London is greener than many cities in the world; with its myriad leafy spaces and plentiful parks, you’re never more than a few minutes away from a potential picnic spot. My own commute involves sitting through a vast chunk of the Overground, and, as the train shakes its way through the residential neighbourhoods from Hampstead to Kew, it’s easy to charge up my nature-o-meter on the surrounding greenery.
But David Haskell’s book isn’t about tree-gazing. It isn’t about a wander through a park with a fleeting gaze at the arboreal offering. Each chapter of David’s book revolves around a single, specific tree, with clear guidance if you want to locate it yourself;
Shakerag Hollow, Cumberland Plateau, Tennessee
35°12’52.1” N, 85°54’29.3” W
(the closest to us is in South Queensferry, Scotland. (55°59’27.4” N, 3°25’09.3” W))
What lies within is a deep exploration of the life forces at work around the tree; an examination of the delicately balanced biological eco-systems, the energy that vibrates through the wood, the reach of the embedded roots and the extending branches, the song of the leaves interacting with the environment, the role it plays in the surrounding civilisation.
Through his intense scientific exploration, David channels poetry. His writing reads in a Walt Whitman-esque manner – well, if Walt Whitman had been a professor of biology – by tracing and expressing his emotions as he walks the earth, examining his own perceptions and movements as part of a longer chain.
David is preoccupied with the disconnection between us and the natural order of the planet and, with powerful people closing their minds to the limitations of the earth, The Songs of Trees comes at a crucial point in time.
“Human actions are fraying, rewiring and severing biological networks worldwide. To listen to trees, nature’s great connectors, is therefore to learn how to inhabit the relationships that give life its source, substance and beauty.”
The ensuing book is rich and immersive – something that can’t be read in a hurry. Whether you’re being transported to Japan, Ecuador, Georgia or Manhattan, you see the same connections over and over, and are forced to consider how intrinsically linked our new technologies and our ancient arboreal neighbours are.
In a city where you’re routinely pumped through the beating tube system and emerge, bleary-eyed and disoriented, at your destination, you must be careful not to lose your grounding, and the perspective that comes with it. There is something enduringly comforting about trees; it is easy to understand the descriptions of the trunks as warm and reactive, the leaves as instruments played by wind and rain. In recognising the role and reach of the trees, you are better equipped to place yourself, and understand your own scope.
Feel the earth, breathe the air, read the book.
The Songs of Trees by David Haskell is published by Viking Press USA on 6th April 2017
(£18.99, h/b, 304pp, 9780525427520)
Post by Clare