David George Haskell
The Songs of Trees
I want David George Haskell’s ears. He hears a hairy woodpecker working on green ash as “marching-band drummer, too stoned to care” and a pileated woodpecker, tapping away at the same tree, as “old man in no hurry to nail loose boards”; another bird sounds like an “1890s telephone ringer, wooden edition”. Trees sing too. Under a strong wind on an elevated bluff in Ontario, a balsam fir “hisses like fine steel wool burnishing a tabletop”. The branches of an olive tree in Jerusalem “answer the wind with a straw-broom swish” and drop fruit onto the “drizzle-wet pavestones” with a puut. Thumped by the fist of a lost child, an Amazonian ceibo acts like a “subwoofer”, sending out a “botanical basso profundo call to friends and family”, louder than any human voice.
The Waorani people of the Amazon call the ceibo the “tree of life”. As Haskell, a biologist, poet and Pulitzer finalist explains in so many ways, trees themselves – all trees – are life. Whether a mighty redwood in an ancient forest, or a lonely callery pear pushing up out of a square of tamped earth in Manhattan, every tree is a vast, networked and mutually supportive community of animal, bird, fungal, bacterial and insect life. Trees give life, too. They sink carbon, exhale oxygen, provide shade and produce fruit. The pear, for its part, not only survives New York’s air pollution and the winter de-icing street salts that wash onto its patch, but inside its cells, “chemicals bind and render harmless metals such as cadmium, copper, sodium, and mercury” – this tree’s DNA may hold a key to detoxifying industrial waste.
Haskell visits the 10 individual trees that are this book’s protagonists over and over, observing their growth and change as well as songs and communities. The ecological is political. The Waorani and the forest that is their world are struggling together for survival against rapacious oil companies and politicians who would destroy all that is above ground for a lick at what is below. The songs of the ceibo are in danger of being out-shouted by “the throb of drilling rigs and the fusillade of tires on gravel roads”. The Waorani themselves are caught between one kind of racism that has given the nearby town’s cab service the name Auca, “primitive savage”, and another by which Westerners seeking “timeless wisdom” come to “project their idealizations onto indigenous groups, not acknowledging that all cultures change, that all cultures are modern, whether they are rooted in the Amazon or in Athens”.
Haskell maps trees and wilderness areas onto “geographies of fear” as well. There is a creepy consonance between the creation of national forests in the United States and the notion that wilderness needed to be “segregated and preserved”. On land stolen from indigenous tribes, the institutions of American national parks and forests “were born from philosophies of Nature that revelled in the imagined supremacy of whiteness and masculinity”. One of the African-American naturalist and professor of wildlife ecology J. Drew Lanham’s only partly tongue-in-cheek “9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher” is “Don’t bird in a hoodie. Ever.” Another fascinating chapter, which centres on an olive tree growing by Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate, plants the botanical and cultural history of the olive in a landscape gridded with threat and fear.
A different kind of threat literally washes up on the shores of the tenacious sabal palm he finds growing on St Catherines Island off the coast of the US state of Georgia. The palm thrives despite “hardships that would defeat almost any other species of plant”. Heat and drought, tropical storms and high tides, salt and sand all test its resilience, the source of which is “partly revealed through the din of its leaves”. The leaves of the sabal palm secrete silica – sand. The palm frond, Haskell writes, “is therefore part stone”. Its defences against its naturally hostile environment are impressive. But it has no defences against the tens of thousands of plastic fragments that lie around the tree where lizards, frogs and ants also make their home. Haskell’s students surveyed the beach where the palm grew and concluded that a 10-kilometre stretch held nearly half a million pieces of “visible plastic”. That was just on the surface. Among the long list of items logged: balloons, buckets, thongs, shotgun shells and rifle casings and a “metal spray can of Essence of Man perfume”.
While not dwelling on this last item, Haskell builds in the course of the book a persuasive argument about what you might call the “essence of man”. On the one hand, our cultural ecologies, whether in the Amazon, the American nature reserves or the West Bank, are “endless, looping strands of conflict”. Even as many of us are learning how to respect and rebuild our natural environment and connections with it, others, often with more money and power, are disrespecting it to the point of destruction: in the first 12 years or so of the 21st century, we planted 800,000 square kilometres of forest – and tore down 2.3 million.
Haskell is not anti-city. Cities are efficient and breed connections and, he points out, “the high biodiversity of the countryside exists only because of the city”. If we all tree and sea changed, “birds and plants would not fare well. Forests would fall, streams would become silted, and carbon dioxide concentrations would spike. This,” he insists, “is no thought experiment.”
The thought experiment that he does ask us to undertake is to consider that “Ecological beauty is not titillating prettiness or sensory novelty.” A microbial community in the dirt under our feet “may be more richly beautiful than the obvious grandeur of a mountain sunset”. The aesthetic is in the connectivity, the ongoing and “embodied” relationships that include us as well. Nature is not “other”. Atoms are less the fundamental units of life than are relationships. Haskell prompts us to discover an “ethic of full earthly belonging”. Trees – and this book, a unique testament to their nature and power – are here to help. CG
Black Inc, 304pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 8, 2017 as "David George Haskell, The Songs of Trees". Subscribe here.