Thursday, August 22, 2019

Final Summer of Tree Books post: The Hidden Life of Trees

This week, I’m wrapping up my Summer of Tree Books reading with The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben. As you might imagine, this book is full of interesting facts about the way trees live. Such as:

Surrounding trees will send nourishment to a sick or dying tree, because “every tree is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible.”

Trees have defense mechanisms such as scent compounds that can be dispersed in the air, or “toxic tannins in their bark and leaves” to deter insects and animals.

Like people, some trees are more social than others.

Reproduction practices between species of trees have been well-studied, but there is still a lot we don’t know and/or can’t understand. (This also seems very similar to humans.)

Sometimes, trees growing in a group make efforts so that they all reach pretty much the same potential, which seems to go against our “survival of the fittest” understandings of evolution.

There is more, much more, in this fascinating book and although it is perhaps a bit of a drier read than Meetings with Remarkable Trees, it is still well worth your time. As I mentioned in my last post, one of the most rewarding aspects of my summer reading project was the way all of these books began to work together, one informing and enriching the next. This experience has certainly made me look at trees, and the natural world in general, in a new, more appreciative light. And when I started teaching my class on writing for children and teens this week, I read The Giving Tree to them, and that took on a new resonance as well. That selfless tree!

So what of next summer’s reading project? Is it too early to start thinking about it? Well, for better or worse, a well-meaning friend has pointed me in the direction of the French Revolution and for a variety of reasons, that will most likely be my focus in summer, 2020. Recommendations welcome!

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Summer of Tree Books: Meetings with Remarkable Trees

The third entry in my Summer of Tree Books is a unique reading experience. As for dimensions, the book is coffee-table book size: 11 ½ inches by 9 ½, and although it’s not a hardcover, it’s laminated and fairly hefty. I read the entire thing in one sitting during a flight to Boston. From the inside flap:

“With this astonishing collection of tree portraits, Thomas Pakenham has produced a new kind of tree book. The arrangement owes little to conventional botany. The sixty trees are grouped according to their own strong personalities: Natives, Travellers, Shrines, Fantasies and Survivors.”

If you recall, this description was of great interest to me, the idea that a tree could have a personality and share similarities in this way with other types of trees. I was expecting the book to be a rather dry read, with the respite of beautiful photos to keep you going and I was wrong about one of those things. The book did, indeed, have lovely photos (in some cases, full spreads such as this one), 

but it was anything but dry. For each tree that Thomas Pakenham visited during the five years he sought them out, he wrote something of the tree’s botany, or history, or reputation. Or something of all three. There were stories about how a particular type of tree came to be in non-native area. There were stories of eccentric tree planters and the sociological connections certain groups have had to certain trees. We learn that like humans, trees have different lifespans that are affected by situation and chance. There are trees in the book with girths as wide 35 feet, trees that start as saplings only a pencil’s width. Pakenham shares anecdotes from his own experiences with his garden; his enthusiasm for the artistry and beauty of these often majestic beings comes across on each page.

And for me, there was a powerful synergy happening, synapses firing from one tree book I’ve read to the next. In his introduction, Pakenham recounts his experiences in Yunnan, in south-west China, where he came upon the only large ancient tree—a hemlock—in what used to be a forest. The rest had been taken down by loggers.

“We tend to take our large, old trees for granted… The indifference towards old trees makes a mockery of our supposed new respect for the environment. Consider the raw facts. The giants of our native species—oak, ash, and beech—are the biggest living things on these islands: heavier than any land animal, taller than most buildings, older than many ancient monuments. If a big tree was not a living organism it would still be a remarkable object.”

Later in the book he discusses the ways in which a forest works as a whole, integrating even dead trees into a system that includes plants, insects, and animals. He talks about the ripples of harm done by removing these systems and how planting new trees doesn’t come close to making up for it. And this topic was of paramount concern to the botanist character in The Overstory, a scientist who, by the way, wrote a study about the social aspect of trees (see next week’s post about the final book of my summer of tree reading). In fact, each of the four books I read this summer touched upon the tragedy of logging in some way. This is unsurprising I suppose.

On page 22 of Meetings with Remarkable Trees, we are introduced to the Tandridge Yew, a massive specimen that grows in a churchyard in Tandridge, Surrey. Pakenham explains the difficulty of assigning an age to this particular tree but guesses it is probably at least 1000 years old. And I thought, of course, of the yew that plays a very important role in Rules for Visiting. Although Kane’s novel refers to another famous tree—the Fortingall Yew in Scotland—I couldn’t help but think of these two old souls as related.

