behind every one of these sounds are the fascinating stories of how tree lives are connected to the lives of other creatures, ourselves included.

Can you summarize the main themes of the book? What ideas emerged from your study of tree songs?

I learned very quickly that no tree sings alone. Every sound emerges from a chorus of inseparable plants, bacteria, fungi, and animals. All life is made from networked relationship. In biology, individuality is an illusion. My trees were exemplars and teachers of this new science of networks in biology.

People are part of these networks. Our lives and tree lives are deeply connected. In the Amazon and the Middle East these connections are obvious: sever the link between human culture and trees, and both die. This is true, in more hidden but no less important ways, for all of us. Virginia Woolf wrote that “real life” was the common life, not the “little separate lives which we live as individuals.” She was right. In ecology, the common life is the only life. This is as true in the city as is it in the forest: urban “greening” connects us to the ecological and social networks that sustain life.

We need an ethic for this common life. Beauty can be our guide as we seek this ethic. Not the beauty of shallow titillation, but a mature sense of ecological aesthetics, born from lived experience in life’s networks. In my view, such a sense of beauty complements the analytic methods of science and gives us a surer footing as we find the right way to live in a world undergoing rapid ecological and social change.

How did you choose the trees?

As I’ve traveled for my work as a biologist and a writer, I’ve “befriended” trees in places that I visit often. Some of these are trees with obvious, dramatic personas – huge fallen ash logs in an old growth forest and giant trees in the rainforest – but others are decidedly modest: a cottonwood sapling next to a trash can in Denver, a street tree in Manhattan, and a suburban sugar maple in Tennessee. For each, I let my ears and eyes guide me to a tree that seemed to be an interesting character.

A few trees are in locations that I chose because interesting stories converged at the tree. Charcoal in the remains of a Mesolithic campfire in Scotland stands near modern wood-burning power plants, revealing how modern industry continues humanity’s ancient dependence on fire. An ancient fossil redwood in Colorado and a palm on an eroding coastline in Georgia speak of trees’ roles in the Earth’s changing climate. At a luthier’s shop in Chicago, a tree finds its “second life” as a violin. Olive trees near Jerusalem reveal thousands of years of human and ecological history. At these locations, too, I wandered until I found an interesting botanical interlocutor, then I returned repeatedly to listen.

Which are your favorite trees?

Each tree astonished me in its own way, so this is a hard question to answer. But if I had to pick just two, I’d say the Callery pear in Manhattan and the ceibo tree in Ecuador.

The pear showed me that even in a place where humans seem to dominate, wild biological relationships connect us all. The species came to the US from Asia thanks to the work of horticulturalists trying to fight bacterial disease in commercial pear orchards. Then it became the darling of plant breeders seeking flowering trees for suburban streets. Now, on a Manhattan street corner, it changes all that surrounds it: the taste of the air under its branches, the texture of sound on the sidewalk, the rainwater that flows down its trunk, the animals that live on and around it, and the way people close to it move and interact. The tree is a dynamic participant in city life. This tree, and a tree in Denver’s city center, taught me that the anti-urbanism of many environmentalists, from John Muir to activists in the present day, is profoundly misplaced. There is much wildness in the city, and the city’s many efficiencies make possible the existence of more “natural” areas elsewhere.

The ceibo tree is located in the most biologically diverse place on the face of the Earth. The richness and complexity of life in the Amazon astounded me, bringing me to tears many times. These were tears of joy at the beauty of our world and tears of pain as some of the Amazon’s most painful insects attacked my skin. Although this tree stands in a seemingly remote forest, it lives in the path of a new wave of large-scale oil drilling. Local ecological and cultural diversity are severely threatened. But by tapping their knowledge of the forest, local peoples are fighting back with a more ecological vision of the future, one that has changed national and international discourse about how we should live within a changing environment.

The book is about tree as “great connectors.” You say that life is “made from relationship.” Can you explain?

