Into the Woods Science has proven that trees communicate and cooperate—but we guessed that centuries ago.

(Shutterstock)

When we arrived, the tree in the front corner of the yard was tall and lopsided, sheared off on the utility-pole side until it looked like a ragged capital P. These were practical people, our previous owners. But by summer’s end, the tree had found its balance, and five years later, it was a lime-green lollipop of a tree, perfectly symmetrical and so leafy you could barely glimpse its dark branches. I wanted to buy it one of those T-shirts that say, “Go ahead. Underestimate me. That will be fun.”

My husband did underestimate the tree. In fact, because it dropped long, awkward twigs over the fence onto the sidewalk, flirted with the power lines, and tickled our neighbors’ roof, he wanted to kill it.

He brought up his removal plan lightly, then with increasing vigor, stealing the drip-drip-drip method of persuasion I had perfected.

The tree had come into its own, and I realized (with the pang you feel if you cannot remember the color of your first love’s eyes) that I did not even know its name.

“I will tie myself naked to its trunk before I let you cut down that tree,” I replied.

Eventually, I agreed to a slight trim, just so we would not be torched for causing a citywide power outage. The trim encouraged even more vigorous growth. The tree had come into its own, and I realized (with the pang you feel if you cannot remember the color of your first love’s eyes) that I did not even know its name. For weeks, I asked neighbors, thumbed through nature books, showed photos to my Seek app. Finally a friend tossed out, “River birch?”

The closest thing to a river is the skinny stretch of asphalt that hardened into road, but river birch it is. Betula nigra. Four separate trunks gather at the ground, like clutched stems in a bouquet. The bark is reddish-brown and rough, as though it wants to peel but cannot quite part with itself. About six feet up comes that huge cloud of green. Nothing dramatic—no silvery-sided leaves to glow eerily at twilight, no heavy fruit or pungent blossoms. Just green, the color that promises honesty, harmony, and rest.

 

 

They give off such hints of gladness.

I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

~from “When I Am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver

 

I am far from alone in forming a relationship with a tree. I knew a woman who lived in the treetops for months, hauling up food on ropes and leaving only horizontally, to explore the canopy. Eventually, the lumber company relented, and she climbed down. I am sure it felt good, if a little wobbly, to be on the ground again, but I envied her those months. Waking to birdsong below you? Staring deep into the center of trees, not up at them? Only the lack of a loo would deter me.

My fascination came late, though. For most of my life, trees had formed a scenic backdrop, a squirrel playground, a relief of shade. I forgot they made it possible for me to breathe. When I learned that we had already stripped the planet of almost half its trees, and new trees were dying fast, unable to soak up our carbon and clean our air—I winced at how I had taken them for granted. They stood so quietly, benign and ever-present, as easy to ignore as a grandparent. They were great to climb or swing from, and later, to be kissed against, the rough bark scraping my bared shoulders. I was glad someone plucked their fruit for me, drained their sap for my pancakes, chopped them down to guarantee a festive Christmas, or felled them so I could build great roaring fires. But I did not feel the comfort Henry David Thoreau found when, cut off from human company, he gazed at a pine tree and decided that, though it had sap instead of blood, it would do.

The tree and I did not chat; I did not hug its rough trunk. But watching it overcome the odds reminded me that I was part of nature in the same way.

“I was so distinctly made aware of the presence of something kindred to me,” he wrote, “… that I thought no place could ever be strange to me again. Why should I be lonely?”

After I bonded with the river birch, I, too, felt a little more at home in the world. Which seemed absurd. The tree and I did not chat; I did not hug its rough trunk. But watching it overcome the odds reminded me that I was part of nature in the same way. I did not have to live above nature, alternately shutting it out and deciding how to “steward” it (that benevolent dominion taught in Sunday school). I belonged within nature, alongside this tree and with many of the same needs, albeit a shorter and more complicated life span. The river birch was more than lovely, more than useful. It had its own existence, its own history and layers of experience, and we shared a square of the earth.

“You are yourself a sequoia,” John Muir told Ralph Waldo Emerson when he traveled west. “Stop and get acquainted with your big brethren.”

