A Tall Tree Reading List

Let’s go down to the woods today … with a reading list all about trees.

“I’m a lumberjack and I’m OK/ I sleep all night and I work all day.” This is what was playing in my head, in an incessant loop, as I worked on this reading list. It’s a song from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a British comedy show, and includes the line: “Leaping from tree to tree/ As they float down the mighty rivers of British Columbia.” This is accurate. British Columbia is where I now live, and I have seen for myself the vast swathes of felled logs clogging up rivers around the province — just without the leaping lumberjack (aka Michael Palin). Logging is a huge industry here, a business that comes with its share of controversy — which in turn has inspired some thought-provoking writing.

And it isn’t just logging that writers have chosen as a subject matter — the beauty of trees, their communication, their struggles, and their many mysteries have all been tackled. It’s not hard to see the inspiration. On many a hike, I have stood in awe before a towering tree, tried to wrap my arms around a huge trunk to no avail, or breathed in the heady scents of the distinct species as they drift across a trail. Trees are magnificent, and so it came as no surprise that some of the words written about them are as well.

1) The Wolf Tree and the World Wide Web (Suzanne Simard, Wired, May 2021)

This essay from Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard is a wonderful way to start our journey into the woods. Simard conjures a forest scene for us with great reference, almost affection. Here she is in among some Canadian trees, researching the fascinating connections that link a forest together. Fungus plays a huge role for Team Tree, linking old trees and young seedlings by delivering nutrients and messages between them. She beautifully describes this underground network: “This courageous root was as vulnerable as a growing bone, and it survived by emitting biochemical signals to the fungal network hidden in the earth’s mineral grains, its long threads joined to the talons of the giant trees.” This interconnected, familial system leads Simard to ponder on her own family — her children, and a failing marriage.

The roots of these little seedlings had been laid down well before I’d plucked them from their foundation. The old trees, rich in living, had shipped the germinants waterborne parcels of carbon and nitrogen, subsidizing the emerging radicals and cotyledons—primordial leaves—with energy and nitrogen and water. The cost of supplying the germinants was imperceptible to the elders because of their wealth—they had plenty. The trees spoke of patience, of the slow but continuous way old and young share and endure and keep on. Just as the steadiness of my girls steadied me, and I told myself I was strong enough to endure this season of separation. Besides, I’d have a sabbatical in a year, and I could make their lunches again, drumsticks and sliced cucumber and oranges cut into smiles, and I could show them how to build go-carts and plant flowers, and Nava and I could read together more, alternating turns through pages of Mercy Watson to the Rescue. But until that magical year, I’d spirit across the mountains each weekend to reabsorb their lives, my motherhood like time-lapse photography.

2) Do Trees Talk to Each Other? (Richard Grant, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2018)

Others have also been inspired by the intimacy of forest networks, and in this article for Smithsonian, Richard Grant takes a walk into the woods with Peter Wohlleben, a German forester, and author, who has developed a unique way of talking about trees — one that has earned him some scorn among the scientific community. Wohleben takes anthropomorphism to a new level, discussing mother trees who “feed their saplings … and warn the neighbors of danger,” compared to fickle young trees who take “foolhardy risks with leaf-shedding, light chasing, and excessive drinking.”

While trees may not have “will or intention,” it can still be argued that they are more social and sophisticated than people once thought. This is what Wohleben wants his audience to realize, and it seems his imaginative descriptions deliberately slip into the world of fairytales. People love a story, and this wordsmith uses his narrative skill to engage people with the forests he adores. In the slow-moving world of trees, adding a little drama to the “Crown princes” who “wait for the old monarchs to fall” is a clever tactic, and Wohleben does not seem too phased by the criticism: “they call me a ‘tree-hugger,’ which is not true. I don’t believe that trees respond to hugs.” A dive into Wohlleben’s world certainly isn’t boring — his language, after all, is rather delightful.

Trees can detect scents through their leaves, which, for Wohlleben, qualifies as a sense of smell. They also have a sense of taste. When elms and pines come under attack by leaf-eating caterpillars, for example, they detect the caterpillar saliva, and release pheromones that attract parasitic wasps. The wasps lay their eggs inside the caterpillars, and the wasp larvae eat the caterpillars from the inside out. “Very unpleasant for the caterpillars,” says Wohlleben. “Very clever of the trees.”

A recent study from Leipzig University and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research shows that trees know the taste of deer saliva. “When a deer is biting a branch, the tree brings defending chemicals to make the leaves taste bad,” he says. “When a human breaks the branch with his hands, the tree knows the difference, and brings in substances to heal the wound.”

Our boots crunch on through the glittering snow. From time to time, I think of objections to Wohlleben’s anthropomorphic metaphors, but more often I sense my ignorance and blindness falling away. I had never really looked at trees before, or thought about life from their perspective. I had taken trees for granted, in a way that would never be possible again.

3) Illuminating Kirinyaga (Tristan McConnell, Emergence Magazine, October 2020)

In this essay for Emergence Magazine, we go on another forest walk, this time alongside Tristan McConnell, who is documenting a “stubbly, hollow-cheeked sixty-four-year-old” named Joseph Mbaya. Walking in the mountain forests that surround Mount Kenya, Mbaya finds a portal to a “slower and more meaningful world,” and also treatments for ear infections and “pungent wind.” His knowledge of herbal cures makes walking the forest tracks with Mbaya, “like walking the aisles of CVS with a taciturn pharmacist.”

It is lovely to share an insight into the mystical remedies a forest can offer, but this essay quickly takes a darker turn, detailing how these magical forests are shrinking. Fire-clearing for farming, timber plantations, and climate change are all taking their toll — but so is simply the poverty of this region. For many here, “conservation is an unaffordable luxury” — with the forest offering a resource they need to exploit, rather than protect, in order to survive.

