Aside from the rustle of wind-tossed leaves or the creak of a limb, silence is the prevailing sound most of us hear from a tree. But biologist, writer, and poet David George Haskell has finer-tuned senses than most.
In his new book, The Songs of Trees, Haskell describes olive tree branches producing a “straw-broom swish”; rainforest clouds dampening treetops with “the sound of an inked brush on a page”; raindrops striking Amazonian leaf litter with “the clack and tick of thousands of spring-wound clocks”; and a hairy woodpecker hammering its bill into the bark of a green ash like a “marching-band drummer, too stoned to care” (unlike the pileated woodpecker, an “old man in no hurry to nail loose boards”).
Readers of Haskell’s first book, The Forest Unseen, are familiar with his incredible powers of observation and evocative prose. To write that 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist, Haskell spent a year revisiting the same tiny patch of Tennessee forest near the University of the South, where he teaches biology. In the time he spent in his “forest mandala” – the term evoking the microcosmic patterns Buddhist monks create to represent the universe – he addressed the question: “Can the whole forest be seen through a small contemplative window of leaves, rocks and water?”
His latest effort is a similar exploration of the universal contained in the particular. Repeated visits to the 12 individual trees around which the book is structured reveal, in each case, “no heroes,” but rather entire networks of interconnected life-forms. Trees are inextricable from the communities where they are rooted. “In all these places, tree songs emerge from relationship,” Haskell writes. “To listen is … to touch a stethoscope to the skin of a landscape, to hear what stirs below.”
In a recent interview, Haskell discussed the importance of eavesdropping on nature’s clamor and remembering that we humans are very much a part of its conversation.
Q: Where did you get the idea to listen to trees?
Haskell: It started with birdsong. I taught students how to identify birds by ear – and not just to identify them, but to understand their lives through the sound. In doing so I gave them and myself some exercises in opening our ears – just paying attention to different sounds without labeling them as good or bad. That led me to realize that trees have an extraordinary amount of sound wrapped up in them and coming through them.
Q: And what trees have to say is enough for a book?
Haskell: Every sound is produced by some sort of energy, and that energy, if followed, usually leads back to an interesting story. There are all sorts of hidden gems if we pay attention to our ears.
I also wanted to use trees to explore some of the networks in nature. Biology is undergoing a fundamental shift in understanding that networks are fundamental to the essence of life. That’s a rather abstract concept with all sorts of practical applications. I wanted to tell those stories through everyday creatures. Whether we live in the city or out in the country, trees are part of our lives, and we often pass by them without noticing or remarking on them. I wanted to pick particular trees, focus on them again and again and again, and tell these broader stories about biological networks through the particularities of individual tree lives.
Q: Can you describe some of the exercises you give to your students?
Haskell: Go to a place, sit down, and open your ears to the world. Let your acoustic awareness flow out into the world from you and harvest sound. When you hear a sound, name it: car passing by, or bird singing. But once you have noted a particular sound, don’t cling to it. Return your attention and listen for the next sound, and the next. When we focus on one thing, say a crow or a pine warbler, the human mind tends to shut out many others. We have to do that, to function, but this task is about getting beyond that. Usually in five to ten minutes you can come up with dozens of sounds in any particular place, inside or outside.
Another exercise is the same but without naming or describing. Just be in the acoustic moment and let your body be in connection with what you hear.
Q: This sounds more like meditation exercises than biology class. How does it make your students better scientists?
Haskell: The foundation of science is close observation of the world with a curious mind. After that, we have all sorts of analytical techniques. But if Lynn Margulis or Charles Darwin had not been curious and observant, we wouldn’t understand biology in the way we do today. The ability to be present and to observe in a way that is open to possibility, in a way that is not completely shrouded in preconceptions, I think is a very useful opening gambit for a scientific investigation.
It also enriches our lives, so we get a bonus. We gain things that have value in and of themselves, whether or not they make us better scientists or environmentalists. We go through our day in relationship with more creatures, more processes and more people if we are awake to some of the sensory particularity of the world.
Q: Why do you think sound is such an afterthought for so many people?
Haskell: Partly because of our evolutionary heritage. We’re very visual creatures. So a lot of our design – say around architecture or city planning—is more oriented around visual impact and not so much about the acoustics. And yet, we don’t like to be – and it’s very unhealthy for us to be—whacked by unexpected, loud, anthropogenic sounds all the time. It increases stress and bodily disease. Often we learn this the hard way, because we don’t put these considerations up front.
Environmental questions about the relationships of humans with their homes can be accessed more readily by sound than through some other avenues. Sound travels around visual barriers, so we learn a lot about environmental justice – who has to listen to the interstate thundering close to their neighborhood, and who doesn’t? A lot of suburbs have noise regulations, but again, who gets to live in the quiet neighborhood versus the noisy neighborhood? Those are decisions that are closely related to socioeconomics and race.
Q: How can we re-forge sensory connections to our environments, especially since so few places remain where man-made noises don’t dominate the soundscape?
Haskell: Humans are part of the community of life. So the idea that human-derived sounds are always bad, which is present in a lot of the acoustic ecology literature, is misplaced, because it’s living out of this notion of separation – that if it’s produced by humans, it’s unnatural. The human mind evolved, so a diesel truck’s engine is just as natural as the sound of a katydid singing. That does not mean that the diesel truck is “right” in every context. Partly this is semantics; partly it’s an important question of how we think about ourselves in the world. Do we think of ourselves as belonging?
One thing we can do culturally is name particular acoustic phenomena as national treasures. Japan did this. Particular sounds in Japan were identified as culturally significant phenomena to be honored. Some of them are created by humans, for example the bells of temples, and some of them are natural sounds, from insects or the wind. That’s a beautiful way of approaching it, because it’s not so much about regulating away the bad stuff. If you live in a city that says, “OK, here are the five sounds that you need to hear in the city, because they’re part of who we are,” it becomes a new way of engaging with place.
Q: What do we stand to gain when we plug back in?
Haskell: We perceive more beauty when we are aware of some of these relationships and connections. The op-ed I wrote in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago concludes that going outside and attending to the opening of tree buds is a way of having something worthwhile to tell to future generations.
And the stories we tell our kids and students and family members and coworkers carry so much more weight than a graph in a scientific paper. The graph is absolutely necessary, but if all a culture has is analytic approaches to subjects like climate change, then we’ve lost the ground of our reality and lost the power of storytelling. Stories carry the most power when they come from people we know and love.
This interview, which first appeared in OnEarth, was edited and condensed for clarity.