Trees have felt significant, relational, to poets and priests and philosophers for centuries. The symmetry of this partnership is surprising, when you think how lopsided the scales are: Trees shade and shelter and furnish and feed us, and we … clear-cut them. Or hug them and get mocked. Or alter the environment, and watch them charred by wildfires or pulled up by their roots.

As a boy, J.R.R. Tolkien talked regularly to trees and could not fathom why others did not love them as much as he did. He left a production of Macbeth furious because Great Birnam Wood was supposed to come to Dunsinane. “I longed to devise a setting in which the trees might really march to war,” he later told a confidante, explaining the schoolboy indignation that inspired the Ents in The Lord of the Rings.

“You are yourself a sequoia,” John Muir told Ralph Waldo Emerson when he traveled west. “Stop and get acquainted with your big brethren.”

Named from the Old English word for giant, the Ents were patient, deliberate, treelike beings. Tolkien made one of them, fourteen-foot-tall Treebeard, the oldest creature in Middle-earth. Still strong but no longer “bendable,” Treebeard has grave eyes that look deep into you. He takes a long time to make up his mind. He cautions against haste.

After struggling with The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote a short story, “Leaf by Niggle.” It was, he said, the story of his own creative process. But while he spun us entire worlds with their own history and language, Niggle spends his life painting a single tree.

It is enough.

 

John Muir (fourth from right) and Theodore Roosevelt (fifth from left) at the Grizzly Giant, Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias in Yosemite National Park, 1903. Photograph by Joseph N. LeConte

 

“All the trees are losing their leaves, and not one of them is worried.”

~ Donald Miller

 

Trees captured the collective imagination a few years back, as the discoveries made by Canadian biologist Suzanne Simard and others seeped into the popular press. Even staid science journalists bubbled with delight over the way trees signal one another, feed one another, defend one another. News flash: Darwin was wrong. Competition is not always life’s overriding impulse.

Studying logged forests in northwest British Columbia, Simard had noticed that when paper birch seedlings were weeded out, the planted Douglas fir saplings died young. Somehow, the paper birches were helping the Douglas firs grow strong. (How is it that trees, without even thinking, are more attentive to one another’s needs than we are to our own families?) Simard and her colleagues shoveled away the topsoil and explored the network of roots connecting the trees. There they found the silent partner that made the trees’ underground collaboration possible: mycorrhizal fungi. These attenuated mushrooms wove slender, whitish vessels called hyphae through the tips of the tree roots.

(The hyphae’s delicacy is a deception; it is said that if a single hypha were as wide as a human hand, it could lift an eight-ton bus. Instead of bothering, hyphae busy themselves making mycelium, filaments so fine you could untangle miles of them from a single teaspoon of forest soil.)

Trees reach for the sun, eat the air, fix the carbon, and make sugar. Then they drip the sugar down to the dark, crumbly home of the fungi, which cannot photosynthesize but are extraordinarily good at sucking nitrogen, phosphorus, and other minerals from the soil. They send those nutrients back up the trees, repaying the cup of sugar.

What caught Simard’s attention was the fact that trees, which look so sturdy and self-reliant, are networked tighter than Manhattan. Filaments of fungi connect an entire forest’s root system, and the trees even share across species lines. Sensing when another tree is infected, stressed, thirsty, or stuck in the shade, other trees will send sugar, minerals, or water. They communicate with scent, hormones, even electricity.  Swiss scientists found slow voltage-based signals that seemed to parallel the electrical impulses in an animal’s nervous system. Trees signal when wounded, under attack, or being chopped down. Yards from any tree that might receive the message, our river birch must have thrown lightning bolts of electricity the day they chopped its crown in half.

Trees reach for the sun, eat the air, fix the carbon, and make sugar. Then they drip the sugar down to the dark, crumbly home of the fungi, which cannot photosynthesize but are extraordinarily good at sucking nitrogen, phosphorus, and other minerals from the soil. They send those nutrients back up the trees, repaying the cup of sugar.

