TLS review: ‘The Songs Of Trees’, David George Haskell (Viking, 2017)

For David George Haskell, the forest never really ends. The writer who in his last book, The Forest Unseen, showed us how to find a whole world in a square yard of woodland earth now traces the interconnections between hazel and redwood, ceibo and callery pear, and in so doing carries us far beyond the physical reach of root and branch.

A forest, Haskell says, has its own dynamic intelligence: ‘A forest’s thoughts emerge from a living network of relationships … These relationships are made from cells inside fir needles, bacteria clustered at root tips, insect antennae sniffing the air for plant chemicals, animals remembering their food caches, and fungi sensing their chemical milieu … A forest’s intelligence therefore emerges from many kinds of interlinked clusters of thought.’

That humankind – human industry, human culture – is a component part of this networked intelligence is a proposition that is not so much argued in The Songs Of Trees as allowed to become clear as an emergent property. Over the course of ten graceful and fine-grained studies of different tree species, Haskell makes our interleaving with the trees ringingly, lambently obvious. Trade-routes in boreal Ontario are characterised as ‘intense flows of matter’ within a system: ‘Today fuel, grain and wood are the forms of embedded biological energy that move most vigorously’. Beside the Firth Of Forth, turbines ‘screw Scotland’s wind into the country’s power lines’, while in New York City an urban pear tree responds physically to the juddering of a passing subway train: ‘These movements become part of the tree. The city dwells within the pear.’ These aren’t notional connections; they are real, embedded and inescapable. Haskell calls them ‘extensions of the solar-powered network’.

At every turn, we are shown how ecological connections are not just sweeping arrows in a textbook diagram; they are solid joints, made from bone and timber, cell and nerve. The brains of chickadees literally expand in capacity in autumn so that the birds are able to remember the locations of stashed seeds (‘natural selection,’ thereby, ‘has worked winter into the birds’ heads’). Cocoons of fungus sheathe the roots of hazels, blocking off pathogens, funnelling minerals to the hazel and picking up a payment of secreted sugars in return. Haskell quotes Virginia Woolf’s assertion (in A Room Of One’s Own) that the ‘common life’ – and not ‘the little separate lives which we live as individuals’ – is ‘the real life’. ‘What we now know of the nature of trees,’ he writes, ‘affirms her idea, not as metaphor but as incarnate reality.’

At times, Haskell emerges from the enchanting tangle to present a plain-spoken truth. ‘Nature needs no home,’ he writes, with a touch of impatience, ‘it is home. We can have no deficit of nature; we are nature, even when we are unaware of this nature.’ John Muir spoke of walking with nature; for Haskell, ‘in the post-Darwin world of networked kinship … we walk within.’

Haskell has been bracketed as a ‘literary nature writer’, but really, if we wish to make distinctions, he ought to be seen as a scientist first and a nature writer second; the fact that few other modern authors in either field come close to the standard of Haskell’s prose – for humanity and clarity, for richness of imagery, for gentle wit, for the sure command of complex material – is, strange to say, somewhat incidental. One has to stop marvelling at the breadth and depth of Haskell’s ecological vision before one gets round to admiring the quality of his writing.

Grounded in evolutionary ecology, underpinned by a belief in the unity of knowledge and enriched by an intrepid interdisciplinarity, The Songs Of Trees at times recalls the sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, and Haskell crosses paths with Wilson’s 1998 book Consilience when, in among a study of ponderosa pine trees, he posits the development of aesthetic judgment based on ‘extended relationship within an ecosystem’ and the discernment of ‘objective ethical content in the tumult of biology and geology’. Science is never set aside to allow for transcendental human experience; instead, its scope is broadened to accommodate it. ‘I seek,’ Haskell writes, ‘an ethic that is fully biological yet does not walk us into [a] starry, cold universe, empty except for self-constructed miasma.’

The Songs Of Trees is not so much an introduction to the natural world as a bracing, baptismal induction into it. Haskell raises familiar ideas such as the fertile ‘afterlife’ of fallen trees (the ‘effervescent creativity’ of deadwood) to a new level: in the death of a green ash in his old Tennessee stamping-grounds he finds not only a fable of new life but an ‘analog of grief’ unfolding in the forest: ‘For the other creatures that depend on living trees, death ends the relationship that gave them life … Much of the understanding of the forest that dwells embedded in these relationships also passes away.’

There are places, of course, where the wide embrace of Haskell’s vision begins to creak – where loss is not sustainable, destruction not reversible, human recklessness impossible to accommodate. Here, still, Haskell is thoughtful and equable (it seems he is always thoughtful and equable). Weighing the harm caused by plastics in the world’s oceans – what he calls ‘the oceanic detrital signature of our age’ – he views the problem from a microbial viewpoint, but concludes sadly that the work of plastic-destroying microbe populations is ‘not fleet enough to spare turtles and worms’; his exhilarating chapter on the Manhattan pear tree winds up celebrating not only the efficiency of the city (‘If all the world’s urban dwellers were to move to the country, native birds and plants would not fare well’: compact cities make possible the biodiversity of the countryside) but also the buzz of urban socio-biological networks and ‘the city’s power to knit and join’.

Haskell explores the kinships and interrelations of trees and people in Japan, in Israel-Palestine, in downtown Denver, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, and never comes up short or shies away. Questions of society, race and geopolitics find their places in the conversation as readily and naturally as do the drumming of the downy woodpecker (like ‘the purr of a sore-throated cat’), the ‘metallic, single-toned’ sting of the bullet ant and the olive pollen of the Levant. The Songs Of Trees has the diverse busyness of a thriving woodland.

It’s hard to think of a recent scientifically-inflected book on nature (or any recent book on nature, come to that) as good – that is, as fluent, as compelling, as intoxicatingly rich – as this one. It’s just as hard to think of anyone writing in the field today as good as Haskell.

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