The Life of Trees: Their 'most simple and beautiful oneness.'

Books and Culture (July 1, 2008)

I have come late to the knowledge of trees, and while I would like to think that I have loved them all my life, that's probably not really true. Had I loved them all along I would know more about them by now. The most enlightening and attractive writers about trees seem to have been lifelong aficionados — one book I recently read begins, "Having been partly arboreal since the age of eight, I ... " — and the ease with which they describe their old friends shames me a bit. Reading them, I feel much the same envy I feel when watching an experienced skater flow across an iced-over pond.

In the preface to his first collection of essays, Happy To Be Here, Garrison Keillor explains how he came to realize that the years he spent, at the outset of his career, trying to write a big novel were just wasted. Looking back on that fruitless time, when piles of typed pages grew on his desk without amounting to anything more than piles of typed pages, he came to see that his ignorance of trees was emblematic of his difficulties. The novel-in-progress itself

lay on a shelf over the radiator, and next to it stood the typewriter stand, up against a window that looked out on an elm tree and a yellow bungalow with blue trim, across the street. I assume it was an elm because it died that spring during an elm epidemic and the city foresters cut it down, but in fact there are only four or five plants I can identify with certainty and the elm is not one of them. I regret this but there it is: plant life has never been more to me than a sort of canvas backdrop. There was a houseplant in that bedroom too, some type of vine or vine-related plant, and it also died.

The characters in his novel, he says, spent a lot of time smoking while propped against trees; but what kind of trees he did not say. Nor did he care. In retrospect Keillor saw that the story grew dull and lifeless because its fictional world was so skimpily furnished; characters who devoted so much time to "leaning against vague vegetation" could scarcely expect to be worthy of a reader's time.

I have spent much of my own life surrounded by vegetation equally vague, though I rarely lean on any of it and haven't smoked since I was about sixteen. For one thing, as a child I was anything but arboreal: my fear of heights confined my tree-climbing to the apple and peach trees in my neighbor's garden, where I could barely get six feet off the ground, and while I could identify those trees when fruit was hanging from them, in other seasons I would have been out of luck. Almost the only tree I could name with confidence was the pecan, because our yard was full of mature, heavily-bearing pecan trees that dumped thousands of nuts on the ground every fall. (I was distinctly shocked when we moved from that house and I discovered that people paid large sums of money for pecans. I thought of them primarily as a nuisance: one of my jobs every fall was to gather up paper grocery bags full of nuts and deliver them to the neighbors, since otherwise crossing our lawn would have been like walking on ball bearings. I figured that the neighbors were doing us a favor by taking the things off our hands.) And I am not sure that I could have identified a pecan tree if I came upon it in the springtime and if it were surrounded by other kinds of tree, or tree-related plants.

Yet the very form of Tree was endlessly fascinating to me. We lived in an old ramshackle house which had the single virtue of a large L-shaped porch, and in the frequent afternoon thunderstorms of my Alabama childhood I would park myself in a dry spot on the porch and watch, almost literally mesmerized, the tall trees' dialogue with the wind. I never tired of this spectacle, nor did I ever miss an opportunity to encounter it again. The enormous creatures really did seem almost to talk to one another, and perhaps to me. Just a few weeks ago, when powerful southerly winds rushed into my part of Illinois, I was walking across the wide front lawn of the Wheaton College campus, and when I passed under an enormous oak I heard that same language and felt transported to that porch in Alabama and our cluster of pecan trees. But I didn't pause in reverie; instead I quickened my pace, because in winds so fierce that old oak could easily have dropped a branch big enough to kill me.

That trees strike us as human-like is an essential element of their fascination but is also part of the fear they can inspire. Their proportions resemble ours; their crowns are like heads, their branches arms — no wonder so many of the myths Ovid records in the Metamorphoses have people turned into them. They are the visually dominant figures of the plant kingdom, as we fancy ourselves the monarchs of the animal realm. Like us, they can in their solitude seem welcoming and friendly, though sometimes imposing; also like us, in mass they can terrify. Who has understood better than Tolkien the terrors and the companionable appeal of trees, and the way those traits are mixed imperceptibly together? In Fangorn Forest we see the first tempered by the second; in Treebeard and the other Ents the second tempered by the first. Yet in depicting these creatures of the woods Tolkien seems to many of us to have created nothing, but rather to have read our minds, and sometimes our nightmares.

