What’s it about?
Thomas Pakenham looks at the literature on trees, new and old, and at recent discoveries that show trees can communicate with each other through underground networks connected by fungi.
Why Trees have feelings too:
- The Oak tree has been a symbol of power and strength since classical times. Britain, the US and twelve other European countries now claim it as their national tree.
- Oak can survive for around 600 to a 1,000 years. Exact estimates are impossible, since the oldest oaks are hollow, their inner rings missing. Within Britain a few, around 500-600 years of age, still stand proud. It’s possible for visitors to enter into the interior of the Bowthorpe Oak in Lincolnshire. Diner parties for 17 people were recorded inside it in the eighteenth century.
- In the 17 Century, John Every wrote a best seller on trees, Slyva, or a Discourse on foreign trees. Despite many attempts, few books have matched it in elegance and authority. A hundred years after it was first published it was reissued with elegant copperplate illustrations and new commentary.
- The European ash and horse-chestnut are threatened by diseases from Asia. Parks and forest across Europe and North America are being destroyed. In Denmark 80 percent of European ashes have already gone. It may already be too late to stop. A combination of fungus, beetles and bacteria means many wood-lined roads, green parks, and sheltered towns will be left bare.
- One solution is to reintroduce Asian varieties of the same trees, as it is believed these are immune. It will take many years to find out.
- A forest in Hummel, a small village in the Eifel Mountains in Germany, has been found to have an extensive network, called a mycorrizha. Fungi connect trees of different species by passing electrical signals along their roots. The trees communicate by exchanging carbon, often helping others in time of need and receiving the favor back in turn. They also exchange vital information. Alerting their children and neighbors to opportunities and threats.
The oak has always been admired for its staying power…. No other tree is so self-possessed, so evidently at one with the world. Unlike the beech, horse chestnut or sycamore, whose branches reach up towards the sky, the solid, craggy trunk of a mature oak spreads out, as if with open arms, to create a vast hemisphere of thick, clotted leaves.
It is this copious canopy that provides a home for an astonishing number of small insects, birds, animals, lichens, ferns, and fungi. A great oak is a world in itself. The King of the Trees, the head, heart and habitat of an entire civilization.
Trees have appeared in poetry as well ancient texts (the Oak was the tree of Zeus, the Greek King of Gods). John Clare wrote of the splendid sycamore, for example. Its sticky leaves were a great gift to the world. Percy Shelley described sycamore leaves as “yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red.”
“If Winter comes, can spring be far behind?”
Take Away Points and Context
- The new books match the original Sylva in their lyrical descriptions and new discoveries, reminding us of trees inherent beauty, gifts for survival, and cultural associations.
- In their own way trees have feelings. They communicate with each other and help each other in times of need. Living their lives in harmony with the ecosystem and each other.
- The message that these books carry is the same as Evelyn’s three centuries ago. We need trees for many reasons, grab your spade and plant one today.
by Fiona Stafford
Yale University Press, 287 pp., $30.00
by Peter Wohlleben, translated from the German by Jane Billinghurs
Greystone/David Suzuki Institute, 272 pp., $24.95
Why Trees have feelings too. Your comments welcome below.