Thursday, February 7, 2019


“Look at the trees,” my father always said when an argument (usually precipitated by him) became loud and quarrelsome at mealtime. So we would pause and look out at the grove of pine trees in the backyard. Sometimes the sight of the tall, cheerful pines had a calming effect, and, more than likely, the harsh tenor of my father’s voice caused us to cease fire. As I grew older, I discovered that my father’s command carried a note of wisdom, and trees/forests became retreat places for me where I could “perceive tongues in trees…”* 

Yesterday, at lunch, a good friend brought us a copy of an article about trees in the March issue of The Smithsonian magazine that became last night’s reading. It’s an amazing article about the tree whisperer Peter Wohlleben, a German forester and author of The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, and while I’m not convinced that trees really do talk to one another, I can imagine them sharing conversations. I believe the explication about their connecting by way of underground fungal networks through which they share water and nutrients, and send distress signals about drought and disease — mycorrhizal networks, the tree experts call them. According to Wohlleben, they also communicate in the air through pheromones and other scent signals, including scents through their leaves. 

Through further studies of trees in Hummel, Germany, Wohlleben was convinced that when a tree is cut, it sends out electrical signals like humans enduring wounds to their bodies! Although scientists aren’t willing to concede that trees possess a form of consciousness, writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, have attributed emotions and consciousness to trees, and I love all mythological stories about them talking to each other.

This is only a mention of the Smithsonian article, but it’s worth a good read — as is the book Wohlleben wrote about trees in which he features them talking, crying, panicking, mourning — all these human characteristics that he creates for them to illustrate the rights of trees to grow old with dignity and die a natural death, rather than a death imposed upon them by tree cutting.

I can identify with his sentiments, perhaps harking back to my father’s command to “look at the trees” which, as far as he imagined, preferred to provide us with an example of dignified silence in times of stress.

Last year in my book of poetry, Let the Trees Answer, accompanied by photographs of trees beloved by me, I attributed consciousness to many of the trees Dr. Victoria Sullivan, Karen Bourque, and Joel Fontenette photographed. One of my favorites is the Joshua tree, which I have written about many times after visits to my daughter’s home in Palmdale, California.

The poem ends with:

A few years ago I saw scarred arms
after a spring without rain
and a winter without frost,
deserted by orioles and wood rats
and their kind that lived
thousands of years ago
threatened by climate change…
spaces in the West no longer sacred,

the Mohave gaunt from too much light,
wind blowing through skeletal trees
and fading indigo in the sky,
white-capped Joshua trees
once thriving in seasons of health —
the golden air of California — 
After a long sunset, appearing again
with wider horizons, taller stalks,
higher manifestations of life…
angular and mysterious. 

Photograph by Joel Fontenette, Palmdale, California

*As You Like It, William Shakespeare

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