Book of noises

The Guardian Weekly - - Books - Cas­par Hen­der­son

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

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