Geek Reads: If Trees Could Scream

Andrew Ervin looks at trees, Ents, and what we don’t see in the forest

“If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down?” the humorist Jack Handey once asked. “We might,” he admitted, “if they screamed all the time, for no good reason.”

In his superb The Hidden Life of Trees, the German forester Peter Wohlleben indicates there may be some truth in Handey’s joke. “When trees are really thirsty,” he writes, “they begin to scream.”

Newly translated into English and subtitled “What They Feel, How They Communicate,” this revelatory book offers a numbers of deep thoughts about the towering giants in our midst. “We know how the sounds are produced, and if we were to look through a microscope to examine how humans produce sounds, what we would see wouldn’t be that different,” Wohlleben writes. “The trees might be screaming out a dire warning to their colleagues that water levels are running low.”

Could trees really be talking to each other? Now, don’t be hasty. “That doesn’t necessarily mean anything,” Wohlleben admits.

And yet.

Scientists at the University of Western Australia were able to record trees’ roots crackling at a particular frequency. And, Wohlleben notes, whenever “seedlings’ roots were exposed to a crackling at 220 hertz, they oriented their tips in that direction. That means the grasses were registering this frequency, so it makes sense to say they ‘heard’ it.”

So are trees really capable of communication? To University of British Columbia ecologist Suzanne W. Simard, “using the language of communication made more sense because we were looking at not just resource transfers, but things like defense signaling and kin recognition signaling.” In a recent interview, she added: “The behavior of plants, the senders and the receivers, those behaviors are modified according to this communication or this movement of stuff between them.”

These findings called to mind J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ents, the talking trees in The Lord of the Rings. Were those fantasy books even more prophetic than previously thought? The possibility made me eager to flip through a few other new volumes about biodiversity and the wondrous world in which we live.

Robert Macfarlane has become my favorite living nature writer in large part because his passion for adventure and his etymological derring-do. His awe shines through in every sentence and he maintains a rare humility in the face of the natural world. He’s a Fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge and his latest book, Landmarks, revels in rescuing lost naturalistic words from obscurity.

Each chapter of Landmarks includes a glossary of odd words otherwise in danger of being forgotten. In Northamptonshire, he tells us, “brattlings” are “loppings from felled trees” and the “stump of a tree after the trunk has been felled” is a “nubbin.” He culls his naturalistic vocabulary from, among other sources, various regional dialects of Great Britain, nature poetry, and forestry manuals. Learning names for things I look at every day has helped me to really see them. Weeks after finishing the book, I still catch myself returning to his word-hoard time and again.

In Richard Fortey’s new The Wood for the Trees, the former paleontologist at London’s Natural History Museum describes a year spent studying four acres of woodland he purchased in Oxfordshire, England. He has the eye of a taxonomist or collector. “I wanted to collect objects from the wood, not in the systematic way of a scientist, but with something of the random joy of a young boy,” he writes.

It’s an understandable impulse. The window sill of my Philadelphia living room is cluttered with objects my wife and I have found while hiking, many from the nearby Wissahickon Creek Park. But my own materialism doesn’t always sit right. Perhaps I should have left these trophies — a hand-wrought key, a seashell, a hunk of coal — where they were.

Fortey’s is a lovely book and it provides a useful reminder to attend to the trees in our midst, but the assumption that the woods exist primarily for human pleasure — and plundering — is not one I’m entirely comfortable with. That said, Fortey’s love for the outdoors is entirely contagious. A few passages made me stop reading so I could absorb the imagery:

Overnight, several inches of snow have settled in the wood. A slow, steady fall of big flakes has left every holly leaf with a burden of white icing. The tiered branches of the small yews, usually so discreet and dark, are suddenly blatantly arrayed for a winter festival.

The book is subtitled “One Man’s Long View of Nature” and it crossed my desk during a transitional time at the end of the summer when — according to Wohlleben — trees begin to devote less energy to their leaves.

In the three years my wife and I have lived in our rowhouse, we’ve planted four trees in the small backyard: redbud and pagoda dogwood, coral bark Japanese maple and a small fig tree I adopted from a farmer in Amherst. Now that I’ve read The Hidden Life of Trees, I ask myself if I’ve done those trees and the others in the surrounding yards a disservice by introducing them into a foreign realm.

It’s difficult to imagine planting trees could be a bad thing, and yet it would be foolish to take our new scientific knowledge about trees lightly. Every year, it becomes more obvious how interdependent we are with the natural world — and how rapidly we are depleting its resources. By one account, 20,000 square miles of the Amazon rainforest vanish every year.

Even Tolkien’s Ents lament about their dwindling numbers. In The Two Towers, the wayward hobbits Meriadoc and Pippin meet the talkative Ent named Treebeard. “You see, we lost the Entwives,” Treebeard says.

“How was it that they all died?” Pippin asks, setting up the worst joke in all of Middle-earth.

“I never said they died. We lost them, I said. We lost them and we cannot find them.”

If Wohlleben is correct about the ability of trees to communicate — and I suspect he is — we all have a lot to lose every time a trees falls. Like Landmarks, The Hidden Life of Trees has me looking at my own little backyard with different eyes. That parcel of land doesn’t belong to me any more than it does to the squirrels and, now, to this fig tree. I am nothing more than a temporary caretaker. Wohlleben’s book makes me want to be a better one.

There’s so much we don’t know about trees, and likely never will. That’s perfectly OK with me, especially because my recent reading makes me want to adopt a less human-centric vision of the natural world. I’m certain that most trees would be better off without our meddling and the pollutants we belch into the atmosphere .

Every time I drive on the New Jersey Turnpike, for example, I am forced to wonder how many oaks and walnuts, pines and mulberries were chopped down to build a Service Area named for Joyce Kilmer (a man who wrote, “I think that I shall never see / A poem as lovely as a tree”).

Similarly — and I don’t mean to throw shade at these thoughtful nature writers — it’s also true that every time I read a book about trees I wonder if it’s worth the paper on which it’s printed. A precious few certainly are.

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