One of the most interesting aspects of Meetings with Remarkable Trees was discovering the strange and varied habits and features of so many trees. 
Like this tulip tree at Kew, which forms a flower bed over 100 feet off the ground. Truly, how would I ever had this perspective without this book? I would have never noticed, or looked. And at the end of the day, that’s what Pakenham’s book was for me, an invitation to look, notice and think about these beings that surround us on all sides, which have been here before we arrived and which will, in most cases, long outlive us. On our first day in Boston, we strolled through the public garden, which is full of lovely, old trees. Most of the garden was planted over a century ago, with a wide assortment of native and imported trees. They are labeled and well-cared-for. And probably it was my favorite part of the city, now that I was trained to look at trees.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Summer of Tree Books (and poems): The Willows of Massachusetts

This week, I am traveling with my kids throughout the northeast, spending much of our time in and around Boston. I'll post next Friday about my reading progress with the final two Summer of Tree Books. For now, here is:

The Willows of Massachusetts
by Denise Levertov
Animal willows of November
in pelt of gold enduring when all else
has let go all ornament
and stands naked in the cold.
Cold shine of sun on swamp water,
cold caress of slant beam on bough,
gray light on brown bark.
Willows--last to relinquish a leaf,
curious, patient, lion-headed, tense
with energy, watching
the serene cold through a curtain
of tarnished strands.

Friday, August 2, 2019

The Overstory: Final Report

Whenever I read a book I find truly great, I almost don’t want to say too much about it. Because I think you should read it for yourself and if you’re like me, you won't want many details going in. The Overstory is one of those books. It’s masterful and will give you just about anything you could want from a novel. There’s beautiful language and great storytelling; there’s philosophy and spirituality and at times, sentimentalism. There’s science and art and madness and weakness and glimpses of the stalwart goodness of people. And there’s trees, lots of information and insights about trees.
Let me tell you about the structure. The first section, called “Roots,” is made up of the chapters I wrote about before—each one titled for a character. This section runs about 150 pages and is like an exquisite short story collection. The characters have no relation to each other, but they all have some type of meaningful connection to a tree or trees. In the next sections of the novel, called “Trunk,” “Crown,” and “Seeds,” relationships between these characters are drawn. Often characters come together in unexpected ways. For me, these sections ebbed and flowed. I had trouble at first remembering one character from the other. Powers does a good job of giving reminders but even so, often in “Trunk,” I had to refer back to earlier chapters to remind myself who was who.
I see a lot of movies and for probably the past decade, I often leave the theater thinking “Well, that could have been twenty minutes shorter.” And I will admit that at times in these latter sections, The Overstory lost me a little. I was more interested in some storylines and characters than others. And yet, all along I noticed the amazing things Powers was doing with theme and structure and as I mentioned before, this feeling that all was building and growing together, pushing toward something great. Could he have cut fifty pages or so? Perhaps, but given his prodigious talent, I certainly wouldn't be the one to suggest it.
Several times throughout the novel, the first line of Ovid’s Metamorphosis is referenced:
“I want to speak about bodies changed into new forms.”
I don’t want to say too much about the characters or what happens to them in terms of a plot. But I will say that each character has a revelation that paralleled mine as a reader: each of us saw trees, and the world we inhabit alongside them, in a new light. And I think if you get a copy of The Overstory, it will have an impact on you as well.
Also, I very much enjoyed Bookworm's discussion with the author, which you can listen to here.
Next week I’ll be diving into Meetings with Remarkable Trees, a lovely, best-selling picture book. The author, Thomas Pakenham, rocked the botany world in 1998 when this was published. The book is the result of “a five-year odyssey to most of the temperate and tropical regions of the world to photograph sixty trees of remarkable personality and presence…Many of these trees were already famous—champions by girth, height, volume or age—while others had never previously been caught by the camera.” The book has captured the attention of scores of readers, has been recorded in audio form with an accompanying pdf booklet, and inspired a BBC series. I'm very much looking forward to feasting on this book and the photographs within its pages. After that, I’ll conclude with The Hidden Life of Trees and because I won't have a reading update next week due to travels, I may very well have both books completed when I come back. Join me in reading these last two Summer of Trees books!
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka