Branching Out

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Issue 305
November/December 2017
Light in Dark Days

Reviews

Branching Out
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Cover: Autumn Leaves in the Windstorm by Tara Turner www.tara-turner.pixels.com

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Poetic, scientific, spiritual: Hugo Davenport enjoys three very different books on trees. The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors by David George Haskell. Viking, 2017. ISBN: 9780525427520 Oak and Ash and Thorn: The Ancient Woods and New Forests of Britain by Peter Fiennes. Oneworld, 2017. ISBN: 9781786071668 Nature’s Temples: The Complex World of Old-growth Forests by Joan Maloof. Timber Press, 2016. ISBN: 9781604697285

Poetry and science, science and spirituality. These have long been among the great germinators of good writing about woods and trees. Some of the best tree literature finds ways to combine these perspectives, even if many seem to belong more in one camp than in the other. It’s a natural overlap: understanding the natural world demands wide knowledge and a deep empathy.

As global warming advances and historic varieties come under threat from new sources, human-made and natural, a sense of urgency and mounting loss has become more prevalent. A sampling from the current crop of tree books shows how differently the mix may be accomplished. There is a shared sense of the need to evoke a fresh feeling of wonder in our experience of woodland.

The most striking of this trio is David George Haskell’s remarkable study of twelve individual trees, mostly in North America, but ranging as far afield as Israel, Scotland, Japan and Ecuador. The linking thread is an exercise in close listening, using Haskell’s attentive ears, sometimes aided by sensitive electronic devices, to weave a soundscape at once familiar and extraordinary.

Right from the start, when he ascends a giant ceibo tree in Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park, we hear the varied sounds of rain falling in a tropical rainforest. There’s the “took took” of drops on arum leaves, the “tight snap, a spatter of metallic sparks” on the dinner-plate-sized leaves of a neighbouring plant, the “clean, woody thump” from an Amazon avocado.

Yet British-born Haskell, who trained in zoology and evolutionary biology and is now based at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, pursues a theme far more ambitious than an adventure into the sonic world of the tree. His true theme is to explore the intricate texture of the forest, and trees in urban settings, as living networks in which “antagonistic relationships feed the creativity of evolution”.

The book digs down into specialised inter­actions of countless species – trees, birds, insects, fungi, microbes – to argue persuasively that trees have memory and “thoughts”, though their equivalent of human nerve impulses operate 20,000 times slower, to expose the “contradictory, creative duality” of life and ask whether humankind can find an ethic of full earthly belonging. Haskell is equally concerned with “ecological aesthetics”, even floating the idea of a “slimy sublime” in rot and scum.

Using proper scientific technique allied with a powerful contemplative intelligence, he takes us from the living presences of balsam fir, sabal palm and green ash to Mesolithic charcoal, forest fires, and redwood stumps petrified by an eruption 34 million years ago, to an ancient olive with its roots snaking down to Jerusalem’s Roman ruins, and a Callery pear in Manhattan that detoxifies the city air of heavy metals. Humans’ ambiguous role in this network, for good and ill, is never in doubt.

Peter Fiennes’ Oak and Ash and Thorn starts from the other end of the spectrum. The book takes the form of a personal celebration of the traditions of English woodland and an anguished plea for their protection. Like Haskell, Fiennes visits and describes various woodland sites, mostly though not exclusively in the south of England, in pursuit of an elusive quarry that he fears losing altogether.

Both the strengths and the weaknesses of the book arise from the idiosyncratic style and the constant shifts of focus between Fiennes’ personal memories and present experience; between myths and proverbs, poetry and childhood stor­ies; between memories of his father and some sharp journalistic delving into the history of woodland policy or the causes of flooding in Yorkshire. Borrowing his title from Kipling, his choice of poems, especially by Edwardians, is wide-ranging and satisfying. And his evocation of a neglected wood off the M1, filled with rubbish, is suitably distressing.

The book is at its best when it stays close to its chosen subject, but at times Fiennes follows too many criss-crossing tracks at once. He admonishes himself for “leaving the path”, in the words of the fairy tale. There are long passages of good writing, yet too often he risks losing the reader. He’s not a specialist – I was puzzled by his description of Naomi Klein as one of our “leading Nature writers” – and for me, the occasional forays into jolly greenwood ribaldry – Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in an imaginary romp, or Tom Hiddleston’s “sumptuous white buttocks” – are ill-judged.

In spite of its title, Joan Maloof’s book is planted firmly at the scientific end of the subject, though the author has a deft turn of phrase. She illustrates her reluctance to core a venerable black gum in Maryland with the words: “Would you suggest piercing your hundred-year-old grandmother’s navel?” Such humorous grace notes are lightly done, and for most of the book she sticks to the science.

At its simplest, you could call Nature’s Temples an exercise in census-taking crossed with a usable field guide for amateurs. Maloof founded and directs the Old-Growth Forest Network, and her main purpose is to illustrate the huge difference in species diversity between the shrinking number of US forests still undisturbed by human activity, and forests that are managed in varying degrees.

Drawing on specialist research by scientific colleagues, Maloof runs through the main biological markers, including the age and size of trees; birds, amphibians and snails; herbaceous plant populations; mosses and liverworts; fungi and lichens; worms and mammals, including humans. Only invasive non-native worms are singled out as a potentially unhealthy symptom in old-growth forest.

In the USA, her main focus, the author finds that old growth survives much better in the west than the east. She dismisses any notion that her desire to save such locations springs from an impulse to freeze them in time like some sort of tree museum. By the end, she documents trees’ anti-pollution and oxygenation effects, cites the benefits of Japanese “wood-air bathing”, and states: “I believe Nature’s beauty is a variable we should start testing.” Amen to that.

Hugo Davenport is a freelance writer.

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