How do you listen to a well-told story? You might be in the kitchen, tuned in to the “Moth” radio or Garrison Keillor’s “News from Lake Wobegon.” Do you find yourself nodding, smiling, tears welling up, or balling up your fists to encourage the narrator?
This morning, I woke early from a storytelling dream. The story whisked away like a spider web in the wind, but the image of the listener kept me from falling back to sleep. I’m still seeing an oak sapling with golden leaves. The tree shakes every limb at the funny part in one great rustling chuckle. Then? The empathy comes in. The story is sad. Leaves fold inwards to one another like a hundred praying hands. I feel the indrawn breath, the silence, and the tree grows slender in sorrow.
Why an oak? The native hardwood trees of Oregon are cottonwoods, aspens, alders, and birch, but a planted oak with lobed leaves presides over an apple, a pear, and a native mountain mahogany in this La Grande backyard. My prior Blog featured rain drops on that same oak. I tend to focus on this tree often, looking up from writing at the kitchen table to check in with bird feeder visitors, from chickadees to the urban house sparrows. The leaves have turned to an earthy burnt sienna with a few gleaming scarlet swashes merging with the last vestiges of green. They fall in the rain to mingle with the yellow leaves of the neighbor’s maple.
The most important question for my dreaming mind, however, is this,”Why is the tree the listener? “It might be that I fell asleep with trees on my brain. I’d opened an envelope from my mother, stuffed with clippings from the Washington Post. I so love that she still does that. She sees something I’ll like, cuts out the article and puts it in a pile, and over the next few days she adds a few more. Then, she folds them and mails them off. I’ve been lucky to receive envelopes like this ever since I moved thousands of miles away to the West, back in 1977. A link sent in an email falls far short. I savor the suspense of unfolding, spreading out the paper, and lingering over the words.
The clipping I unfolded first from my mom’s packet is a full page from Sunday, October 9th, “Book World,: and the review’s top title pulls me in at once : “A forest of feelings: Trees and their subtle social lives.”
Please read this first sentence out loud to a friend, or your pet, or your house plant: “A walk through a forest might never be the same again after reading this elucidating book, which makes a case for trees as social beings that communicate, feel and help each other.”
The book is The Hidden Life of Trees, What they feel, how they communicate: Discoveries from a secret world, by Peter Wholleben. Recently translated from German to English, the book is climbing to the tops of bestseller lists, as it has in Germany. That gives me hope. I have yet to read it, but I’ve gleaned some of the science he references in research for my professional writing work, like the part about the oldest trees being the most important for fighting climate change and storing carbon. The review in the Post itself is enough to make me clap my hands and imagine the oak leaves of the dream doing the same.
Yes! Words can change the world. Books can be powerful agents for conservation, like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, that led to the banning of the pesticide DDT and the return of birds on the brink of extinction. This new book on trees may have that potential, too, for a critical campaign: the saving of wildland forests and especially our dwindling ancient forests that some reference as “old-growth forest.” The better term of “ancient forests” gives them the stature they deserve as wise elders.
Here in the contiguous United States, we’ve cut down more than 90 percent of our ancient forests since the 1600s, and the remaining ones that are not protected as Wilderness are once again under siege. I’ll jump right to the most pertinent part of the Washington Post review, written by Andrea Wulf (author of The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World.)
“Wohlleben is a passionate advocate for ancient forests because what he describes does not work in plantations, where trees start life with damaged root systems (“the brain-like structures are cut off”) and without “learning” from the older generation. They are “loners,” as opposed to the social beings in undisturbed forests.”
For those of us proud tree huggers, we’re not surprised. Spend enough time in wild forests and you know even without the science. When I lean in close to inhale the scent of vanilla in the sunshine emanating from a great ponderosa pine, I know. I sense the connection of one tree to another and to an intact grove. When I lie down on the ground on my back and look up at dizzying tall trunk and sparkling needles in the sun, I know. But that’s not enough.
Kudos to the scientists for their continued, dedicated work that demonstrates the complexity of roots hosting fungal networks that send out electrical impulses and chemical signals alerting neighbor trees of insect attack. That’s one fact among many to prove the value of undisturbed forests with their underground, unseen networks, along with their visible trunks, limbs, canopies and more that all contribute to tree talk and tree wisdom.
Kudos to the author Peter Wohlleben for taking the bold step to be anthropomorphic. He’s earned the right with all the gathered science.The reviewer Andrea Wulf admits she’s not a fan of humanizing nature with phrases like trees “nursing their babies” or having a “long leisurely breakfast in the sun,” but in this case she gives him the nod, because everything he writes is backed by science and he’s taking the complex biology and making it understandable to millions of people. She goes on to say, “And frankly, right now, nature needs every little help there is.”
My favorite Dr. Seuss book, not surprisingly, is “The Lorax,” with its famous line-“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”
Thank you, Mr. Wohlleben, for speaking for the trees. They know when we are listening to them. I believe they know when we save them. I’m renewed in my determination to do what I can to keep our wild forests wild, our roadless areas unroaded, and our ancient groves of trees still able to talk to each other and to us.
It’s time for another great dose of humility. We need to tell agencies that manage our precious public lands –like the U.S. Forest Service–to stop logging our ancient trees, and start learning from intact forests. We need to elect a President and a Congress that is willing to protect roadless areas permanently as Wilderness. At the local level, there’s so much we can do. Take time to share your joy of trees with a child, to climb a tree, to write a letter, join a campaign, donate to a local conservation group, or initiate a neighborhood effort to save one patch of woods.
If you want to know how to save forests, I’ll give one more plug to the best book on activism I know- Fight & Win, Brock Evans’s Strategies for the New Eco-Warrior, which garnered the grand prize award in the Northwest Book Festival of 2015.
As this gray day brightens with the gold of autumn leaves, I’m fortunate to have a chance to spend the day with Brock Evans and other wonderful conservationists on the Board of Directors of Hells Canyon Preservation Council. I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and follow the advice of The Lorax:
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.”