Review of The Songs of Trees: A Biologist’s Lyrical Ode to How Relationships Weave the Fabric of Life

The Songs of Trees: A Biologist’s Lyrical Ode to How Relationships Weave the Fabric of Life

“Trees speak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons,” an English gardener wrote in the seventeenth century. “When we have learned how to listen to trees,” Hermann Hesse rhapsodized two centuries later in his lyrical love letter to our arboreal companions, “then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.”

For biologist David George Haskell, the notion of listening to trees is neither metaphysical abstraction nor mere metaphor.

In The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors (public library), Haskell proves himself to be the rare kind of scientist Rachel Carson was when long ago she pioneered a new cultural aesthetic of poetic prose about science, governed by her conviction that “there can be no separate literature of science” because “the aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth,” which is also the aim of literature.

It is in such lyrical prose and with an almost spiritual reverence for trees that Haskell illuminates his subject — the masterful, magical way in which nature weaves the warp thread of individual organisms and the weft thread of relationships into the fabric of life.

Haskell writes:

For the Homeric Greeks, kleos, fame, was made of song. Vibrations in air contained the measure and memory of a person’s life.

To listen was therefore to learn what endures.

I turned my ear to trees, seeking ecological kleos. I found no heroes, no individuals around whom history pivots. Instead, living memories of trees, manifest in their songs, tell of life’s community, a net of relations. We humans belong within this conversation, as blood kin and incarnate members. To listen is therefore to hear our voices and those of our family.

To listen is therefore to touch a stethoscope to the skin of a landscape, to hear what stirs below.

Haskell visits a dozen gloriously different trees from around the world — from the hazel of Scotland to the redwoods of Colorado to the white pine of Japan’s Miyajima Island — to wrest from them wisdom on what he calls “ecological aesthetics,” a view of beauty not as an individual property but as a relational feature of the web of life, belonging to us as we to it. (Little wonder that trees are our mightiest metaphor for the cycle of life.) From this recognition of delicate mutuality arises a larger belonging, which cannot but inspire a profound sense of ecological responsibility.

Haskell writes:

We’re all — trees, humans, insects, birds, bacteria — pluralities. Life is embodied network. These living networks are not places of omnibenevolent Oneness. Instead, they are where ecological and evolutionary tensions between cooperation and conflict are negotiated and resolved. These struggles often result not in the evolution of stronger, more disconnected selves but in the dissolution of the self into relationship.

Because life is network, there is no “nature” or “environment,” separate and apart from humans. We are part of the community of life, composed of relationships with “others,” so the human/nature duality that lives near the heart of many philosophies is, from a biological perspective, illusory. We are not, in the words of the folk hymn, wayfaring strangers traveling through this world. Nor are we the estranged creatures of Wordsworth’s lyrical ballads, fallen out of Nature into a “stagnant pool” of artifice where we misshape “the beauteous forms of things.” Our bodies and minds, our “Science and Art,” are as natural and wild as they ever were.

We cannot step outside life’s songs. This music made us; it is our nature.

Our ethic must therefore be one of belonging, an imperative made all the more urgent by the many ways that 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.

Haskell follows the thread of relationship to the lushest arboreal habitat in the world — a symphonic sixteen-thousand-square-kilometer expanse of Amazonian rainforest in a wildlife and ethnic reserve in Ecuador, where a single hectare contains more tree species than the whole of North America. He limns this otherworldly wonderland, transliterating its peculiar language:

Amazonian rain differs not just in the volume of what it has to tell — three and a half meters dropped every year, six times gray London’s count — but in its vocabulary and syntax. Invisible spores and plant chemicals mist the air above the forest canopy. These aerosols are the seeds onto which water vapor coalesces, then swells. Every teaspoon of air here has a thousand or more of these particles, a haze ten times less dense than air away from the Amazon. Wherever people aggregate in significant numbers, we loose to the sky billions of particles from engines and chimneys. Like birds in a dust bath, the vigorous flapping of our industrial lives raises a fog. Each fleck of pollution, dusty mote of soil, or spore from a woodland is a potential raindrop. The Amazon forest is vast, and over much of its extent the air is mostly a product of the forest, not the activities of industrious birds. Winds sometimes bring pulses of dust from Africa or smog from a city, but mostly the Amazon speaks its own tongue. With fewer seeds and abundant water vapor, raindrops bloat to exceptional sizes. The rain falls in big syllables, phonemes unlike the clipped rain speech of most other landmasses.

We hear the rain not through silent falling water but in the many translations delivered by objects that the rain encounters. Like any language, especially one with so much to pour out and so many waiting interpreters, the sky’s linguistic foundations are expressed in an exuberance of form: downpours turn tin roofs into sheets of screaming vibration; rain smatters onto the wings of hundreds of bats, each drop shattering, then falling into the river below the bats’ skimming flight; heavy-misted clouds sag into treetops and dampen leaves without a drop falling, their touch producing the sound of an inked brush on a page.

