Tolkien knew; Ursula Le Guin figured it out; the poets certainly know: The wisdom of the trees is more ancient and pervasive than our own. My insights have little depth compared with those of the oak grove—my bower—surrounding my house. The forest has been talking to itself, as itself, for 450 million years. It knows best, and it knows all. The fantasy parlance of the Entmoot isn’t quite so fantastical. As it turns out, there’s scientific affirmation of exquisite tree communications. Trees are fluent in sustainability. We should listen.
Trees tell stories. Natural historians, their annual rings log the lean years and the lustrous; drought and deluge; fire, infestation and proliferation. They tell us their compass orientation and even the direction of the prevailing winds and weather over time. We can count the heartwood of their infancy, of their adolescence and of their dotage, and plot our own against this concentric archive of just how time has passed.
There’s a forest telegraphy occurring beneath our feet, I’ve learned, through the massive and microscopic fungal networks that translate the needs of one tree species to another; that sponsors arboreal communiqués far beyond the visible root system. It signals and antidotes disease. It runs the mutual aid society that undergirds the forest’s health care system. Yes, forests are socialist, or to use a less humanly fraught term, mutualist. Though there is such a thing as tree-species dominance and competition, forests mostly know how to get along. They thrive on diversity, and the removal or failure of one species can affect societal health. So they have a “non-hierarchical network between numerous kinds of plants,” as Robert Macfarlane explains in Underland.
Macfarlane has a way of blending the scientific and poetic parlance on this topic. Arborists and ecologists refer to the “understorey,” he writes, “the life that exists between the forest floor and the tree canopy… Metaphorically, though, the ‘understorey’ is also the sum of the entangled, ever-growing narratives, histories, ideas and words that interweave to give a wood or forest its diverse life in culture.” I would say we are healthiest when we identify as participants in this understorey—when we achieve and embrace membership, for it is certainly thrust upon us regardless.
Underground, among the hair roots, there’s a conversation going on. Trees talk, commiserate, share, protect one another. Is there more to this anthropomorphism? Can one say trees have empathy? Do they mourn? What is affection between trees? If left alone the forests know what to do. Experiments with radioactive carbon isotopes have proven how trees redistribute resources. They nurture, mother, even recognize kin. There is wisdom in the life of trees that we—such newcomers to the notion of planetary ecology—have only just begun to understand. Perhaps our survival lies in imitation of the mutuality of the trees. They show great humanity. Or, is arborpomorphism a word? Should be.
We have our own root system and verbal mycorrhizal network in poems, our verbal understorey of feeling, wisdom, voices of ancestors, and companionship and interconnection that transfers resources. Poetry too is mutuality. For me, it is the meta-arboreal realm of my species, where the information stored and transmitted by our poets runs like sap from human to human, wizened sugar maple to sapling. Poetry is an isotope!
Howard Nemerov’s paean to trees, for instance:
To stand for the constant presence of process
And always to seem the same;
To be steady as a rock and always trembling,
Having the hard appearance of death
With the soft, fluent nature of growth,
One’s Being deceptively armored,
One’s Becoming deceptively vulnerable...
Or W.S. Merwin, mourning an old walnut tree of his acquaintance:
you and the seasons spoke the same language
and all these years I have looked through your limbs
to the river below and the roofs and the night
and you were the way I saw the world
Everyone ought to have a favorite tree. My daughter’s is the lone oak in Arthur Wardwell’s pasture. Mine was the ancient white pine I used to climb in my grandmother’s suburban yard. Each summer I measured my strength and daring with a climb, higher and higher, in its august branches. The smell of its pitch on my hands and the drone of cicadas are deep summer memories. Now I love a copper beech, older than human settlement in my town.
My walks in the woods are altered. I know I tread on synapses and discourse. My trees are always gossiping and commemorating: me, the farmer who was their prior “owner,” their response to the clearing and harvesting and reseeding of their own domains. They respect one another’s space in the canopy, and embrace one another’s need of root-space more than I do. I like Joseph Campbell’s view: “The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature.” And Richard Wilbur says, “How much we are the woods we wander in.” It’s a tree view. I’d like it to be so. In my mind, it’s a moot point.
Todd R. Nelson lives in Penobscot, Maine, among oaks, maples, poplars and hackmatack.
Grilled cheese sandwiches. I could eat one every day. The panini machine is always on the counter. My homemade bread awaits.
. . .
Ariel Nelson, Todd Nelson’s daughter, is an illustrator and designer, bread lover, competitive scrabble player, professional letter writer and nomad (currently in Maryland).
And my guilty pleasure is a hard one! I’d say eating a slice of apple pie for breakfast...can you tell I come from a family that bakes?