On the east side of the house I now live in we have a little sunporch or Florida room where I camp out whenever the weather allows it. From my usual seat I look out across our back yard, which is open and flat but bordered by trees. An enormous twin-trunked honey locust dominates the far side of the lawn; in the back is a tall Norway spruce and a small redbud which seems to be thriving since the recent death of a crabapple that had partially blocked its sunshine. Nearest to me, and most often in my sight and mind, is a maple — but what kind of maple? The shape of the leaves is unmistakable, so that determines the species; and everything about the tree, from the texture of the bark, to its delightful helicopterish "keys" with their cargo of seed, to its droopy smaller branches and its tendency to drop lots of twigs, fairly shouts that it's a silver maple. Except for one thing: the undersides of the leaves, the very feature that gives the silver maple its name, aren't silver at all. I sometimes tell myself that they're grayish-green, but really they aren't: they're just a pale green with a matte surface. There are other silver maples in my neighborhood that anyone could recognize immediately by those highly distinctive leaves.

Individual trees within a species, and even within a distinct variety, can vary tremendously (just think about the many sizes, shapes, and colors of people), so it's perfectly possible that this lack of silveriness is well within the bounds of ordinary variation; but nevertheless it remains a source of annoyance to me that I can't confidently name this most familiar tree. It is very familiar to me, and beautiful. I have simply stared at it for many hours when I was supposed to be grading papers or writing essays for Books & Culture, and even when I have set myself the task of figuring out what kind of maple it is. Its architecture endlessly delights my eye. About twelve feet off the ground its trunk divides into three distinct sub-trunks, and from them stem, at pleasing intervals that are only slightly irregular, thick branches that extend horizontally for unusually long distances. The effect is one of elegant complexity, and different aspects of this architecture attract my attention at different seasons, in the dead of winter almost as much as in the season of full leaf or in the time when the keys spin comically through the air and crash-land on my lawn and driveway.

It's when I'm in one of my tree-reveries that I best understand what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins had in mind when he coined the terms "instress" and "inscape." By "inscape" Hopkins meant something like the unique form or structure of a particular thing; by "instress" something like an energy or resonance — a divine energy — which binds the object to its perceiver. A thing's inscape is always there; instress is discernible only by certain people at certain times. To see it is a kind of gift of the Holy Spirit. Hopkins uses these terms to describe trees more than any other thing: "There is one notable dead tree ... the inscape markedly holding its most simple and beautiful oneness up from the ground through a graceful swerve below (I think) the spring of the branches up to the tops of the timber. I saw the inscape freshly, as if my mind were still growing, though with a companion the eye and the ear are for the most part shut and instress cannot come." I feel much the same way about my tree, my silver maple — if that's what it is.

British folk write well about trees, I find, and I have a theory to explain this, one which, like most of my theories, is virtually unencumbered by evidence. Britons aren't alone in this fascination, but it takes different forms elsewhere. Americans, for instance, tend to be fascinated by notable individual trees — the Oldest Tree in the World (a bristlecone pine), the Most Massive Tree in the World (a giant sequoia), the Tallest Tree in the World (a coast redwood), all of which are in California — while Germans love and tend to mythologize whole forests. A German might have come up with Fangorn Forest, but not Treebeard; an American, vice versa. The British, however, maintain the proper balance. I think this is because they live on an island which was once heavily forested, and retains many ancient and beautiful trees, but which people over the centuries have transformed into field and pasture and meadow. Looking at the forbidding moors of Scotland one can scarcely believe that most of that country was once densely forested; yet it is so. And the trees are missing simply because humans cut them down. So some Scots are taking pains to restore at least some of the ancient Caledonian pines; and old trees there are revered, none more so than a Yew tree in Fortingall under which, it is said, Pontius Pilate once sat and thought. Similar stories can be told about Ireland and England, too.

Two recent books uphold, and extend, this great tradition: The Tree, by Colin Tudge, and Woodlands, by Oliver Rackham. Tudge is one of the best science writers I have come across — his The Engineer in the Garden remains, a decade after its publication, an exceptionally valuable book about biotechnology and genetic manipulation — while Rackham, a fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, is a near-legendary botanist and historical ecologist. Both men write vividly and charmingly, largely because they take such pleasure in their subjects. Woodlands would seem to have a more limited range than The Tree: after all, one of the four major sections of Tudge's book is called "All the Trees in the World," and you can't get much more ambitious than that, while Rackham's task is to describe not trees in general, but the various ways in which trees are found in groups and in relation to other creatures, particularly in Britain. (The book appears in the U.K. as a Collins New Naturalist field guide, and its historical sections in particular treat the British context exclusively.) But scattered throughout the 600 pages of Woodlands is an education in the biology of trees about as thorough as what Tudge offers, though in a less methodical form. There is more history in Rackham, who, because of his narrower geographical compass, can show how the woodlands of Britain have waxed and waned over the centuries, either because of changing human practices or because of their relations with other creatures. Both books are delightful, and I am very glad that I read both, but if I had to recommend just one, it would have to be Tudge. Rackham only makes it to his second chapter before introducing, with evident enthusiasm, a multi-page chart accounting for "Associations between mycorrhizal agarics and trees." Tudge does not do this kind of thing at all. Thus my choice.

