CA Mushrooms
CA Mushrooms

Book Review

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

By David George Haskell
2017, Penguin Books
ISBN: 9780143111306
Paperback; 304 pages; $17.00

I learned about this book when my wife noticed a brief mention of it in our Sunday newspaper. Given the numerous important relationships among fungi and trees, this sounded like something that would appeal to readers of FUNGI, despite the likelihood that the fungi would be relatively minor players in the narrative. And the PR for the book led me to an earlier one by the same author that I’ll also review here.

As the PR literature that accompanied the book states, “David Haskell’s work integrates scientific, literary, and contemplative studies of the natural world.” He is a professor of biology and environmental studies (BA in zoology, PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology) at the University of the South (“Sewanee,” a small Episcopal university located atop the Cumberland Plateau between Nashville and Chattanooga, Tennessee). Although he has broad biological interests, his research has mostly involved animals and humanenvironment interactions. Along with his research papers, he has published essays, op-eds, and, keep this in mind, poetry.

The Songs of Trees focuses on understanding biological networks and humanity’s place within those networks and Haskell explores those topics using trees. Although trees may appear to live as separate individuals, they are instead, as Haskell puts it, nature’s great connectors (although only when considered with their essential mycorrhizal fungi, as the latter provide the critical connection to the soil and its resources and resident organisms). To him, their being emerges from “conversations” and interactions among dozens of separate species, from fungus and bacterium cells to birds, insects, other plant life, and human beings, all of whose lives are linked to these trees in many, often surprising, ways.

Haskell examined these networks by making repeated visits to a dozen trees in different parts of the world, including human-dominated settings such as cities, oil fields, logging sites, areas of conflict, temples, and a bonsai museum, as well as locations that seem more “natural” but that are undergoing environmental change. The trees include a ceibo in the Amazon portion of Ecuador, balsam fir in northwestern Ontario, sabal palm on a barrier island off the Georgia coast, green ash close to home on the Cumberland Plateau, mitsumata at a Japanese shrine, charcoal from the long-ago burning of Scottish hazel, redwood fossils and ponderosa pine in the Colorado Rockies, maples in Sewanee, Tennessee and at a violinmaker’s in Chicago, cottonwood next to an urban creek in Denver, Callery pear in New York City, olive in Jerusalem, and the birthplace of a nearly 400-year-old Japanese white pine in Japan and at its current home in the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum near Washington, D.C.

Each chapter emphasizes a different set of relationships among trees and the species surrounding them. Haskell pays particular attention to the “songs,” or sounds that emerge from these trees, echo within their wood, or surround them — wind rustling the leaves, insects gnawing on wood, ultrasonic clicks from the xylem in drought-stressed twigs, cries of market vendors, people laughing as they gather fruit from an olive tree — behind each one of these sounds are stories of how tree lives are connected to other lives.

Among the main overarching points that emerge from Haskell’s accounts are: all life is made from networked relationships; to see the big picture, you must examine the small; trees and climate cannot be considered except together; our societies thrive only through the vitality of our connections with other species; and what we see in present-day ecosystems was also true during life’s early evolution.

Given that Haskell is a poet as well as a biologist, it’s not surprising that I found much of the writing a bit “flowery” for my non-poetry-loving taste. However, I’m sure many readers will embrace it. I also took a bit of issue over his criticism of those who speak of “nature” as being largely separate from humanity. Although, technically, he is correct — we are all part of the Earth’s fabric of life, whether in city or forest, and “natural” elements can be found even in Manhattan — but there is a continuum of human presence and impact from multi-million-inhabitant cities to places where we have rarely, or never, set foot, and there is no reason to discount the very real differences between those two sorts of place. One cannot feel the same sense of awe sitting next to a pear tree on a New York city street that one does sitting in a California coast redwood forest or at the top of a remote mountain peak.

Nonetheless, most of what he writes rings true and offers a different take on our circumstances using an imaginative vehicle. I recommend it — but read on …

— Review by Steve Trudell
— Originally published in Fungi