The Trees Don’t Care About Us

Silent observers of our lives, trees are on most peoples’ radar only at moments of transition or death: We mark springtime’s budding and autumn’s flamboyance; note somberly the tree felled by a storm or by the tiny, ravenous ash borer. Although emblematic of nature, they nonetheless are seen with the goggles of our human-centered vision, and thus barely seen at all.

With a rush of popular fiction and nonfiction on the sociality of trees, we are starting to recognize the extent of what we’re missing. Whether the simplest details—the plain fact of their presence more below ground than above it—or the awareness of their constant inter-arboreal communications, trees have officially entered our contemporary awareness as more than just a background to our human dramas.

Trees and tree colonies—including an 80,000-year-old grove of aspens in Utah—are among the oldest living things on Earth. There is wisdom in longevity, if only we knew how to listen to it. What, for example, would tortoises and bowhead whales have to say about what they’ve seen over a century? The typical way of “reading” trees for their knowledge used to be to fell them: In the rings bared at the gash, the years of drought, the years of sickness, the years of plenty are plainly visible.

[Read: A force that has shaped the history of the world]

Two new books, by Noah Charney and Tristan Gooley, take a less destructive approach and present us with trees on their own terms, before turning to what they have to say about the state of nature today and our place in it. Neither author is making the single claim that your life, your brain, and your mood will improve if only you immerse yourself in the natural world, as is so often touted. Although surely concerned about climate change, they also avoid presenting their books as primers in how to treat the Earth better. Instead, they advocate for something more radical: the simple expansiveness of becoming a “citizen of nature,” literate in a world to which we have all but closed our minds.

Both authors are keen seers—sometimes seeing the same signs—but their desires differ: to know the past or to find yourself in the present. In Charney’s These Trees Tell a Story, he takes the reader with him to 10 wild landscapes, treating each as a constellation of clues that give us a lens into the site’s history. Gooley’s How to Read a Tree also ambles in the woods, deconstructing the meaning of the size, shape, location, and shadow of each tree for the sake, merely, of knowing trees.

Charney, an assistant professor of conservation biology at the University of Maine, presents his book as a kind of multi-modal jigsaw puzzle, where each piece is capable of telling a small story on its own, and a larger story when combined with the pieces around it. Retracing field trips to sites across New England that he took with the students in his “Field Naturalist” course, each chapter of These Trees Tell a Story opens with photos of these varied puzzle pieces: an insect-damaged leaf, a fallen log, an animal footprint, a cut stem. Each, read closely, is a clue to the history of the place up to the moment before Charney and his students arrived at it.

He’s an amiable host, and soon the reader realizes we’re following the stream of consciousness of an ecologist driven by extraordinary zeal. Charney is the kind of fellow who shimmies into the foot-wide opening of an old beaver lodge to sit inside its muck-and-stick sanctum; who lived one summer in college in a wigwam in the woods, navigating to it at night by its smell. His stroller-age children are brought along and implicated in many of his explorations (and used in photographs for scale).

Charney sees the details of a landscape less for their aesthetic qualities than for their contributions to the record of a place. He connects the seemingly unrelated, showing how salamanders in the Northern Hemisphere can trace their existence to a fluke of plate tectonics; how a meandering river has created a staircase along an embankment; and the effect of deer on mice, who in turn affect the spongy moth and oak trees, which in turn affect the deer. The cumulative effect of his book on the reader is the realization that, as much as we talk about “managing” nature, nature has been managing itself for eons just fine without us. The constituents of what we might see as a simple plot of land (including the slopes and the sphagnum) have a history and complicated existence that is completely independent of us.                                           

How to Read a Tree, by contrast (and befitting its title), looks at the trees, not the forest—and looks assiduously at each part of those trees: bark, trunk, roots, and so on. The U.K.-based Gooley is renowned for his skill in practical geography, or “natural navigation,” which is on display in each of his several books about reading nature’s signs.

Out tumble reams of appealing facts that make one itch to get outside and right up close to the rough surfaces and shady cover. Are, indeed, most of the knobby eyes on a tree facing southward? Are the thickest roots typically on the windward sides? And how could I confirm his claim, borrowed from Leonardo da Vinci’s musings, that the thickness of all of a tree’s lowest branches and twigs combined equals the thickness of its trunk?

[Read: Trees are time machines]

Although clearly besotted, Gooley is no romantic, reminding us repeatedly to think of the successful tree’s selfish genes, which prompt them to elbow out smaller trees reaching for the light—or even poison their neighbors. But the bevy of detail he presents does prompt “a quiet joy rising in your sap”: the satisfaction of simply seeing something in plain sight that was previously overlooked. Charney’s book inclines one more toward the pleasure of realizing the depth of the story that is being told by the environment, without taking us into account at all. As Richard Powers wrote in The Overstory, “This is not our world with trees in it. It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.” Charney would agree, I think—although he might also point out the ways humans have left our mark on the landscape. As much wilderness as it may appear still surrounds us, it all bears scars of the “disturbance,” to use the authors’ term, of our presence: including the logging, the land denuded, the species extinguished, the invasive species released. Quietly optimistic, Charney takes the long view, pronouncing the idea of perfectly stable, balanced nature as a mirage. Nature is dynamic, self-disturbing. Seeing the effects of our contribution, though, might allow us to fit ourselves back into nature.

As strong as the authorial voices in these books are, after reading them, one senses the human voice fading and the voice of the trees rising. In ethology, the science of studying animal behavior that I practice, one gradually learns to strip away the human descriptions that we instinctively place on our subjects, and to stop talking of their lives in terms of our own. The idea is not that nonhuman animals are entirely unlike us, but that the glancing attention we usually give to them disables our ability to see who they really are. We walk into nature, similarly, sure that we understand the categories of objects found there, our gaze dismissive as we plod along the path. What if, Charney and Gooley hint, we instead go off the trail, linger, and listen?

It feels ironic perhaps that we gain these insights about trees via the words printed on the dried, pressed, macerated pulp of trees. Nonetheless, we would be lucky to be lost in a forest with either of these writers. Not just to find our way out—something they could surely help with—but to find our way in: to see what the trees are telling us about the Earth we all find ourselves a part of.