Book of noises
The Songs of Trees by David George Haskell Viking, 304pp
In The Baron in the Trees, the 1957 comic masterpiece by Italo Calvino, the hero abandons the life of a petty 18th-century aristocrat to spend his life in the boughs and branches of the forests of Liguria. Over the years his senses become ever more finely attuned to the life of the woodland until he hears “the sap running through the cells, the circles marking the years inside the trunks … the birds sleeping and quivering in their nests … the caterpillar waking and the chrysalis opening”.
Trekking into the rainforest at the heart of the Yasuní Biosphere Reserve in western Ecuador, the biologist David George Haskell enters a similar state. As the rain falls, he notes in the first pages of The Songs of Trees, botanical diversity is sonified: “Every species has its rain sound … Leaflets of flying moss tick under the impact of a drop. An arum leaf … as long as my arm, gives a took took with undertones that linger as the surface dissipates its energy. The stiff dinner plate leaves of a neighbouring plant receive the rain with a tight snap, a spatter of metallic sparks … The leaf of an avocado plant sounds a low, clean, woody thump.”
Having ascended on a ladder 40 metres to the crown of a giant ceibo tree, Haskell finds the sound world has changed: “I top the rapids’ surface and the roar moves below me, unveiling patterns on fleshy orchid leaves, greasy impacts on bromeliads, and low clacks on the elephant ears of philodendron.”
The Songs of Trees is a book of noises. A balsam fir tree in northern Ontario hisses in the wind “like fine steel wool burnishing a tabletop, a sound that is strong, corrosive but with a soft bite”. By contrast, the needles of a ponderosa pine in the Colorado Rockies are so stiff that even a small gust creates a sound like a huge landslide. Specialised equipment reveals sounds too faint or obscure for our ears or other senses to detect unaided. Ultrasonic clicks and fizzles reveal the passage and cease of sap inside the trunk of a green ash. The swell of the growing ponderosa’s roots causes shards of rock to click as they crack and move. Amid New York City’s concrete, a pear tree in a sidewalk grows thicker roots in response to the judder of the subway.
Haskell invites his readers to listen, attend and reflect and in so doing develop an “ecological aesthetics” – “a sensory, intellectual and bodily opening to place”. Looking up in a forest reveals wood as “an embodied conversation between plant life, shudder of ground and yaw of wind”, while the afterlife of a fallen tree can be richer than its life. Rot is “a detonation of possibility”. In scum, we may even find a “slimy sublime”.
But, Haskell argues, ecological aesthetics is not a retreat into imagined wilderness where humans have no place, but a “step toward belonging in all dimensions”, and this includes an appreciation of the realities of a highly technological existence, urban crowding and political tensions. Each tree is a focal point for branching stories.
In Calvino’s novel, the hero gets over a failed love affair by writing. Over time, however, he also becomes ever more concerned with the plight of his fellow human beings and, embracing the revolutionary spirit emanating from France, publishes a Declaration of the Rights of Men, Women, Children, Domestic and Wild Animals, including Birds, Fishes and Insects, and All Vegetation, whether Trees, Vegetables, or Grass. “It was,” the narrator says, “a very fine work, which could have been a useful guide to any government, but no one took any notice of it.”
It is time we did. In the very long run, a warmer planet could be good for the trees. Millions of years hence, even Antarctica could be covered in lush forests, as it was many tens of millions of years ago. But long before that, most of the world’s largest cities may be under water if we fail to listen to what Haskell and his interlocutors are telling us.
Prime leaf … Ecuador’s Yasuní Biosphere Reserve