Photo credit: Katherine Lehman

What do we hear when we listen to a tree through a stethoscope ? Or when resting one’s hands on a tree trunk during a storm and high winds ? What do we learn when listening to a tree through ultrasonic sensors ? For David George Haskell, a biologist and environmental studies professor, trees are not silent giants as most humans tend to believe. So, he set out to find out what the trees were saying, what was the song they sing. And he returned from his quest with a stunning, enchanting book, The Songs of Trees.

His book tells the story of 12 trees Haskell went to visit around the world – from a ceibo tree deep in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador, to a pear tree in the Upper West Side of Manhattan – at the corner of 86th Street and Broadway, precisely – to an olive tree in Jerusalem. He explores the trees and their connection to the biological networks around them, including humans, and the sounds resulting from these interactions. It can be as small as the sound of a beetle chewing the inside of a dead tree, to the waves washing over a palm tree. Electronic sensors applied to a tree in summer reveals “how, as the morning passes into the afternoon, the tree goes from a state of full hydration to a place of distress, where there are all sorts of little ultrasonic clicks and fizzles emerging from the inside of the tree as the water column breaks, as the tree becomes more dried out.” He learned very quickly that no tree sings alone, he says. Every sound emerges from a chorus of inseparable plants, bacteria, fungi, and animals. All life is made from networked relationships. 

As he listens to trees, the American biologist is interested in finding what it means for humans to belong within the community of life, “to belong here as evolved creatures like every other creature on the planet.” Haskell’s belief: “The fundamental unit of life is interconnection and relationship. Without interconnection, life ends.” Or is damaged. Take a tree planted by neighbors. It will have a better life than one planted by an anonymous contractor. Just as our fate is tied to the well-being of trees. “Will we survive on this planet?” asks David G. Haskell. The answer: “That question is tied to whether forests thrive.”   Jean-Sébastien Stehli

The Songs of Trees, Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors. Viking publisher.

January 17, 2023 — Jean Sebastien Stehli