Remember going on those school field trips — the kind where you were outside all day, walking on woodsy trails with your classmates, listening to a knowledgeable stranger in a patch of woods that was a bus ride away?
Remember hearing amazing factoids about that patch of nature, such as how the White-breasted Nuthatch, the little bird making that intermittent laugh-and-squeak, is rare among birds for being able to hop head first down a tree? Or that you can eat the larva of the goldenrod gall fly that forms on the stalks of the tall goldenrod flowers rusting in the wind on the edge of the woods?
If you are like me and you fondly remember such excursions, then you will find David George Haskell’s second book, The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors (Viking 2017), to be very moving as it takes that field trip feeling to a whole new level.
To stick with the grade school analogy, it would be like taking the guide’s appreciation of the noisy, nimble Nuthatch, adding relevant information from all the other subjects you were taking in school that year, and topping it up with the latest scholarship in forestry, climate science, human biology, sociology and a dash of economics to awaken your consciousness to the fact that not only does the Nuthatch go down trees head first, but you and the Nuthatch are practically family, as is the tree it’s hopping down.
In The Songs of Trees we learn how we are in this together with birds and trees, among others. We hear the stories of these foreign relatives in a language we can at last comprehend, and some of what they’re telling us is cause for alarm. Haskell’s book has been described as “scientific and lyrical.” It takes us — with scientific vigor and lyrical story-telling — into a dozen places where trees have songs to sing.
The opening story is set in the rainforest near the Tiputini River in Ecuador. Before being shown the interactions between the local Waorani people and the oil company — which are problematic, as one might anticipate — we first meet the Ceibo tree that serves as an anchor, biologically and culturally, in this biodiverse part of the…