In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben mentions the umbrella thorn acacia of sub-Saharan Africa, its wide, shallow canopy just the right height for a giraffe to chomp on the leaves. As soon as a longneck begins snacking, though, the tree emits ethylene gas. Nearby acacias detect the distress signal and quickly pump tannin to make their leaves toxic. The giraffes are hip to the trick: They forage into the wind, so the distress signal does not reach the trees ahead. On a still day, they will walk as far as 100 yards, passing tempting acacias until (finally!) they have walked farther than the gas can travel.

Trees also recognize the taste of deer saliva, and if a deer is biting a branch, the tree again defends itself with tannins that make its shoots and buds taste acrid. But if a human being snaps a bough, the tree does something entirely different: It pumps wound hormones to heal the break. And if insects are attacking, the tree releases chemicals to warn other trees to make a batch of insecticide.

It is practical, this set of survival mechanisms; it sustains the entire forest. But it is also sobering. It implies that somehow, in their vegetal way, trees “know” they are communal beings.

We humans keep forgetting.

 

 

The trees are coming into leaf

like something almost being said

~ from “The Trees,” by Philip Larkin

 

I am so excited about these discoveries, I forget that we guessed them eons ago. In folk and fairy tales, trees are mysterious and wise, able to feel pain, to listen, and to speak. The ancient Greeks went to Zeus’s oak tree and waited for it to whisper prophecies. The Buddha leaned against the tangled trunk of the bodhi tree to become enlightened. Nearly every civilization has cherished the same hunch: that trees have an inner world and a way of expressing it.

Once you are alive to this possibility, there is a poignancy to a tree’s silence, an anticipation of what might be happening in secret. “He lay and watched tall cypresses breathing and communicating,” wrote D.H. Lawrence. Communicating what, though? It feels prosaic to limit their messages to what our senses make obvious—the pine so sharp it scours our nostrils, the root-beer-float of sassafras. We live by tree seasons, watching leaves bud as the world renews itself, flame into glorious color in the dying season, then fall away, leaving Shakespeare’s “bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang.” But we have long suspected that trees do more than smell good, change color, and scaffold birds. The hunch is that they possess (or make possible?) a sacred wisdom.

“Whoever knows how to speak to them,” wrote Herman Hesse, “whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth.” Walt Whitman called them voiceless companions, as profound as any preacher.

“Trees used to talk to people all the time,” Richard Powers notes in The Overstory. “Sane people used to hear them.”

We may be recovering our sanity.

When The New York Times asks readers how they are coping with the pandemic, a woman writes that she has begun tree sitting. “Make a picnic and spend half a day sitting at base of a tree, knitting or reading, anything that does not rely on my phone,” she says. “I find sitting more than an hour removes all the tension or any pain in my body.” This strikes me as entirely plausible. Where better to find respite from our feeble attempts to distract ourselves?

… we have long suspected that trees do more than smell good, change color, and scaffold birds. The hunch is that they possess (or make possible?) a sacred wisdom.

Diagnosed with a neurological disorder, a friend goes to sit by a huge, gnarled oak in Central Park. He will visit this tree after every appointment, he decides, even after he has lost the word “tree” and can sense only a trembling greenness.

Why there, I wonder. Because the old oak represents wisdom? Because it will not judge him?  Because, like the tree-sitter, he feels soothed there? We have long turned to trees for healing. Slippery elm coated sore throats; babies were given sips of ash sap; sick children were passed through the fork of a tree in hope that it might cure them. Alder tea’s astringency helped pull the edges of a wound together, and not only did an apple a day keep the doctor away, but you could scrape bark off the tree’s roots to bring down fever. People knocked on wood for luck (or the protection of the tree spirits) on at least three continents.

The friend who told me our tree was a river birch also sent me a photo of a pioneer family that lived in the hollow of a giant sycamore tree—a common practice, apparently, while people built their cabins. The photo was from the May 22, 1885, edition of The Atchison Globe, and the article describes the roomy interior of this forty-five–foot sycamore, easily able to accommodate a husband, wife, and five children with room for “beds, tables, chests and such other furniture and things as a wild mountain house usually contains.”

I close my eyes, imagining how a thunderstorm would have sounded from inside a tree. How damp and mossy the air would have been; how many beetles would have scuttled over their blankets as they slept. Yet I bet they felt safe in that womblike darkness—safe in a way that would be impossible when they stuck a comfy cabin on top of cleared land.

