trees turning a green, yellow, and red shade

Community Read: A Conversation with Author David George Haskell

By Gillian Hayward, on

What would a tree tell us if we took the time to listen? We delve into that notion with our 2022 Community Read selection, The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors by David George Haskell, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies at the University of the South. The Songs of Trees recounts Haskell’s travels around the world to visit the same 12 trees repeatedly, carefully observing and listening to what they might teach us about ourselves. Of course, Longwood’s story began with trees. Our founder Pierre S. du Pont bought the land to save a group of historic trees from the lumber mill, and our guests continue to connect with and appreciate the magnificent beauty of those trees today. We recently spoke with Haskell about his unique studies of the natural world and why it’s so important for us to connect with trees.

Our first Community Read title in 2014 was Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac. Part of his land ethic says that “when we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” You mention a similar idea in your book, that our human ethic must be one of belonging-- to life, network and community.

There are so many ways in which we can become disconnected from our relationship to the living earth, to our cousins in a biological sense—the trees, the nonhuman animals, and the soil. All the members of the living earth community sustain us in every moment of the day, and yet often realization and awareness of that is hard to come by because we're looking at computer screens, or looking at our phones, or living in houses and working in schools or office buildings where those connections are hidden from us.

If you follow our pedigree back to the primordial days of the earth, the trees and humans shared a common ancestor about 2 billion years ago. Belonging is about kinship and relationship, but it's also about how to act in in the everyday to realize that we are members of the community rather than just visitors. We humans belong as well, and we are a beautiful species—just as the oak trees and the pine trees and the redwoods are beautiful species, so too is Homo sapiens. Understanding that we belong here as much as any other species, that we're not inherently bad or fallen in some ecological way is also important as a foundation for an ecological ethic.

What was your inspiration for writing about the auditory connection between trees and humans?

One of the layers in this book is the literal layer of attending to different sounds and trying to understand what those sounds mean. I have for many years listened to birdsongs and tried to identify them by ear. When teaching undergraduates, I introduce them to that practice as well. As I was teaching those courses, I thought we should do this for trees as well because the white pine has a very different sound in the wind than the maple tree, and the maple sounds very different in the winter than it does in the summertime. I was literally interested in understanding the sounds of trees because they reveal the architecture of the tree.

Ponderosa pines growing in Colorado sound very different than pine trees anywhere else, because the trees in Colorado are adapted to heavy loads of ice and snow. They have very stiff needles, but very bouncy, flexible limbs, which produces a great roaring whoosh as the wind sweeps across the mountain. And you can hear that sound nowhere else, so that's the voice of those particular trees. Other tree voices are the ultrasonic sounds that you need a little fancy sensor to put up onto the tree, and you can detect when the tree is having trouble with drought because there are more fizzing, popping sounds of air bubbles in its water conduits.

In the chapter on Ponderosa pine, you painted a wonderful picture of a little girl in pink trousers listening to the huge sound of the needles blowing in the wind. Why did seeing her give you hope that we can recover from our cultural amnesia and fracture?

I do think the thing that that emerged for me most strongly from this book is inattention. We all pay attention to things as they become important to us, but we are more and more surrounded by devices and pressures on our time that draw our attention away from other species. I'm not arguing that we should stop paying attention to other human beings. But alongside that attention we need renewed practices of listening to trees, of learning the language of birds, of understanding what the smells of soil mean.

These are all rather simple sensory practices. Just start paying attention to the sensory inputs around us. Sound and sight and smell and texture in a way that our ancestors did every single day, because that's how you stayed alive. That's how you got food from the forest or from the field, by paying attention to the patterns of the world.

We do now need to use our senses to be aware of the rapid changes happening all around us and to understand our responsibility to act to help heal the world and to pass on the less broken society and planet to the next generation. Paying attention to our senses is both a weighty moral act in that it connects us to the to the living earth, but it's also source of joy and pleasure. It's fun to smell a cup of coffee and to actually pay attention to the smell of the coffee and to then remember I'm smelling the smells that derive from trees growing in Central America. In sensory attention we can take delight—but we can also connect to others, and those others are nonhuman species.

How does your scientific background influence your writing process?

One of the things I try and do is to put science in conversation with ethics, but also aesthetics. We tend to dismiss experiences of beauty as being rather superficial, and I think that's wrong. The deep experiences of beauty lead us into very important insights about our place in the world, how we might use our lives to work toward the good. Part of science education should be about experiences of beauty and understanding what a deep experience of beauty is compared to a superficial one. I think science can lead us into experiences of beauty, just as a walk in the woods can do the same. Personal experience and science both are path pathways to beauty, and experiences of beauty are a pathway to ethics.

Editor’s Note: Now in its ninth year of engaging readers, our Community Read program aims to start conversations about literature focusing on the natural world. We proudly partner with dozens of public library branches in the surrounding region, plus local museums, gardens, conservation organizations, and more to share these annually chosen books and present programs to further explore their themes. We have more than 100 programs on the Community Read calendar so far for 2022, with programs focusing on trees and the important connections they make with each other, with humans, indeed with all of nature … and we invite you to take part in this year’s Community Read.

Please join us for two free upcoming virtual Community Read discussions. On April 14, at 6:30 pm, engage in our Trees Living Apart from Humans virtual event with David Haskell and ethnobotanist Chief Dennis Coker of the Lenape Tribe of Delaware. On April 21, at 6:30 pm, join us online for Trees Living in Cities with Haskell, Georgia Silvera Seamans of the Washington Square Park Eco Projects, and Jessica Turner-Skoff of The Morton Arboretum. Registration is required for both virtual discussions.

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