The tree itself stands as an acoustic microcosm of the rainforest:

In the ceibo’s crown, botanical acoustic diversity is present, but it is more subtle. Drops are smaller and create a sound like river rapids in the leaves of the many surrounding trees, obscuring variations in the sounds of individual leaves. Because I’m standing high up in the branches of an emergent tree, a tree that arches over all others, the sound of the river rapids comes from beneath my feet. I feel inverted, like an image in a teardrop, disoriented by hearing forest rain under my soles. My ascent, up a forty-meter series of metal ladders, has carried me through the rain layers: The sounds of rain on litter and understory plants fade a meter or two above the ground, replaced by the spare, irregular spat of drops on sparse leaves, stems reaching up to the light, and roots drilling down. At twenty meters up, the foliage thickens and the rapids begin. As I climb higher, the sounds of individual trees push forward, then recede, first a speed-typist’s clatter from a strangler fig, then rasping drops glancing across hirsute vine leaves. I top the rapids’ surface and the roar moves below me, unveiling patters on fleshy orchid leaves, greasy impacts on bromeliads, and low clacks on the elephant ears of Philodendron. Every tree surface is crowded with greenery; hundreds of plant species inhabit the ceibo’s crown.

In the ceibo Haskell finds a living testament to the nonexistence of the self to which we humans so habitually cling. A century after young Jorge Luis Borges contemplated how the self dissolves in time and relationship, Haskell writes:

This dissolution of individuality into relationship is how the ceibo and all its community survive the rigors of the forest. Where the art of war is so supremely well developed, survival paradoxically involves surrender, giving up the self in a union with allies.

The forest is not a collection of entities… it is a place entirely made from strands of relationship.

The Songs of Trees is a resplendent read in its entirety, kindred to both Walt Whitman’s exultation of trees and bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s poetic celebration of moss. Complement it with the fascinating science of what trees feel and how they communicate, then revisit my eulogy for a beloved tree and this illustrated atlas of the world’s most unusual trees.Ursula K. Le Guin on Anger


The poet May Sarton experienced anger as “a huge creative urge gone into reverse.” Philosopher Martha Nussbaum has argued that it is often “an alluring substitute for grieving,” granting us the illusion of agency in situations that bereave of us of control. Poet and philosopher David Whyte pulled on anger’s weft thread to reclaim it as “the deepest form of compassion.” But anger, like silence, is of many kinds and thunders across a vast landscape of contexts, most of its storms ruinous, and some, just maybe, redemptive.

That is what the sharp-minded, large-spirited, incomparably brilliant Ursula K. Le Guin examines in an essay titled “About Anger,” found in her altogether fantastic nonfiction collection No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters (public library).

Ursula K. Le Guin by Benjamin Reed

Le Guin begins with a case study in the cultural history of anger as a tool of social change — epoch-making change she lived through and helped engender:

In the consciousness-raising days of the second wave of feminism, we made a big deal out of anger, the anger of women. We praised it and cultivated it as a virtue. We learned to boast of being angry, to swagger our rage, to play the Fury.

We were right to do so. We were telling women who believed they should patiently endure insults, injuries, and abuse that they had every reason to be angry. We were rousing people to feel and see injustice, the methodical mistreatment to which women were subjected, the almost universal disrespect of the human rights of women, and to resent and refuse it for themselves and for others. Indignation, forcibly expressed, is an appropriate response to injustice. Indignation draws strength from outrage, and outrage draws strength from rage. There is a time for anger, and that was such a time.

Anger is a useful, perhaps indispensable tool in motivating resistance to injustice. But I think it is a weapon — a tool useful only in combat and self-defense.

Le Guin considers how the uses of anger can metastasize into misuses when its aims are left uncalibrated under the ferment of time:

Anger points powerfully to the denial of rights, but the exercise of rights can’t live and thrive on anger. It lives and thrives on the dogged pursuit of justice.

Anger continued on past its usefulness becomes unjust, then dangerous. Nursed for its own sake, valued as an end in itself, it loses its goal. It fuels not positive activism but regression, obsession, vengeance, self-righteousness. Corrosive, it feeds off itself, destroying its host in the process.

A century and a half after Walt Whitman admonished that “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without,” Le Guin adds:

The racism, misogyny, and counter-rationality of the reactionary right in American politics for the last several years is a frightening exhibition of the destructive force of anger deliberately nourished by hate, encouraged to rule thought, invited to control behavior. I hope our republic survives this orgy of self-indulgent rage.