We perceive differently in nature. Our attention, so used to being tugged this way and that, eases into what psychologist Stephen Kaplan calls “soft fascination.” Its lens is wider, and because it requires diffused concentration, not laser focus, it gives our brain a rest, and room to wonder and feel. We are further soothed by what we see—fractals, for example, the infinitely repeatable patterns in a tree’s branches. Phytoncides, the chemicals trees release to protect themselves, increase the white blood cells that power our immune system. After shinrin-yoku—Japanese for “forest bathing,” a lovely phrase that makes me want to slip naked into clear, dark green water—people had a slower heartbeat and lower blood pressure.

When I was thirteen, a friend invited me to go hiking with her and her dad. Until then, the farthest I had strayed from sidewalks was what I excitedly called the “Indian Trail,” an overgrown path that ran behind a tall hedge in our backyard. That day in the woods was magical. Sunlight filtered through a hundred shades of green, and the air seemed purer than any I had ever breathed. Even the quiet went deeper. At the surface, it vibrated, full of rustlings and chirps, but the energy was settled, the everyday hum of a community in which everyone has room to be themselves and no one shirks their chores. I felt welcomed by that spaciousness, peaceful, and free.

 

 

“Trees are always a relief, after people.”

~David Mitchell

 

Gazing up at a majestic old oak that has survived lightning, ice, blight, gales, and drought, seeing its scarred trunk vanish into a mist of bright green leaves, I absorb the hope it represents. We humans are so easily set off course, distracted by ego, frozen by trauma. We decide that the world does not want our talents; that there is no room for our quirky aspirations. Trees give up, too, when they are wounded to the core. But because they do not suffer the complication of self-consciousness, their impulse to grow can only be crushed by outside forces. Me, I slam into the first roadblock and decide it is a sign that I should quit. Trees do everything in their power to become what they are capable of being; they will never give up early.

A white pine bonsai tree in Hiroshima has grown (and been pruned, and grown again) for four centuries, right through the atomic bomb. What is our current political turmoil by comparison? Dwarf pines’ “stiff, crooked roots grip the storm-beaten ledges like eagles’ claws,” Muir wrote, and I see that image in my mind’s eye as I urge a friend who is depressed and still ill, long post-COVID, to just “hang on.”

It is the biggest and oldest trees that give me the most comfort, I guess because they dwarf my problems. At 379 feet, a redwood named Hyperion is the tallest tree on earth. I have never seen it; like a protected witness, it lives in an undisclosed location. But when I first stood at the base of an only slightly less majestic redwood in Muir Woods, I craned my neck as I had beneath the spires of Chartres, and just as surely, the tree stole my breath and carried it upward.

Trees give up, too, when they are wounded to the core. But because they do not suffer the complication of self-consciousness, their impulse to grow can only be crushed by outside forces.

Routinely, I waste precious seconds on the math of late middle age, calculating how many years of life I might have left in order to reassure myself that there is still a chunk of time. But the span that once seemed an eternity is down to a few decades now—and set against the deep time of trees, it is a finger-snap. In Vertigo, Kim Novak fingers the rings on a cross-sectioned redwood in Muir Woods, murmuring, “Here I was born, and here I died. It was only a moment for you.”

Muir himself once spent the day with a magnifying glass, counting the rings on a stump thirty-five feet in diameter. He made it past 4,000. In Tolkien’s universe, the Years of the Trees precede even the creation of the stars. For 80,000 years, new shoots have been growing from old roots to regenerate Pando, a giant quaking aspen tree colony in Utah. The Methuselah tree, a bristlecone pine that lives somewhere in California’s White Mountains (another protected witness), began growing before the first stone was laid for the Great Pyramids. Yet it is a youngster compared to Old Tjikko, a Norwegian Spruce in Sweden that began growing 9,500 years ago. And the ginkgo tree is a living fossil: Its female specimens have been exuding that delicately aromatic blend of acidic vomit, rancid grease, and sweaty socks since the Jurassic era.

We used a Sitka spruce to date the beginning of the Anthropocene Age to 1965, because the effects of our nuclear tests on the atmosphere showed up in its growth ring that year, as it gulped and fixed unprecedented amounts of radiocarbon. Trees react visibly to their surroundings. They record the planet’s history.