DEEP INSIDE THE fractured forests that still ring the mountain, a hallowed sense of wonder persists. One morning, soon after the sun burns mist from the mountainsides and clouds shroud the peaks, I visit part of the mountain’s few remaining areas of old-growth woodland with a pair of young Kenyan foresters from the Mount Kenya Trust. Marania Forest, on the mountain’s northern fringe, is a revelation: thickly towering trunks of eight-hundred-year-old rosewood reach overhead, the trees’ crowns held up to the light of the canopy, pencil-straight cedar and craggy-barked olive are draped with lichen, and moss carpets the earth, muffling sound to a church-like silence. It is dark, crowded, and otherworldly—the ground soft underfoot, the trunks damp to the touch, the trees centuries old, the sunlight breaking through in narrow shafts. At our feet, fallen trunks breach the understory like shipwrecks, gradually decaying and returning to the soil—to its subterranean fungal networks and the spreading roots of neighboring trees—as food for the rest of the forest. We all smile, the foresters and I. It is a routine venture out for them, and my first to these old forests, and yet our reactions are the same: joy and reverential wonder. We instinctively drop our voices to a whisper. We walk and talk, feet sinking into the damp, spongey soil as the foresters teach me about the trees.

4) Inside the Pacheedaht Nation’s Stand on Fairy Creek Logging Blockades (Sarah Cox, The Narwhal, July 2021)

The forests around Mount Kenya are not unique — forest exploitation is a controversial issue around the world. Within my own community in British Columbia, the debate has recently been focused around the logging of old-growth trees in an area called Fairy Creek. For many months now, protesters have been blocking access to the logging cut block — and more than 300 people have been arrested, making it one of the largest civil disobedience actions in recent Canadian history.

A few pieces have been written about Fairy Creek, but I was particularly struck by the insight Sarah Cox provided in her article for The Narwhal. Cox not only looks at the perspective of the protestors and the police, but at the viewpoint of the people on whose territory Fairy Creek lies — the Pacheedaht First Nation. It’s complicated. The Pacheedaht co-manages the annual cut on its territory, and forestry has helped them to provide revenue and jobs — even allowing them to buy back some of their ancestral lands. The Pacheedaht First Nation’s elected leadership has asked the protestors to leave, but an elder, Bill Jones, has welcomed the protestors and garnered extensive media coverage. Cox deftly peels back the layers to look at the tensions within a community that has often been overlooked in this debate.

We scramble onto the boggy shore of an island where four Pacheedaht members in hip waders are planting sedges and grasses to repair damage to fish habitat caused by decades of industrial logging — logging in which the nation played no part and from which it received no benefit. An eagle lets out a high-pitched whistle. Our boots squelch in the mud. Then, slicing through the stillness, comes the throaty chuckachuka-chuckachuka of a RCMP helicopter.

For the Chief, “everything that’s been happening,” refers to the blockades taking place in and around the Fairy Creek watershed on Pacheedaht territory and in the neighbouring territory of the Ditidaht First Nation. From the estuary, we can almost see the green spirals of the Fairy Creek valley, only a few kilometres distant, that has become the epicentre of a flourishing movement to save the last of B.C.’s unprotected old-growth forests. At this very moment, RCMP are arresting protesters wedged into tall tripods hammered together with discarded logs or lying under tarps with their arms chained inside “sleeping dragons” — metal tubes dug into the ground. When the RCMP leave each day, more protesters (or land defenders, tree protectors, tree-huggers or intruders, depending on whom you talk to) drive their cars, camper vans, trucks and SUVs up the inclines of logging roads that provide access to planned logging in the Fairy Creek watershed.

5) When The Toughest Trees Met the Hottest Fires (David Ferris, Greenwire, August 2021)

The past few months have brought home to me that logging is not the only threat to our forests — climate change is increasing the impact of fires year on year. This summer the area where I live reached an unprecedented 46 degrees, a whole town burned to the ground, and I witnessed for myself flames licking up a forested mountain, gleefully jumping from tree to tree with ease.

Old-growth forest is more fire-resistant — and in fact, this is one of the arguments for saving old growth from the saws — but as David Ferris points out in his poignant essay for Greenwire, even the very oldest are now being wrecked by blazes. Ferris tells the story of last August, when the CZU Lightning Complex Fire “climbed the ladder of lesser trees and into the crowns of the giants,” ruining redwoods that had formed “an unbroken living line from today’s Silicon Valley to the times of the Bible.” Ferris peppers his stories with these jaw-dropping facts — the trees in question are up to 2,500 years old, 350 feet tall, and have six chromosomes compared to a mere two in us humans — they are simply incredible. He also paints a vivid picture of their home, a “cloud forest, dripping and primeval,” steeped in time. In contrast, the story of the fire is tense and fast, the drama played out through the eyes of Cal Fire’s Dan Bonfante, who almost lost his life.

As the forest burns every year, the humans who live near the redwoods will experience heat waves, and evacuations, and blackouts, and droughts, and mudslides, and smoke hanging in the air. Creatures that don’t measure their lives in millennia could find their life spans nastier and shorter.

The shaggy, patient trees that form an unbroken living line from today’s Silicon Valley to the times of the Bible are in ruins. The sprouts bursting from their trunks suggest that the shaded cathedrals could return, though the healing may take so long that no one now alive will see them. Today’s adults will take their children to Big Basin, and to landscapes across the West where once-verdant forests have been withered by fire. They will point and talk, not of the desolation that is, but of the Eden that used to be — and could be again, one distant day.

“In my lifetime, yeah, it’s not going to look like it used to look,” said Kerbavaz with a shrug. “But in the next lifetime, probably.”