It is almost impossible to describe these books without falling into a recitation of Fun Facts to Know and Tell. Some trees (mangroves and their relatives) can live with their roots in ocean water because they have developed bark that filters out the salt. Coast redwoods get about a third of their water from the fogs that roll in off the Pacific — good thing, because it is no easy trick to lift water three hundred and fifty feet in the air, which is what some of these titans do. Many botanists understand a grove of aspens as one enormous organism, among the largest found in nature, though not as large as the vast fungi that can run for dozens of acres underground, providing minerals to thousands of trees. A tree endemic to the island of New Caledonia (Sebertia acuminata, if you must know) absorbs so much nickel that its rubbery sap runs bright blue. Many trees survive and even thrive after having been blown over in storms: they just need to keep a small portion of their root system in place. And cows — this is a typical Rackham comment — cows prefer tree leaves to almost any other food, but just can't reach many of them. Sad, really.

But perhaps the most interesting fact to be gleaned from these books — and from Richard Preston's The Wild Trees — is this: much of our knowledge about trees is of recent vintage, and there is still a great deal about these creatures that we do not know. Rackham points out that two great storms that swept across Britain in 1987 and 1990 and uprooted thousands of old trees created surprise and consternation in many botanists: all along they had been describing the long taproots that anchored such trees deep in the ground, but the storms revealed that the taproots didn't exist. Even the largest trees can have roots just a couple of feet deep: they extend horizontally vast distances, but the taproots that saplings (especially oaks) send down are soon supplanted. Preston describes the work of Steve Sillett, of Humboldt State University in California, and a small group of other scientists who in the past fifteen years have discovered what really goes on in the canopies of our tallest trees — something which earlier botanists had tried, with limited success, to explore by floating above the forests in balloons. Sillett and company simply climb the trees, risking life and limb every time they do it, and in the process are discovering the phenomenally complex ecosystem flourishing in those heights. Preston, who became a climber himself and joined Sillett on some of his expeditions, found in the crowns of some Eastern trees flying squirrels so unfamiliar with human beings that they allowed him to scratch their heads, and life two hundred feet farther up, in those California redwoods, is even stranger. As one scientist vividly remarked, atop some of the tallest redwoods, with their dense and interlocking multiple crowns, you could put showshoes on and throw a Frisbee around. O brave new world indeed.

I have been able to give the merest glimpse here of how fascinating trees are in themselves — even the most cursory description of their ingenious methods of feeding and growing themselves is beyond this essay's scope — but equally fascinating, perhaps, is the story of their role in human culture. This essay appears in a magazine made of paper; I wrote much of it sitting at a wooden desk, from which I arose occasionally to get an apple — an apple I bought at the local grocery after driving there in a rubber-tired vehicle. On such jaunts I may have occasionally worn a rayon shirt (rayon is made from cellulose), and I might also have picked up a bottle of olive oil, or some cinnamon sticks, or bay leaves, or a few avocados for my justly famed guacamole.

One could be forgiven for thinking that trees are co-extensive with culture itself. In his two-volume historical masterwork The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Fernand Braudel identifies "the Mediterranean world" with the domain of the olive tree, and any reader of the Bible or of Homer will know why he says so. One of the most powerful images in literature comes near the end of the Odyssey, when Odysseus describes the marriage-bed he and Penelope shared, a bed carved from the trunk of a living olive tree. For Homer this could have been nothing less than an image of the human world, emerging from and revering the natural world as it is exemplified in the tree from which Homer's people and their descendants took the most: fruit to eat, wood for fire or furniture, oil for cooking and light and the anointing of faces.