In Palestine, a patient, gray-bearded man named Salah Abu Ali protects what many believe is the oldest olive tree in the world: the al-Badawi tree. Carbon-dated, it was between 3,000 and 5,500 years old, but what I find even more moving is its double symbolism: Though olive branches are a legendary token of peace, al-Badawi is also a symbol of resistance. Its village lost land during the Arab-Israeli war and again during the Six-Day War, and in 2002, Israel’s new separation wall would have cut what remained of the village in half, isolating the old tree. Residents appealed to the courts, and authorities agreed to route the wall around the village instead. Cooperation, for a change.

I try tree sitting, leaning against the river birch and cushioning the hard twist of its roots with a pillow. How old is she, I wonder. Instinctively, I have bestowed gender, a bit of foolish anthropomorphism that helps me acknowledge her as a living presence, not an object put here to shade me.

She might be young. She grows fast, even after trauma. On the other hand, her bark no longer has a salmon pink cast; it is darker, more restrained, without the dramatic curls—but not yet furrowed with age. Adjusting my tuffet, I dab at the sweaty back of my neck, itch the welt of a fresh mosquito bite. Another mosquito dive-bombs my thigh. Neighbors chat, and though their conversation feels far away, I am keenly aware that they can see the loopy lady sitting under her own tree. (Why is this odd, though?)

Fifteen minutes in, peace drapes itself around me like a silk cape. Dappled by leaves, the afternoon sunlight has cooled and softened. I cease to care what the neighbors think, and then I cease to think. Freed of agenda, I feel myself blending into my surroundings—not literally, like a hunter in camo, but mentally.

Trees blend in, too. Built for the long haul, their very nature protects them from overreaction. Nibbled by a pest, leaf tissue sends out electrical signals that travel at Treebeard’s pace, only a third of an inch a minute. The defensive chemicals can take a solid hour to arrive. Because of this slow, deliberate pace, trees lose a few more leaves, but they do not fall victim to what in human terms would be called hysteria. There is no global panic. The distress signal is pinpoint specific, and the compounds released are custom-tailored for the job.

With such slow reflexes and a long life, a tree must sense time differently—if “sense” is a fair verb. Certainly a tree participates in time’s rhythms. Of the character sitting among cypresses, D.H. Lawrence wrote, “His soul seemed to leave him and to go far away, far back, perhaps, to where life was all different and time passed otherwise than time passes now.”

A white pine bonsai tree in Hiroshima has grown (and been pruned, and grown again) for four centuries, right through the atomic bomb. What is our current political turmoil by comparison?

Kant said trees were not really “alive,” because they did not desire. Is thirst desire? Because they cannot move, jittery, from place to place, we decide they have no rights—yet by putting down roots and living in relationship, they may be better citizens. They are landed, as Thomas Jefferson wanted every voter to be; they have a stake in what happens next.

If we have trouble grasping a tree’s inner being, writes philosopher Justin Erik Halldor Smith, “this may only be because we are limited in our sympathy by the radical difference of time scale that separates their experience from ours. I am fairly certain that if this difference were removed, we would see that trees too have projects, and experience feelings of accomplishment, defeat, joy, pensiveness, and wistfulness.”

Is he reaching? That depends on how you define “feelings.” For so long, we have assumed they belong exclusively to us.

 

 

“All our wisdom is stored in the trees.”

~Santosh Kalwar

 

Simard characterizes trees’ cooperation as a collaborative intelligence, a “forest wisdom.” She describes how “mother trees” are the largest and oldest trees in the forest, with the most fungal connections threading from their deep roots. Here is another reason to take comfort from the biggest and the oldest: They are the best connected. They make water available to seedlings with more shallow roots, they send extra nutrients to ailing trees, and they respond generously to distress signals.

British scientist Richard Fortey rolls his eyes at this talk of “wisdom” and “mother trees” and generosity: “Trees do not have will or intention. They solve problems, but it’s all under hormonal control, and it all evolved through natural selection.”

