Monday Musings, Recommended Readings
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The networks that sustain and shape us

What do an Amazonian ceibo tree, a balsam fir in Canada, a Rocky Mountain pine, a Bradford pear in New York City, and an olive tree right out of scripture in Jerusalem have in common? These trees, plus seven others found around the world, share more than just their inherent nature as trees. In the hands of a biologist whose work integrates scientific, literary, and contemplative studies of the natural world, they also serve as learning tools to help us see the biological connections and networks that sustain and shape us.

The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors (2017) by David George Haskell is a fascinating book in its subject matter, scope, and approach. Yes, this is a book of science, but it is also a book of contemplative studies. And philosophy. And modern cultural studies. And yes, even history. Haskell, in repeated visits to twelve individual trees in different settings all around the world, dives deeply into their biology and evolution. But some of the more intriguing perspectives shared by this lyrical writer are centered around the networks that trees depend on and provide to the wider world, including humans.

David Haskell was the writer who drew me into my later-in-life exploration of nature with his absorbing meditation about a small patch of old growth forest in Sewanee, Tennessee. The Forest Unseen — a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize — was his attempt to “put down scientific tools and to listen: to come to nature without a hypothesis, without a scheme for data extraction, with a lesson plan to convey answers to students, without machines and probes.” 

As Caspar Henderson noted in The Guardian,

The Songs of Trees is the equal of [The Forest Unseen] in its scientific depth, lyricism, and imaginative reach . . . Haskell’s intention is nothing less than to explore interconnection in nature across space and time, and to observe how humans can succeed, or fail, in the co-creation of networks of life that are more intelligent, productive, resilient and creative.” 

The insightful observations made throughout this work help the reader understand how nature’s networks connect and support life. Humans thrive due to these networks, but we also have much to learn from a careful study of this system. The author’s networked view of life “enriches our understanding of biology, human nature, and ethics.” One can understand his worldview when he describes one of the few glimmers of hope in a politically polarized Middle East: fair trade associations in which Jews and Arabs cooperate to produce fine quality oil.

Haskell is not only a thoughtful observer, but he is also a remarkable listener who shares his findings with the reader. Listening — paying attention — moves us all past what we know and into the deeper knowledge to be found when we tap into the roots of nature and humanity.

Key to the experience of The Songs of Trees is the noise emitted from the trees. To my ear it is a delightfully noisy book. I don’t usually listen to audio books, preferring to markup hard copies for future reference, but in this case I’m glad I did. Primarily read by Cassandra Campbell with an interlude or two from Haskell, the prose soars, and the sounds, which might seem strange to see on paper, jump out through her interpretation. We hear the roar that comes from the wind through Colorado’s ponderosa pine. More specialized equipment is required to hear sap moving through a green ash. The listening devices attract a crowd in New York, as Haskell’s study of the ubiquitous Bradford pear intrigues even the most urban of fellow humans. At the heart of it all are the “songs” made by the trees.

In many ways, Haskell’s work brings to mind the scientific yet poetic prose of Rachel Carson. I happened to be reading another book at the same time which speaks of her ability to take rock-solid science and write about it in ways to touch — and move — the heart.

In the end, the twelve trees that are the stars of Haskell’s book symbolize the key theme that comes through all his work: “life is about relationships [and} we can find salvation in this view of life as a community.”

More to come…


Image from Pixabay

This entry was posted in: Monday Musings, Recommended Readings


I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.


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