She examines the tissue of public anger under the microscope of the most private laboratory there is — the self. In a disquieting reflection on the personal experience of getting angry, she writes:

I find the subject very troubling, because though I want to see myself as a woman of strong feeling but peaceable instincts, I have to realize how often anger fuels my acts and thoughts, how very often I indulge in anger.

I know that anger can’t be suppressed indefinitely without crippling or corroding the soul. But I don’t know how useful anger is in the long run. Is private anger to be encouraged?

Considered a virtue, given free expression at all times, as we wanted women’s anger against injustice to be, what would it do? Certainly an outburst of anger can cleanse the soul and clear the air. But anger nursed and nourished begins to act like anger suppressed: it begins to poison the air with vengefulness, spitefulness, distrust, breeding grudge and resentment, brooding endlessly over the causes of the grudge, the righteousness of the resentment. A brief, open expression of anger in the right moment, aimed at its true target, is effective — anger is a good weapon. But a weapon is appropriate to, justified only by, a situation of danger.

Most of our mundane outbursts of anger, Le Guin points out, are not reactions to actual danger, nor even to perceived danger — they are a kind of reactionary weapon-waving against our own insecurities, impatiences, and irritations. She writes:

Perhaps the problem is this: when threatened, we pull out our weapon, anger. Then the threat passes or evaporates. But the weapon is still in our hand. And weapons are seductive, even addictive…

In an introspective search for any positive use of anger, Le Guin finds one — the safeguarding of self-respect. But upon closer inspection, she recognizes that what we may perceive — and react to — as disrespect often turns out to be mere misunderstanding or a case of two human fallibilities awkwardly bumping into one another without ill intent. After all, if Joan Didion was right in the astute observation that self-respect springs from “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life” — and of course she was right — then rising to anger upon feeling slighted by another is a maladaptive abdication of that responsibility. Le Guin, inquiring deeper with disarming self-awareness, acknowledges as much:

As my great-aunt Betsy said of a woman who snubbed her, “I pity her poor taste.”

Mostly my anger is connected less with self-respect than with negatives: jealousy, hatred, fear.

Fear, in a person of my temperament, is endemic and inevitable, and I can’t do much about it except recognize it for what it is and try not to let it rule me entirely. If I’m in an angry mood and aware of it, I can ask myself, So what is it you’re afraid of? That gives me a place to look at my anger from. Sometimes it helps get me into clearer air.

In a sentiment evocative of Cicero’s case for the constructive side of envy, Le Guin considers a particularly pernicious species of fear:

Jealousy sticks its nasty yellow-green snout mostly into my life as a writer. I’m jealous of other writers who soar to success on wings of praise, I’m contemptuously angry at them, at the people who praise them — if I don’t like their writing. I’d like to kick Ernest Hemingway for faking and posturing when he had the talent to succeed without faking. I snarl at what I see as the unending overestimation of James Joyce. The enshrinement of Philip Roth infuriates me. But all this jealous anger happens only if I don’t like what they write. If I like a writer’s writing, praise of that writer makes me happy. I can read endless appreciations of Virginia Woolf. A good article about José Saramago makes my day. So evidently the cause of my anger isn’t so much jealousy or envy as, once again, fear. Fear that if Hemingway, Joyce, and Roth really are The Greatest, there’s no way I can ever be very good or very highly considered as a writer — because there’s no way I am ever going to write anything like what they write or please the readers and critics they please.

The circular silliness of this is self-evident; but my insecurity is incurable. Fortunately, it operates only when I read about writers I dislike, never when I’m actually writing. When I’m at work on a story, nothing could be farther from my mind than anybody else’s stories, or status, or success.

Le Guin comes back to the notion that all anger is a response to fear. (Descartes framed fear as the antipode of hope, which implies the most damaging aspect of anger: the relinquishing and active annihilation of hope.) She examines the elemental core of her fears:

My fears come down to fear of not being safe (as if anyone is ever safe) and of not being in control (as if I ever was in control). Does the fear of being unsafe and not in control express itself as anger, or does it use anger as a kind of denial of the fear?

One view of clinical depression explains it as sourced in suppressed anger. Anger turned, perhaps, against the self, because fear — fear of being harmed, and fear of doing harm — prevents the anger from turning against the people or circumstances causing it.

If so, no wonder a lot of people are depressed, and no wonder so many of them are women. They are living with an unexploded bomb.

I see in the lives of people I know how crippling a deep and deeply suppressed anger is. It comes from pain, and it causes pain.

Le Guin ends with a mighty open question, partly challenge and partly — indeed mostly — a rhetorical verdict:

What is the way to use anger to fuel something other than hurt, to direct it away from hatred, vengefulness, self-righteousness, and make it serve creation and compassion?