Ah, but you can often say the same of us, I want to retort. I am feeling a little defensive of Simard, who is the sort of person I would have loved to be, woodsy and unfussy. She does not claim that trees are conscious in the way we are, or that they have any elaborate agenda. But she and others have documented trees signaling injury, warning of a need for defense, and recognizing their own kin. Trees play favorites, sharing first with others of their own species. For Simard, such behavior qualifies as cooperation and communication, not just resource transfer.

(Alice Walker got there first, but imaginatively: “Ever notice how trees do everything people do to get attention … except walk?”)

We diagram our families, and our sentences, in trees. The sense of kinship that startled Thoreau is already written into our language.

Beneath the river birch, I lie flat on my back, the ground cool and damp beneath me. Now I can see the skeleton of branches. The twigs’ elegant geometry suggests the dendrites that extend from human nerve cells; the burst of leaves at the tip reminds me of ideas. Nature writer Robert Macfarlane is charmed by “crown shyness,” which causes trees to curb their own growth, leave a bit of space between their longest branches and those of the trees around them. “Despite a learned wariness towards anthropomorphism,” he writes, “I find it hard not to imagine these arboreal relations in terms of tenderness, generosity, and even love: the respectful distance of their shy crowns, the kissing branches that have pleached with one another, the unseen connections forged by root and hyphae between seemingly distant trees.”

Mcfarlane and Simard might as well relax; we have always anthropomorphized trees. In English, we talk about a tree’s “trunk,” “limbs,” and “crown” some even have nubby “knees” poking up from the surrounding ground. In the same breath, we talk about ourselves “putting down roots” and urge friends who feel stuck to “branch out.” We diagram our families, and our sentences, in trees. The sense of kinship that startled Thoreau is already written into our language.

 

 

What did the tree learn from the earth

to be able to talk with the sky?

~Pablo Neruda

 

To those who understand it, science brings clarity, but for me, it has muddled the universe. Try though I might, I cannot truly grasp black holes or multiple universes or the space-time continuum. “Make it your own,” my grandmother used to urge when I was struggling to learn something, and I cannot make any of this mine. The words sit on my tongue, inert, and the only mental pictures that arise are straight from science fiction. Yet the “axis mundi” of the ancients makes perfect sense to me.

The axis mundi was the place where heaven met the earth. Looking at “brown fluted pillars so thick and tall and strong they seem fit to uphold the sky” (Muir’s words), many cultures chose a tree to represent this axis. In Norse cosmology, a massive ash tree connects nine different worlds.

Genesis, meanwhile, gave us not one but two trees: the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. (The latter receives far less attention, notes biblical scholar Ellen van Wolde. No conflict; no juicy plot. Yet it was here before we were, and its presence means our life can continue.) Other cultures weave religious thoughts around tree spirits and tree deities, their presence sensed in the rustling of the leaves. In northern Ethiopia, hermits live in the old-growth forests surrounding churches. Aboriginal people in Australia carved trees to represent their souls. In Cambodia, trees are ordained as monks.

Trees manage quite a lot without scurrying here and there—they reach toward sunlight or twist against the wind, and they change shape, thickening and staying short to protect themselves from toppling in a violent storm. The way they sculpt themselves to adapt would be a worthy spelling-bee word: thigmomorphogenesis. It shows just how much you can do while standing still.

Time and again, we have asked trees to be our soul’s resting place. Their special trick is to remain silent, letting truth bubble up within us. Trees’ quiet feels like acceptance, a lovely illusion—although at this rate, we may soon find out that they have been gossiping about us all along. For now, we can sob or rage in their presence without fear of judgment.

Another reason trees calm us is their stillness. No matter what happens, they just stand there, waving their arms a bit, like kids clowning around after they are ordered to stay put. Trees manage quite a lot without scurrying here and there—they reach toward sunlight or twist against the wind, and they change shape, thickening and staying short to protect themselves from toppling in a violent storm. The way they sculpt themselves to adapt would be a worthy spelling-bee word: thigmomorphogenesis. It shows just how much you can do while standing still.

“They struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only,” wrote Hesse, “to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier.”

His tone is so wistful, it is easy to guess that he was projecting, as was Thoreau when he insisted that “nothing stands up more free from blame in this world than a pine tree.” We have long used trees as stand-ins for our psyche. Have we transferred too much, given them a mythic role for so long that we cannot walk it back? They cannot correct us or explain themselves. They cannot pull themselves back from our stories about them.