Yet, as the aforementioned denuding of Britain suggests, humans have not always appreciated trees or our debts to them. For those who make their living from herding animals, every tree represents so many fewer square feet of pasturage; it is an impediment to life itself, or can seem so. (Often erroneously, of course.) In heavily forested areas, trees must often be banished to the periphery of human settlement in order to make that settlement possible — and to open it to sunshine that is especially welcome in cooler climates. For these reasons and others, Henry W. Lawrence explains in his City Trees, it was not until the 18th century that trees became a common and expected feature of European urban landscapes. Treeless urbanity seems horrible to us — the elimination of greenery is a key feature of almost all our dystopian images — but it must be remembered that in the Middle Ages cities were very small places indeed. Paris was probably the largest European city of that period, and you could walk from any one of its walled boundaries to any other in half an hour. So, though there was an absolute divide between the treeless city and the forested countryside, marked by any given city's walls, the countryside could be almost instantly reached by anyone ambulatory.

The practice of planting trees in European cities only began to grow once cities got larger and the countryside grew correspondingly more distant. In the 17th century the great diarist, gardener, and arboriphile John Evelyn visited Antwerp, whose leaders had, half-a-century earlier, planted trees along the whole length of the elevated city walls. "There was nothing about this City," Evelyn rhapsodized, "which more ravished me than those delicious shades and walks of stately Trees, which render the incomparably fortified Works of the Town one of the sweetest places in Europe." He was equally ravished by Amsterdam, where lindens had been planted along the length of the city's canals: of one canalside street he exclaimed, "It appears to be a City in a Wood" — the exact phrase that another traveler of the time used to describe the English town of Norwich. So the presence of many trees in an urban environment was still, then, a source of wonderment.

(Evelyn published in 1664 a compendious tome called Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest Trees. This became an enormously popular book in England, and for several generations the definitive guide to native trees. Maggie Campbell-Culver's A Passion for Trees: The Legacy of John Evelyn is a beautifully illustrated revisiting of Evelyn's famous guide. But Evelyn was not just interested in native plants: on his travels to the Netherlands he noticed a curious and beautiful flower and picked up a few bulbs to bring back to the great garden he was building at Sayes Court, his estate in Deptford, Kent, on the south bank of the Thames. Evelyn was therefore, more than any other single person, responsible for introducing tulips to England, where they soon created a kind of mania, with tulip societies springing up all over the country. Campbell-Culver reports that Evelyn's great garden fell into disrepair soon after his death, and that nothing of it remains today with the possible exception of a single mulberry tree. This is very sad, but there is consolation from Anna Pavord's remarkable work of social history, The Tulip: of the hundreds of tulip societies that once dotted England, only one remains, the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society, in Yorkshire, and some of the marvelous specimens grown by those gifted amateurs even today are descended from the very bulbs that Evelyn brought from Holland three hundred and fifty years ago.)

Lawrence shows how different cities in Europe — and, later, in America — incorporated trees into their plans. Such plans varied greatly, from the grand boulevards of Paris to the tree-filled residential squares of London. (I am particularly fond of the latter model, which you can see followed in a lovely way in Chicago's Washington Square Park, the city's oldest. The Newberry Library sits on the north side of the square, and one of the great delights of using that excellent library involves sitting at a table and gazing through tall windows at the park's trees. Of course, this means that you don't get much work done and feel guilty later, but life consists mainly of such tradeoffs.) But it took a surprisingly long time to achieve consensus on the validity of tree-planting in cities. As late as 1771, after many of the great London squares had already been built, the anonymous author of a polemic called Critical Observations on the Buildings and Improvements of London wrote, icily, "A garden in a street is not less absurd than a street in a garden; and he that wishes to have a row of trees before his door in town, betrays almost as false a taste as he that would build a row of houses for an avenue" — that is, instead of an avenue of trees — "to his seat in the country."

But this poor critic was fighting a losing, indeed a lost, battle. By the nineteenth century it had been agreed, in most cities of the world, that trees are both beautiful and health-giving, and that therefore trees should be planted anywhere in our cities where it is possible to plant them. As we still do.

London's arboriphobic pundit was concerned that the presence of trees interferes with the well-being of people — their aesthetic well-being, anyway — but the modern conservationist takes the opposite position: that the presence of people interferes with the well-being of trees. As Oliver Rackham notes, much conservationist thinking takes as its starting-point an idealized image of woodlands untouched by humanity — the true "wildwood." This ideal is especially problematic, Rackham argues, in places like Europe where human habitation goes back a long way. He quotes from a conservationist who lamented, early in the 20th century, that by the 15th century human beings had cut down most of the primeval forests of Britain; which is true, Rackham says, if he meant the 15th century BC. It is not clear to Rackham why a state of affairs that pertained three or four thousand years ago should become the norm against which all other times are measured. Why not — this is my thought, not Rackham's — why not long for a still earlier time, the last great period of global cooling, when much of what would later be covered by trees was covered instead by ice?

