How to listen to trees
Written by David George Haskell
David Haskell is the author of prize-winning books The Forest Unseen and The Songs of Trees, and is a professor at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN. His work reminds us that life’s substance and beauty emerge from relationship and interdependence. Find out more at dghaskell.com.
Trees are sensual beings, if only we take time to notice. Wind evokes their many voices. Their textures and aromas await our attention. Everyone can attend to trees in a multitude of different ways and in doing so, feel better connected to the community of life.
Rub a leaf between your fingers. Stroke the bark of an old oak. Tap the wood of a fallen branch. Through touch we hear the materiality of trees, their textures and resonances.
Rest your hands on the tree trunk and wait for the subtle vibrations to come. Often, we hear only stillness. But near a busy road or in a tree stirred by wind, we feel the vibratory energy of the world flowing in wood. Do the same with an accelerometer app on a smartphone and see the tree’s wave buck and shimmer.
In the wind
Every species has its voice. Every individual has its inflections. A gust in a pine tree is deeper, softer than the same wind in an oak. A maple with a dense crown speaks with more vigour than one whose canopy is spindly. The young leaves of spring have an aural gentleness absent in the burliness of late summer.
On rainy days
The many moods of rain are revealed to us by trees. Each leaf is a drum skin. Every twig and flake of bark a percussive surface. How do the fat drops of a summer rain shower differ from misty sprinkles? In winter, turn your ears to the silvery shimmer of falling ice among twigs.
Learn from the woodpeckers and listen for clicks and rasps under the bark. Press your ear to the tree and hear the sound of beetle larvae and carpenter bees munching on wood. In the canopy, caterpillars chew on leaves. The tree listens too, releasing defensive chemicals when it feels the vibration of their jaws.
With eyes closed, our sense of smell is heightened. The bite of pine resin. The glow of fir. From the roots, the plump aroma of loam. Leaves, depending on the species, are tannic, spicy, or like fresh baby lettuce. A change in the weather brings new smells, the chemical language of trees.
People gather under trees to talk, chat, confer, and confide. Across the world, trees are like magnets, gathering us under their branches. They are champion networkers, drawing together all forest beings. Our conversations are part of that sylvan social network.
The oxygen we inhale came from trees and the oceans. We exhale and leaves snatch our unwanted carbon dioxide, then lodge it in wood, a timbered memory of breath. Breathing is the sound of the reciprocal partnerships that knit us all.
How to listen to trees by David George Haskell