Every chapter emphasizes a different set of relationships among trees and other species. All life is held in existence by these strands of relationship. If these relationships should end, life also ends. This is true from microscopic to global scales.

At a small scale, the tip of a growing tree root is a community of plant, fungal, and bacterial cells, all continually talking to each other with chemical whispers. These whispers penetrate all the way to the deepest part of each creature, its DNA. Similar conversations happen among the dozens of species that live in and on leaves. Even when a tree dies it continues to be a hub for biological connection and interaction, an afterlife that can persist for decades.

At a larger scale, trees and planet’s air are made from the relationships between the two. The tree is built from carbon in the air, the carbon in the air comes from trees. The stories of trees and our global climate have been linked for hundreds of millions of years. We should think of trees and air as one story, not two separate entities that interact. Neither exists without the other.

Is the same true for people? Surely we exist as separate individuals, not as conversations among many?

We certainly seem to be individuals, but just like tree roots and leaves, human bodies at the microbial level are composed of dozens of species. We’re walking communities, not separate atom-like creatures.

At a larger scale, our societies thrive only through the vitality of our connections to other species. I saw this very clearly in the West Bank and Israel where for thousands of years human life in the region has depended on the relationship between people and olive trees. When the agricultural bond between people and olives is broken, human culture and the trees disappear from the land. Now severe and increasing water shortage, combined with war, are putting these life-giving links in jeopardy.

The same is true outside the droughted Middle East. In Manhattan the physical and psychological health of people is linked to street trees that, in turn, depend on people’s attention for their survival. New York street trees that are known and noticed by human neighbors – trees that have a place in a human social network — survive longer than those that live without such connections to people. In the Amazon rainforest such mutualism also sustains human and tree life. We recognize these deep connections in our religious stories: trees are originators of life, centers around which the world turns, places of enlightenment, and sources of knowledge. This religious mythology reflects ecological and evolutionary truths. We would not exist without relationships with trees.

What, then, of “nature red in tooth and claw”? Isn’t evolution about the struggle among individuals?

We should revise Tennyson’s quote: Red is the color of both blood and solidarity. In forests, death by “tooth and claw” (and less dramatic sources of affliction like disease) are avoided by close cooperation among biological partners, like the links between tree roots and bacteria, or the disease-fighting fungi living inside leaves.

Networks of mutual gain both keep forests alive and brought them into being. When forests colonized northern Europe after the last ice age, they did so only with the aid of underground fungal partners, birds to carry their seeds, and humans to tend the woodlands. Forests therefore emerged from cross-species relationships.

What we see in present-day ecosystems was also true during life’s early evolution. One of my trees, a balsam fir tree in Canada, has roots growing among some of the oldest forms of fossil life on the planet. These two-billion-year-old lifeforms were already networked. And in lab experiments, networks of cooperating chemicals beat self-replicating chemicals in a Darwinian struggle. What wins the evolutionary contest is an ever-changing set of networked relationships, not an individual victor.

Your first book, The Forest Unseen, focused on one square meter of forest. The Songs of Trees covers more ground. How to the two books compare in approach and subject matter?

In The Songs of Trees I bring the same commitment to repeated, close attention to other species that guided The Forest Unseen. Instead of remaining with one area, though, I visit a dozen trees in different parts of the world. Each tree is a focus for my observations, research, and conversations. By spending time with trees in radically different places – cities, forests of different kinds, even bonsai museums – I experienced that great diversity of trees’ connections to other species. But underlying this rich diversity are three themes that applied in all places: Trees are made from relationship. Trees lives and human lives are intimately twined, often to the point of inseparability. Through the lives of trees we can understand our own place in nature.

We have much to learn from trees, nature’s great connectors, not because we should mimic them or imagine morality tales in their lives, but because there are no better teachers about the nature of life. Trees show us how to thrive and participate in nature’s networks, how to live well within the harmonies and discords that give life its source, substance, and beauty.