Leanne Barrett: Listen to Trees: David Haskell author of The Songs of Trees

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Listen to Trees: David Haskell author of The Songs of Trees

George Berkeley is quoted to say “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

I'm sure that they do. Trees are are surrounded by a network of symbiotic lifeforms that would hear and feel if a tree fell in a forest. If we stop and listen to trees, by being open to the moment, we will find that they are "... nature's great connectors, we learn how to inhabit the relationships that give life its source, substance and beauty," says writer and scientist, David George Haskell, a professor of Biology and Environmental Studies.

David George Haskell in conversation with Genevieve Jacobs, at the National Library of Australia (NLA), shared his thoughts about trees and his new book The Songs of Trees, with an audience of more than 50 people.

As a member of the audience I could relate to what David had to say. Trees have sung songs to me for a long time now. 
  • In my childhood there was the favourite wattle tree we would climb in our back garden.
  • I loved eating fruit off my Blood Plum tree.
  • My siblings and friends would play in groves of Snow Gums at the family farm near Bredbo.
  • My grandmother used to take me to a playground near Yarralumla Primary School, where I would visit an old Cork tree.
  • On Thursdays my Mum used to visit the banks on Jardine Street in Kingston, where the Oak trees lined the street. While Mum was in the bank we would collect and play with the leaves and acorns from these magnificent large trees.
  • When husband and I owned a farm (43 acres) on the outskirts of Canberra we planted 4000 plus native trees, 100 poplar trees and 50 plus other deciduous trees. These trees were planted for varies reasons; wildlife corridors, assist in bring back the birds, windbreaks, to add biodiversity, to improve the heath of remnant trees, create memories, for beauty and aesthetics. 
  • As a property owner and landcarer the preservation of our remnant forest was very important it contained Snow Gums, Yellow Box, Broad-leafed Peppermints and Apple Boxes both living and dead. (Oh how I cried when the new property owners cut down all the dead trees and removed all of the dead wood off the ground.)
  • Today I listen to an Oak tree in a courtyard in the CBD of Canberra.
It is therefore no a surprise that I was entranced by what David had to say about trees and their connectivity to the environment, which includes us humans. 

On the night of the NLA event, the audience was mesmerised when David read the first paragraph from his book, The Songs of Trees. His voice was deep, full of passion, with a poetic quality that lilted though the room.


"Moss has taken flight, lifting itself on wings so thin that light barely notices as it passes through. 
The sun leaves not a color but a suggestion. Leaflets spread and the moss plants soar on long strands. A fibrous anchor..." 


To hear David read this passage see here and listen to the audio of David's book talk, courtesy of the National Library of Australia.


David has a creativity in how he approaches science. He explains how he listens to trees. That he opens his senses (sight, hearing, smell and touch) and repeat visits the trees. David uses a combination of methods to understand the role that trees play in their environment.

1. Meditative Strand - letting judgements go - opening the senses to the moment. Listen to the sounds. Hear the tree speak, listen to how the wind blows through the leaves, or the rain falls on the foliage. Touch the trunk - What do you feel? Are there vibrations of movement?

2. Scientific Understanding - biodiversity, symbiotic connection to other species both flora and fauna, using senors to detect sounds (ultrasonic and subsonic), monitoring and measuring. Record observations of the tree and the flora and fauna associated with the tree. Using sensors - Do you hear pops, fizzles, movement and growth?

David also documents the connection that people have to trees, as the tree's presence is intertwined with people's lives. David looks at how people interact with the tree; work, play, appreciation, food source etc.  

What I found interesting about David's research method is that he would revisit the trees in different seasons and over periods of time. He explained that to look at a tree only once would give a person only a snap shot of the tree, in that one moment in time. Like people, trees are not static, they are different over time; 

  • trees change physically (seasons, height, health etc.)
  • the environment the tree is in can change
  • people's interactions with the tree can change 
  • and the researcher's perceptions can change

David suggested that trees have memories. How? A tree's memory is different to those of humans. That trees record, in their wood, their growth and reflect the changes in their environment. The tree's memory help them respond to environmental conditions they live in and they can react to and adjust their life force to cope with; 

  • the change of seasons
  • chemicals in the air or soil
  • amount of moisture they receive
  • or cyclical burning etc.

Trees also contribute to human memories and culture. People can remember and reflect on a favourite childhood tree and their connection to the tree. A tree's wood is used by humans for survival. They are connected to feeding humans. Trees are also used to create fire for warmth or for part of human rituals. Using the sense of smell, smoke reminds humans of past moments in time when they gathered with family or as a sign of potential danger. It is in their death that trees are used in a vast number of ways by humans eg. fire, shelter and storage.   

David posed an interesting theory about dead trees. While a living tree has an important role in the environment, trees also have an equally important role in their death. David suggests that there is a blurred boundary between life and death for trees. That in the death and slow decay of their corpse that new life is created.

However, mass death of trees is not conducive to the environment. A mass decrease in trees numbers can change the landscape and their symbolic relationships. The causes of mass tree decline can include;

  • tree clearing 
  • burning eg. hot uncontrolled fires 
  • poor land management
  • over loving the trees eg. tourism and industry
  • and the introduction of disease

How well humans listen to the land will prevent mass tree decline. All humans can can contribute to healthy tree environments by;

  • keep to walking trails when walking in forests 
  • clean your shoes before visiting different locations
  • update your knowledge about land management practices
  • use tree and their symbiotic flora and fauna with long term preservation in mind

David reminded the audience that while we have discovered many aspects about the interconnections of tree and their environment we still have a lot to discover. 

  • What role does one tree have on another tree? 
  • What network structure does a forest have? 
  • How do trees share resources? 
  • What role does fungi have with trees?

We have only just begun to open a dialogue with trees.

I look forward to finishing David's book, The Song of Trees: Stories from nature's great connectors and reading how he brings to life the twelve individual trees and the environments they are connected to. 

If you are interested in nature writing you might like to look at books written by Inga Simpson. Earlier in 2017 Inga released her book Understory. 

Inga Simpson will be giving a workshop in conjunction with the ACT Writers Centre.
Topic: Nature Writing
Date: 30 September 2017 
Venue: The National Arboretum
For more details see here.  

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