Yet they continue to inspire us. Wangari Maathai founded a movement that planted thirty million trees and, as it did so, empowered women to fight for social change. She became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

We are used to planting a tree to keep something alive—a cause, a memory, hope. But trees are also about death. Hiking in southern Illinois, I breathe in the old-growth forest’s freshness and rot. They layer over each other, intermingling without any humans sloshing chemicals around to disguise or speed the process. Old-growth forest smells of creation itself, dark and wet and fertile—but also of decay.

That is death at its most natural, but trees can also hold a hangman’s noose. Because they are bigger and sturdier than we are, we have forced them to be our mute accomplices. On Wikipedia, I find a list of hanging trees, their roots anchored deep in U.S. soil. In Massachusetts, the tree at the base of Gallows Hill hung women convicted in the Salem witch trials; in Arizona, the ironwood tree in Vulture City hung men who stole gold. A juniper in California was the chosen site for legal executions. In Texas, Confederate soldiers hung nine traveling German immigrants from the Tragedy Tree; to this day, no one knows why.

Time and again, we have asked trees to be our soul’s resting place. Their special trick is to remain silent, letting truth bubble up within us. Trees’ quiet feels like acceptance, a lovely illusion—although at this rate, we may soon find out that they have been gossiping about us all along. For now, we can sob or rage in their presence without fear of judgment.

And then there are all those grand old live oaks in the South that were used for lynchings, thousands of them. Mississippi State Representative Karl Oliver fell right in line when he called for lynching this past May, saying any Louisiana official who wanted to remove Confederate monuments deserved it. (He apologized, though not so much for the sentiment as for the word choice.)

The lynching trees hold our shame. In other cultures, young men are sent into the forest to find their courage. Fairy tales take us into the woods for that same reason: It is dark there, lonely if you prefer human company, and often dangerous, a refuge for witches and wolves. Psychologists equate a trip into the woods with a journey deep into the darkest parts of our mind. We bury our sins and grief and fear there, just as bodies are often buried at night in the woods, so they can decompose before anyone recognizes them.

 

 

(Shutterstock)

 

 

 

I think that I shall never see. 

 A poem lovely as a tree.

~Joyce Kilmer

 

Two of the most quoted lines of poetry in the English language come from the sappy (forgive me) devotional poem “Trees,” penned in 1913 by Joyce Kilmer. A bit of a humblebrag (Gee, I can only write this clever poem about God, who can create a tree), it was often set to music. In the resonant bass-baritone of Paul Robeson, the poem does what Kilmer meant it to, quieting us into reverence. Read aloud, though, the poem’s meter is so singsong, it begs for parody.

The Trappist monk, writer, and mystic Thomas Merton pounced on those lines to critique the commodification of monastic life. At the time, the Abbey of Gethsemani was using the French Trappists’ recipe for Port du Salut cheese in desperate hope of commercial profit. Appalled, Merton scribbled, “I think that we should never freeze/Such lively assets as our cheese.” Ogden Nash had fun with the rhythm, too: “I think that I shall never see/ A billboard lovely as a tree./ Indeed, unless the billboards fall,/ I’ll never see a tree at all.”

While “God can make a tree,” it is also true that, as Muir once pointed out, “he cannot save them from fools.”

Does iambic pentameter get all the credit? I doubt it. The poem’s original appeal was universal because trees have a similar, quietly powerful, often unconscious effect on all of us. We connected ourselves with them long before scientists traced those underground networks. But we took far less care of trees than they take of one another.

Now we need a new, less saccharine poem, because trees are in increasing danger, with soil slipping away beneath them, climate zagging to extremes, rainforests being obliterated, wildfires blazing through old growth and reducing it to ash. While “God can make a tree,” it is also true that, as Muir once pointed out, “he cannot save them from fools.”

I did save ours from my husband. After fourteen years, the river birch is now taller than our house, and its branches stretch easily as wide. The next storm, one of those branches may indeed crash into the power lines, but the inconvenience will be temporary. The tree will remain with us—and outlive us.

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