Complement this portion of No Time to Spare, a magnificent read in its tessellated totality, with Martha Nussbaum on anger and forgiveness and a Zen master on the four types of anger and its paradoxical constructive side, then revisit Le Guin on being a “man,” the artist’s task, the sacredness of public libraries, imaginative storytelling as a force of freedom, and what beauty really means.

“Words are events, they do things, change things,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in extolling the magic of real human conversation. “They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.” Such unsurpassed amplification of understanding is why dialogue has reigned as monarch of thought-transformation at least since the days of Plato. It is not coincidental that Galileo reconfigured our understanding of the universe in a revolutionary treatise he titled Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, nor that it was in dialogue James Baldwin and Margaret Mead reached insight into the question of race tenfold deeper and more nuanced than anything today’s ping-pong of opinions produces.

That mighty conduit of understanding is what English theoretical physicist and Scientific Controversies alumnus Clifford Johnson employs in The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe (public library) — a most unusual visual eavesdropping on a cast of intelligent, relatable characters discussing some of the most fascinating frontiers of science.

Strikingly, Johnson illustrated the book himself — one of the world’s preeminent scientific minds, specializing in particle physics and superstring theory, he took a semester off teaching to teach himself to draw. I hesitate to call the result a “graphic novel,” a term unfit for a work of nonfiction — perhaps “cosmic comic” would be more accurate, though this seems to somehow diminish the depth and richness of the subjects Johnson explores, among which are black holes, relativity, string theory, quantum electrodynamics, the question of whether the universe is infinite or finite, or whether it is even a universe or a multiverse.

Much of the dialogue ventures boldly into the borderland of science and philosophy, that seductive lacuna between truth and meaning. A man on a train asks his travel companion whether mathematics is invented or discovered. “I’m down on the side that says we can think of all kinds of crazy things inspired by nature,” she answers, “but it doesn’t mean that those things are in nature. You know, we take an idea and we extrapolate. We are imaginative creatures. But we don’t discover the mathematics, we’re making it up.” Skeptical, the man asks whether this means that Newton invented calculus, “even though it turns out that it is everywhere around us in nature.” “Ah, but is it? Is it really?” his companion counters, then launches into an elegant defense of her invention hypothesis:

There are a great many unsubtle ways to address diversity as an issue of social justice, from polemic proclamations to crude finger-pointing to passive complaint. All of them are, in my view, invariably inferior to what is perhaps the only effective approach: Simply enacting, without fuss and fanfare, a juster alternative. That is what Johnson — a black Englishman himself — accomplishes by populating his panels with characters of varied races, genders, and nationalities, who interpolate between the roles of explainer and explainee without any dominant pattern of authority. A black woman explains relativity and spacetime to a white man. A Hispanic family commences an inquiry into the origin of matter around the dinner table. A black man helps a white woman see the beauty of Maxwell’s equations. But there is no trace of the endemic identity politics afflicting so much of contemporary culture. Instead, what emerges is a celebration of the poetics of curiosity, serenading the most elemental core of being human — that is, of being creatures born to wonder about the universe, our place in it, and what it all means.

One chapter tackles the abiding perplexity of why we long for immortality in a universe governed by constant change:

When the immortality-skeptic points out that religions tend to be “all about power in one form or another,” her companion glooms over how depressing it is to view life as bereft of meaning. (Where is Alan Watts to ungloom him with the perfect quip that “if the universe is meaningless, so is the statement that it is so”?) In a sentiment kindred to physicist Sean Carroll’s notion of “poetic naturalism,” she suggests that death is a source of life. When her new friend mistakes this for the contrived notion of “pushing daisies,” she invites him to contemplate a model of greater complexity and, paradoxically, of great simplicity — one that begins with daisies and ends with the universe itself:

Unconvinced, her companion counters that this is a circular argument — something must be alive in order for it to be dead. A star, he asserts — apparently never having seen Carl Sagan’s stellar primer — is not alive. Taking him through the chemical composition of stars — a landmark discovery by pioneering astrophysicist Cecilia Payne — she likens the chemical cycle of stars, fertilized by gravity, to a botanical system in which a plant lives by synthesizing vital elements from the air and water before dying and returning those elements to the soil, where they come to nurture other life forms, including us. Still unwilling to let go of his reluctance, he reminds her that they began with the question of love, which he sees as inseparable from the notion of an inner essence, a soul. Without seeing the soul as immortal, he asserts with growing discomposure, life would be meaningless. Calmly, patiently, having seen that dry reason has failed to persuade, she offers an illustrative analogy instead:

Complement Johnson’s The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe with neuroscientists Hana Roš and Matteo Farinella’s comic about how the brain works, then revisit mathematician Marcus du Sautoy on the most alluring edges of the unknown and theoretical cosmologist Roberto Trotta’s poetic illustrated primer on the universe, written using only the 1,000 most common English words