Rackham's second complaint about modern conservationism stems from his first. If having more trees is always better, then, so the logic goes, they should be planted everywhere. Only by creating vast forests to replace the natural forests we have cut down can we compensate for our previous foolishness. Rackham quotes one of the earliest proponents of this view: "Truly, the waste, and destruction of our Woods, has been so universal, that I conceive nothing less than an universal Plantation of all the sorts of trees will supply, and well encounter [that is, remedy] the defect." Who was this pioneering reformer? Why, John Evelyn, of course — who else? Evelyn seems to have known enough about trees to carry out his scheme, insofar as he could, in thoughtful and reasonable ways, which is more than Rackham can say for many modern conservationists. The problem is that some patches of open ground that look like ideal sites for plantations are poor environments for trees of any kind; or it happens that the trees human beings tend to enjoy are poor choices for the environments in which we place them. Rackham takes a kind of ironic satisfaction in seeing these plantations fail, especially since when they come to be neglected or forgotten, as often happens, the various species that truly belong there gradually drift in and make themselves at home.

"Conservationists," says Rackham, "have a record of trying to play God and rectifying God's mistakes as well as humanity's. Often they make woods fit a predetermined theory (which theory depends on how long ago they were at college) rather than listening to the woods and discovering what each wood has to contribute to conservation as a whole." It's now well-understood that the most catastrophic of these attempt at God-playing was the practice — very common throughout the 20th century, especially in North America and in Brazil, and not yet everywhere rejected — of trying to eradicate forest fires. This overzealousness deprives woodland ecosystems of the vital benefits of occasional burning, and, worse, insures that when fires do start they find so much combustible material that they become superfires, with dire consequences for forests and people alike.

It's interesting to see that people who love trees and know them intimately, as opposed to those who have merely general instincts for conservation, tend not to erect ideological barriers between the human world and "Nature." Rackham's deeply committed but pragmatic and nonideological approach credits woodlands with a remarkable ability to manage themselves, and sees a great deal of wisdom in many of our ancient practices of woodcraft — practices formulated when we couldn't dominate our environment and so had to learn to be stewards of it. (There's a picture in Woodlands of Rackham slicing a length of oak into radial planks with a froe. Don't know what a froe is? Join the club.) But stewardship of an environment, let us make no mistake, is use — respectful use, with a view toward leaving something for our children to use, and to teach their children to use in turn. So also Colin Tudge, who regrets careless and ruthless exploitation of woodlands as much as anyone could, rejects the hands-off approach as an alternative. He would like to see, for instance, a far greater reliance on wood as a building material, and not just for residential purposes: "although it requires energy to turn a tree trunk into a finished beam, ... it takes roughly twelve times as much to make a steel girder that is functionally equivalent." And while "timber burns, of course," it's also true that "steel, when overheated, buckles." In just a few pages Tudge makes a surprisingly strong case for a greener architecture, even for commercial buildings, based on timber.

And his thoughts go far beyond this. For instance, Tudge imagines trees as a much greater source of food than they are commonly thought to be — an especially attractive thought given trees' ability to hold soil in place and to moderate climate. In the final pages of his book Tudge grows rhapsodic in an almost Evelyn-like way: it is "marvelously and encouragingly" true that "societies can build their entire economies around trees: economies that are much better for people at large, and infinitely more sustainable, than anything we have at present. Trees could indeed stand at the heart of all the world's economics and politics, just as they are at the center of all terrestrial ecology." I'm not sure whether I believe fully in Tudge's visionary ideal, but I want to. It's a beautiful thing.

Meanwhile, back on my sunporch, I continue to be blessed by the trees around me — even if some of them are probably not ideally suited to the local soil and climate. Maples tend to do very well, though, including the one I spend much of my time staring at. And just the other day, when I was going through some old bills and receipts, I found the report of an arborist we had hired a few years ago to take down a couple of dead trees and trim some others. The crew chief had, helpfully, listed each of our trees by species, and with a slightly accelerated heartbeat I sought the answer to my old question. Turns out that my Tree of Mystery is ... a silver maple. Oh, like I needed him to tell me that.

Books discussed in this essay: