Author Talk with David Haskell

Author Talk with David Haskell
The Songs of Trees
Talks / Lecture

Recording date: 
9 August 2017

Author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Forest Unseen visits with nature’s most magnificent networkers — trees. David Haskell spent two years visiting 12 sites around the world revealing the surprising—and surprisingly fascinating—arboreal secrets hidden in the canopies of ordinary trees. With his deep understanding of the complexity of trees and the way they shape their ecosystems, Haskell will make you look at trees in an entirely new way.

In association with Black Inc Books, Bendigo Writers Festival and Byron Writers Festival.

Transcript

Speakers: Candice Cappe (C), Genevieve Jacobs (G), David Haskell (D)

Location: National Library of Australia

Date: 9 August 2017

C:           Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the National Library of Australia. I'm Candice Cappe, Manager of Sales and Promotion at the National Library here. As we begin, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, I thank their Elders past and present for caring for this land we are now privileged to call home. I'm delighted to see so many faces here tonight to hear from David Haskell as he talks about his Pulitzer Prize nominated book, The Songs of Trees, stories from nature's great connectors.

I think it's fair to say that David may have one of the best jobs in the world. What better way to spend your time than developing a better understanding of trees, forming a deeper relationship with nature and uncovering the relationships that trees have with each other. Through his exploration of the biological networks that surround all species including humans and trees, in his writing David enriches our understanding of biology, human nature and ethics. David is a Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies at the University of The South in Tennessee. He is also a Googenheim Fellow. His book, The Forest Unseen, in 2012, won the 2014 Best Book Award from the National Academies, the National Outdoor Book Award and the Read Environmental Writing Award. It is a great privilege to have David here with us tonight.

Joining us for the conversation is evening is Genevieve Jacobs. Genevieve is well known to Canberra audiences as a presenter on 666 ABC Canberra and she is, of course, a much loved friend of the National Library. Please join me in welcoming David Haskell and Genevieve Jacobs.

G:           Thank you so much, Candice, it's lovely to be here, lovely to see so many familiar faces so I feel like I've reached that point in my career on the radio where I go into these rooms and I know about a third of you. That's a lovely, lovely thing for me as the conversation begins and wonderful to be here with David, with whom I had the privilege of a chat on the radio today. I think of him as someone who leaps deftly between genres and across expectations because this is a really magical book. It's a lyrical gorgeous piece of poetry, grounded very firmly in good solid science and that makes it a very special thing, I think, even within the world of science writing, it's a thing of beauty and a thing of learning at the same time.

I'm going to talk to David for about 35, 40 minutes or so and then we'll turn it over to you. Now because this is being recorded I would ask you to just wait until the roving microphone gets to you, catch my eye, put your hand up and we'll get the roving microphone to you. And I think we're in for an absolutely fascinating conversation. So let's begin, David, good evening to you.

 

D:           Good evening, it's a delight to be here.

 

G:           I want you to begin by telling us when you first started looking at trees and thinking about trees. Observation is such a fundamental facet of science but when did the looking begin for you?

 

D:           I think as a child and this is an experience many of us have had, of course, of having a favourite tree in the backyard that we like to climb up and sit in or listen to and poke around in. As a kid I didn't have any particular focused way of making my observations, in fact they were anything but focused. I loved to just explore and poke around and not just with trees but in the little pond at the end of the garden and pull the algae out and see what kind of creatures were living in there. And that sense of curiosity and desire to explore the lives of other species then led me to study biology in college and then through into more advanced study.

And then as a teacher my hope is to convey some of that excitement of discovery and of interaction with other species to students for whom that's perhaps something that they've developed just a little bit or that has not been part of their own trajectory up to that point. There are plenty of students who don't have those opportunities available to them in their childhood now and to open those doors a little bit.

 

G:           I think that many people don't quite connect the idea of looking in a scientific sense with the other kind of looking that you invite us to do, which is to encounter trees, to encounter the natural world with all our senses, to embrace it very fully. So I'm curious about how you developed that way of paying what you call repeated sensory attention to trees.

 

D:           Yes and there are parts to that; one if the sensory attention which is opening the senses to that particular place at that moment and hopefully leaving behind some preconceptions, what am I going to smell here, what am I going to see or hear at this spot. Well we can predict some of that but often those predictions then focus us and turn us away from the other things that are happening at that moment. So opening the senses is part of it and then doing that at a particular tree or a particular patch of forest again and again and again over months and then over years is the other, I think the other really important part of this practice because the place, of course, changes, my perceptions of it change. Perhaps - I hope my understanding of the stories at that place mature just a little bit and I change in relation to it.

Of course our positions, intellectual positions, our emotional state, how we - what we're filtering in to our bodies and what we're excluding, all these change by moment by moment let alone over years. So the open senses and the repeated attention of the two things that I try to do in my practice, writing, preparing to write and also as a teacher what I try to offer my students. And I came to that conviction through - the conviction that that's an important path forward through a number of different avenues; one is as a scientist, of course. One has to make detailed observations and often those are very organised, particularly in the later stages of science when one has a hypothesis. The organisation is a data sheet or an Excel spreadsheet or something to gather a particular series of observation on one place in time or one process.

But before that organisation in science it was curiosity with going into the world and saying what, oh I hadn't noticed that before or here's a paper that someone wrote that made me think about this bird or this plant or this human interaction in a different way. And so the process of opening, I think, is really important to creativity in the science and of course in many other fields of human knowledge and striving and innovation.

So scientific routes are part of the practice and then there's also a meditative strand that all of the religious and philosophical traditions that I'm aware of have a practice of encouraging people to sit and be with something over and over again, letting go of judgement. That might be the breath or it might be gazing on that sacred icon or being in a particular place. Those practices take different forms, they're explained using very different languages, but they all have - they're called a notion that this is something that will help us to understand.

So I wanted to draw together that meditative contemplative component with the scientific understanding and with my love of natural history, of understanding some of the details of the lives of creatures. Put all that together in a single project where instead of these being separate things in my life and the work that I do, allow them to converge and see what happens.

 

G:           I just want to give you a sense of what this is like for those who haven't had a chance to come to grips with the book. And, David, I just want you to read perhaps the first paragraph on the first page, and this relates to the forests of Ecuador, the Amazonian forests of Ecuador and in particular to the Sabo tree which is sacred to the Waorani people of the Amazon. And just that first paragraph, if you would.

 

D:           So, yes, so the chapter begins with Sabo, near the Tiputini River in Ecuador and it gives a lat-long, so if you know it you can look it up on Google Maps.

Moss has taken flight, lifting itself on wings so think that light barely notices as it passes through. The sun leaves not a colour but a suggestion. Leaflets spread and the moss plants soar on long strands. A fibrous anchor tethers each flier to the swarm of fungi and algae that coats every tree branch. Unlike their crouched and bowed relatives in the rest of the world, these mosses live where water has no skin, no boundary. Here the air is water. Mosses grow like filamentous seaweeds in an open ocean.

 

G:           Beautiful, isn't it. Exquisite. And the next sentence is, the forest presses its mouth to every creature and exhales. I thought it was one of the most marvellous lines I've read in quite some time <laughter>.

You've anchored this around the Sabo tree and it's important to begin here because embodied in this tree is one of the theories that courses through this book and that is that we're rather prone to seeing the tree alone as a distinct entity but it's not, it is an indivisible part of a web of life that surrounds us and the Sabo is a brilliant example of that.

 

D:           Yes, the Sabo tree, it's a giant in the rainforests so this is the most - one of the most biologically diverse places on the face of the earth, in fact according to some analyses, the most bio-diverse place. And this tree seems to be an exemplar of individuality, just standing there with its big trunk towering over all the other trees there and yet that individuality is an illusion. It turns out that tree is made from relationships, it's not just connected to other creates, it's made from those connections. And what I mean by that is the connections inside its leaves, inside its roots, its connections between it and other species. If those connections end, if they're severed for some reason, the tree's life ends. So life emerges both in the long-term sense of evolution and ecology but also in the moment by moment biochemical microbiological sense, life emerges from and is sustained by relationship.

And the Sabo's a great example of this because you cannot miss the lesson there because the tree is covered in bromeliads and orchids and monkeys and birds and little films of algae, you can barely see the tree because of the network that's hugging it and surround it and sometimes bringing big branches down to the forest floor below because of the weight of other creatures there.

This is true also for other trees and it's also true for our own bodies in many ways. And yet this - it's not so obvious. I started the book with the Sabo because it was such a great example and such an example filled with sensory exuberance, the smells and the variegations of light and the sounds in this place were just extraordinary.

 

G:           Tell me what happens when you listen to trees because this is one of the premises of this exploration, that you will literally plug sensors into trees and don headphones and whether it's somewhere like Ecuador or Japan or Georgia or Tennessee or indeed the upper west side of Manhattan, you listen to the trees. What are you listening for?

 

D:           Yeah so the listening happens at several levels; one is the most obvious level of just - and in fact this is the main practice, to show up to the tree, sit down and shut up for a change and just listen, what is the sound of the wind in this tree, how does the rain sound as it's falling through the tree's leaves and how does that sound different from the sound earlier in the year or in some other season. And what do those sounds tell us about the life of the tree and the life of its community. Those sounds are also the sounds of insects and of birds and they're also - the process of listening is about listening to human voices.

So all of these trees, and one of the things that ties the book together, I think, is that wherever I went, whether it was in a seemingly remote forest or in the middle of the city, these people's lives and trees' lives were completely intertwined. Sometimes in obvious ways, sometimes in more unexpected ways. And so listening to a tree also means listening to the voices in the human community of people whose lives are very closely connected to the tree, whether those people are farmers or foresters or Indigenous people whose lives have been connected with the tree over thousands of years, or city dwellers who've just moved to the city or who have lived there for a while, who are interacting with trees on the street.

So the listening is partly listening to the sounds of the tree as we would think of tree sounds with wind and leaves and rain, some of it is listening to people and then there is also some - putting some microphones and sensors onto trees so I can detect the ultrasonic pops and fizzles that happen in the twigs and branches of trees as they grow and as drought strikes them.

There's a little bit of an inner life happening there that reveals the dynamism, literally the minute by minute changes happening within the tree that we can't discern with our ears because our ears cut off their ability to hear at high frequencies. These are ultrasonic sounds. And then subsonic sounds, very slow swayings and rumbles that one can detect either by putting a little accelerometer onto a tree or even just by putting our hands against the tree. If you put your hand or even a cone, put your ear to the tree and listen or feel - listen with your fingertips you can feel the movement of the tree and if there are particularly low frequency sounds you can detect them through the detector, through the dozens or maybe dozen different nerve types that are in our hands that mostly we don't use for hearing, at least not consciously but we can apply them to our friends, the trees.

 

G:           One of the most intriguing arguments that you make about this, and it's drawn a lot of attention as this book has become very successful, is that the trees are - I'm hesitating to say sentient beings but they're making a constant series of complex decisions every second, every microsecond, they are monitoring and responding to their environment at multiple, multiple levels at all times. There's a huge level of complexity going on and your suggestion is that we can look at this as a kind of intelligence.

 

D:           Yes, absolutely. I think that's indisputable that trees have a kind of intelligence, as does the forest itself, the forest community. And what I mean by that is not an intelligence that's formed in the same way as human intelligence is from a series of interacting nerves. Those nerves are interacting with other species. The gut bacteria on our skin and in our guts affect the texture of our thoughts and ways that we're only starting to understand. But our thoughts, of course, are dominated by a nervous system.

The trees' thoughts and by thought I mean their memories, both short term memories second by second and memories over seasons and years, the decisions that they make about how to grow, how to respond to the chemical signals of bacteria and fungi around them. How to sense their environment, how to smell the odour coming from other trees and then either respond or not respond. These are all ways in which the tree is sensing its environment, making decisions and then reaching out to communicate. There's also creativity. The tree is making decisions that change day by day and over the seasons in order to allow its body to flow into the environment in the best way possible.

So these are all things that when we do them, with our nervous system we call this thought and intelligence and mind, I think that we can see those same phenomena happening in trees and if we want to have a pastimony of language we could use those same terms to refer to how - what's happening in the tree.

But the tree's intelligence is much more diffuse. Ours is all held up and knotted together in a cranium. The tree is - suffuses these decisions throughout its body and in fact some of those memories and decisions and sensors - acts of sensing the environment are happening in relation to other creatures so the root tips are haloed by bacteria and fungi and those fungi and bacteria are communicating at a genetic level. And those decisions therefore are made in relationship to other species, so some of the intelligence of a tree is in fact outsourced, if you like, into the community, just as the same is true for our own, we - it's - our intelligence is also present in the ethereal world of culture; what do - how do I know the things I know partly through direct observation but mostly through conversation with other people.

 

G:           If the tree exists in this extraordinarily complex network of life, that goes beyond the boundaries of life itself, it transcends what we understand of death and in many senses there's a story, a chapter about a Green Ash; your observation of a Green Ash in death rather than in life, and I'd love you to talk me through the way that you've understood that process as being part of the greater web of life itself.

 

D:           Yes, so this is a tree that taught me a great deal, it's an enormous great Ash tree that fell near my home in Tennessee. So a great big log, it fell in a windstorm. It had been attacked by fungi and weakened a little bit but it was the windstorm that toppled it.

And I thought, well this will be interesting to see how this tree starts to decompose but it will be a rather quiet process, not much is going to happen here. And every single time I go to this tree there's some new creature making use of this fallen log in some way or another. So this is the tree that startled me the most for the amount of life that is gathered in and on and around the fallen body of the tree. And in fact its afterlife is just as rich and just as full of connections as the life before its death, if you like.

 

G:           Well I read it and I thought, is it alive or dead. It's really hard to make that finite line because the tree in death is absolutely in life.

 

D:           Absolutely, and this is - and the book gives all sorts of examples of this, the insects that show up. The minute the tree falls there are insects that sniff the smell of rent wood and broken bark and show up and lay their eggs. They then bring other creatures with them and then the others follow on top of that and the mammals use it to travel from one part of the forest to another and they let - put their scat on top of it and the scat has seeds and the seeds then colonise the tree trunk. And so all these wonderful ecological stories. And indeed the boundary between life and death for a big tree is not very clear at all.

Eventually of course that tree's - both the energy that's embodied in the log and all the material, all the atoms that are present there, and all the information that's present in that tree, all that it knows from being in that place, all of that will eventually disappear and suffuse into the forest into a different form. So there is a process of dying, it's just very drawn out and that death is bringing about new life in the forest in a way that the tree does not control. When it was standing it controlled many of the relationships it was involved with. Now that control has been vastly decentralised but there's still a network of life centred on the tree.

 

G:           And interestingly of course if we consider the vast environmental implications of what you're saying, coal is petrified carbon, the very coal burning process which might destroy our ecosystems is cannibalising the resource of the trees in a millennial sense.

 

D:           Yeah so human culture's been tied up with burning wood for - ever since the get-go and this is - ever since we started becoming humans and even before the human species evolved, taking pieces of broken wood, burning them to cook our food and then to provide a place for us to gather around and tell stories and let our imaginations flow. It turns out the sound of burning wood unlocks something in the human mind and in human culture that allows us to be human, to be that creative species that loves conversation. And so we're re-enacting in some way we should have a little burning piece of wood out here.

And then that got industrialised, of course, and then we discovered these buried stores of trees below the ground, we call them coal, fossilised, photosynthetic sunlight that we're now releasing, of course, at a very rapid rate back to the environment, but still in some ways reliving that initial relationship to trees which is our life and particularly our social life, our culture is powered through a relationship with trees moving from one form to another and in the case of coal they are indeed very long buried trees. Of course we face some very important decisions about what to do with coal but of course it's not an infinite resource.

At some point we will need to renegotiate our relationship back to dealing with living trees because the coal with either run out or we'll decide to leave some of it buried in the ground. But I suspect that trees will still be at the heart of much human social interaction as long as we're on this planet.

Even a book, how do we connect other people's thoughts, it's through flattened sheets of cellulose, this is a tree connecting us one to another. When we're listening to music, what's the mediator there, it's wood in a violin or in a piano. So we're connecting one to another in all these different ways and trees are often there at the heart.

 

G:           Let's talk then a little more about the level of threat that we pose to trees and in doing so the biosphere, how much significance there is in the way that we are harvesting and using trees. And you speak about our capacity now to monitor this on a global scale, to have a very real understanding of where the trees are fading, of how little they ebb back again and how critically that's changing the face of the planet.

 

D:           Yes and I think - so human society formed in relationship to trees and I think that's a very important relationship and one that we need to do well. So to use wood well, to use paper well, these are things that we shouldn't be turning our backs on, we should be embracing good work in that realm.

The statistics on how we are relating to forest, though, are indicated we're not doing an astounding job of that, at least in some places. In the first dozen years of the millennium we lost 2.3 million square kilometres of forest but - and only 800,000 regrew. So that's not a very good balance sheet.

And some of that is indeed from logging. Some of it, though, is from climate change and from fires and processes that are moving into forests in a way that regardless of how we're using wood or not the forest is burning on the cycle, say, in the boreal forest across large parts of Russia and Canada, the boreal forest is burning away and not regrowing because the climate regime has shifted to a point where climate - excuse me, fire cycles have resulted in a denudation of the landscape and trees don't have the opportunity to come back there. And I think good forestry, good land management, good ecology of part - of what we need to bring back those forests that are really struggling.

 

G:           Do you think that that's a consequence, as we said earlier, of us seeing trees as distinct objects rather than part of a network of life?

 

D:           I think that's part of it, the notion that life is a series of objects, of atoms, if you like. And also the notion that we are separate from it and somehow above from it  of course then leads to an attitude that is to use it up and throw it away, there'll always be some more, rather than an attitude of belonging. How can we belong within this community of life and work with our cousins, the trees. Literally they're our blood kin. Go back a billion, billion and a half years there was a cell that split, some of those daughter cells became us and some became trees. It's a crazy thought but that is ultimately what Darwinism is showing us, that we are actually kin to these other creatures.

And all other creatures make their lives by using - eating other species, using them, manipulating environmental - we need to do that. There are so many of us on the planet with such large appetites that we - the ethical question is how do we do it well, both for the benefit of ourselves and those humans who will come after us but also for the benefits of the rest of the community of life.

And the answers to these questions depends so much on the particularities of individual situations but if our response to those questions does not involve listening to the land, we're going to come up with some rather distorted views of what could work for us.

 

G:           There are other more subtle threats. And old friend who is a devoted silver culturalist emailed me this afternoon in preparation for this and he said, a major threat to the mightiest trees that we have left can be the people who love trees. So cheap air travel, people with complex soles in their shoes mean that very, very destructive. Things like phytophthora, sudden oak death, things that can transplanted from California to Canberra in a day.

 

D:           Yeah.

 

G:           And my friend, Peter, said, the magnificent Kauris of New Zealand, for example, are being destroyed by phytophthora which probably arrived on hiking boots.

 

D:           Mmm-hmm.

 

G:           So the kind of society we have constructed is antithetical, even when we love those trees with a passion.

 

D:           Yes, so it's about - so movement of people from one continent to another which, of course, is occurring at a vastly higher rate than it has ever happened before, is - it's not just moving hiking books, it's also moving packing crates and great big shipping containers full of all sorts of material that's usually packed up with at least some wood-based products. All of that movement is moving diseases like phytophthora, insects from one continent to another and certainly in North America the forests that I know best, some of the most immediate threats are species arrived from other continents, an insect that arrives or a fungus that arrives and just takes out an entire tree species or 99.9 percent of that tree species.

So indeed human movement around the world is, in some ways, recreating Pangaea, the great once super continent with a resulting decrease in biological diversity, homogenisation of diversity. And knowing that then our task is to say how, given that things are moving around the world, we're not going to stop all the shipping containers moving up from Australia to Asia or from Asia to North America and Europe and so forth. How do we have practices in place that minimise the risk of one species arriving on another continent and wreaking havoc.

Ultimately it's going to involve less movement, but given that we are a mobile species, we've always been mobile so this is why - how we colonise all continents except sub-Saharan in Africa where the human species evolved. We've spread over the entire globe because we have this curiosity about what's over that hill and we want to go there or sometimes maybe it's not curiosity, we can't stand what's on this side of the hill so we're going go there. Regardless, whether it's on foot or in a plane or in a cargo ship, we've been a mobile species for hundreds of thousands of years and in fact the homo species that came before homo sapiens were also very mobile and moved across much of the - at least the Asian subcontinent from Africa.

So if we want to care for forests, if we want to care for grasslands, other ecosystems, we need to slow that movement and there are ways we can do this, we don't have to be using untreated packing material taken straight from Asian forests, taking it and pumping it in on the east coast of the United States, which is where most of the insects species that have ravaged the east - the forests in the eastern US have come from.

I don't know which are the particular threats in Canberra, right here, but I would imagine they are also from another continent, also arrived through various routes having to do with human trade and the desire for humans to meet other people and be in conversation, there's a lot of good in movement. The question is how can we have that good without leaving a trail of destruction behind.

 

G:           Well perhaps one of the ways that we enhanced that is by understanding the way that you've chosen to communicate is extraordinarily lyrical, it's very fluid but very precise, as I suggested at the beginning. I wonder how your form of science communication of writing poetry is viewed by those who come from both sides of that equation, how comfortable people feel with the way you've chosen to communicate.

 

D:           Yeah, so the books are written for people who are curious about human relationship with trees or how forests work and so forth. So the book is not written for specialists and my discipline within the academy, and my hope was to take some of those amazing stories to integrate them with my experience and stories from people that I meet on my travels and then offer them for readers who are curious about the world and our relationship with other species.

Within the literary community people have been surprisingly delighted by that, it's refreshing to perhaps hear some stories that are not all focused on us. I love reading novels and non-fiction works that are centred on human culture, but we live in a world that has all sorts of fascinating tales of other species. So telling those I think is some of my colleagues in the English department and so forth love reading, taking a break from student essays about their process of self-discovery and reading about salamanders or create - in the scientific community there's, I think, an increasing recognition that there is a role for taking stories from obscure scientific journals, wrapping them up in narrative of place and then offering them out into the world. Not as a replication of that scientific process but a way of sharing it and I think most of my colleagues are happy to have that happen, particularly if I don't get it wrong and of course that's what I spend a lot of time doing, talking to people and reading papers to make sure what I'm presenting is as close to our current understanding of things as possible. In 10 years our understanding will evolve, of course.

And then there are people who say, well when you stop doing science and particularly publishing lots of peer review papers, you've taken the soft route out because you weren't good enough to hold up your head within the scientific community. And I think that's an absurd notion that there are multiple ways of querying the world, puzzling over the world. And one of the - particularly in this second book, one of the things I've tried to do is ask how all this scientific knowledge interacts with ethics, with environmental ethics.

We're seeing - we have two parallel tracks of thought and certainly there are interesting conversations that have happened over the years there but I want to put these together and say, this scientific work matters and it also provides - poses some rather difficult ethical questions so let's put these together in a way that I hope is a contribution to that particular conversation field.

 

G:           And I think in western thought we are so hopelessly committed to this idea of binaries and it seems so hard to break out of our silos of thought to leap across the genres, across the fields of study and knowledge and yet for other cultures and to take us back to Ecuador, you describe the spirituality of the Waorani as being earthbound and earth-centred and radiating out from that, but encompassing everything around it.

 

D:           Yes and you know, the human body is an integrated being. We don't have an art department we have biology here and chemistry there, no, we just are what we are, all wrapped up together in complicated ways. And I think epistemology, our ethics, ought to reflect that and I think that is present within the western tradition, there's a notion that discipline should be in conversation with each other and that too much subdividing and pigeon-holing ultimately is not going to be a good thing. It's good to go deep into some seams but then you have to come up to the surface to look around and see how what you're doing is related to others.

But of course that way of being for people who are in the forest and the Waorani have lived in the forest for thousands of years, you don't have the option of just being in your narrow way of thinking and then coming up once every 10 years, because you won't be able to eat, you won't - your life will not be possible. And so there the interdisciplinary nature of life, if you like, is a necessity because food is derived day by day from the forest, not by a huge fossil field subsidy, I agriculture it somewhere else and I only think about it for two half hour periods a day at lunch and dinner, open the fridge and there it is. No, you have to be in relation with these species, integrating all your senses, your knowledge and your conversation with the community every day.

And I think we're at a time now where we need to do that for ourselves in small communities but also at a national, international level because we're in a forested world and a world that is also calling on us to say, you're not going to be around here for too much longer unless you sort that out, how are you going to feed yourself, clothe yourself, get on with your neighbours, these questions that humans have been dealing with for hundreds of thousands of years. How are we going to do that on a global scale.

 

G:           Let's turn over to you for questions, and I feel absolutely certain that you have some. We're just going to get the microphones, so if you would like to put up your hand we'll - catch my eye and turn the conversation over to the floor. And the first question will be down here, if you just - yeah, just over here.

 

Audience: Oh, David, you talk superbly about listening to trees. Is there any sense in which you can take your questions to trees and get answers?

 

<Laughter>

D:           I think it depends on the question, it's a free thought. My process has been - has mostly been to try not to bring a question to the tree, but say if I'm going to try to understand how people and trees are related to one another on a street corner in Manhattan or in an olive grove in the West Bank or in Jerusalem, is to go to that place and having read up, of course, a lot about it and talk to people there, but to listen and say, well, what are the points of attention, what is the narrative here as it centres on the tree and then let the questions come from that. So I find that I have this process of listening stimulates hundreds of questions from the place. And then I pose those questions to people, to the scientific literature, to myself, and then coming back to the tree with a focus set of curiosity, while how does the olive tree actually deal with drought, what am I seeing in July that I didn't see in November in its leaves and so in some ways that's bringing the question back.

There's an asymmetry, of course, when we form human friendships and engaging human conversation, we're mostly speaking the same language, although we live in quite different narratives. So we think we're hearing each other more than I think actually are. But with a tree that aymmetry's enormous, of course, because I listen in a particular way and understand the world through a human way and the tree is not, as far as I'm aware, responding to me from its diffuse intelligence. It is interacting with me, I'm affecting the tree in various ways, I bring memories away from the tree, I bring a molecular connection to the tree by inhaling its aromatic hydrocarbons and so forth that are coming out of its leaves. And I'm leaving my imprint on the tree, my microbiological imprint, chemical imprint and the imprint of my presence ecologically. So there is a dialogue but it's happening in languages that are untranslatable at present and so I'm trying to listen through some of that but it's a very imperfect conversation.

 

G:           I think the tree might be challenging our notions of human primacy, the tree doesn't care about us nearly as much as we might imagine it does.

 

D:           That's correct.

 

G:           Who's got another question, hands up? Yeah, down here.

 

Audience: Thank you both for a very interesting discussion. David, I'll take you back to the green ash that fell and you talked about the information that was available to all of the other creatures. What about - what sort of information is available back to the other trees and is it the near neighbours or does that spread further and is any of that information translated as learnings as to what's happened or what's happening?

 

D:           Yeah, so that's a good question. So the tree over its lifetime, I think there's a great deal of loss that happens. So the tree over its lifetime in order to live to be, say, 200 years old, which is probably roughly how old this tree was, that tree has to live well within that place, in other words understand the physical conditions over many seasons, get along with biological neighbours or at least hold off the pathogens for a while, communicate with other trees through root systems and that sharing information and material with other trees. And so when that tree dies and those - many of those connections cease to exist, that particular understanding of that point in the forest then disappears, that information is lost. But new information comes to being because other species are drawn to that place to use the tree as a place to live, and for them to form their own understanding.

Now we know so little about how, say, the mycohhhizal network which is the underground fungal network that connects trees, and the above ground chemical network that's connecting trees. We know that information and material is flowing among trees, sometimes that flow is asymmetrical, older trees sending material out to younger ones, at least in some cases. But how all that plays out in the complexity of a forest is we just do not know. So we're just hearing the first glimmering, the first little signs of, oh there's a great conversation happening here that we had no idea about.

When I was an undergrad the view of a forest was, it was a fundamentally competitive place and it is, it is very competitive in many ways. Trees competing with each other for light and nutrients, but it's also enormously networked in a co-operative way and that is a shift in our understanding that's completely shaking up plant ecology. And I think now there are a lot of stories being projected onto that, oh the forest is a place of infinite co-operation and we have the grandmother trees nurturing the youngsters and so on and I think a lot of that is going a little too far because there's also - everything we know about other biological networks indicates that there can be tensions there.

There are going to be exploiters and parasites as well as co-operators. And what evolution does is negotiate through that so the trees find a way through - just like the human social networks, there is a lot of beauty and joy and co-operation and a lot of people who will rob you blind at given half of chance, the same is true in the rest of biology.

And the question of how we interpret this in particular I get uneasy when we have gendered explanations of this, say grandmother trees. In fact trees are all from aphrodites - not all trees are from aphrodites but the trees that are being referred to are from aphrodites so the grandmother, grandfather trees and so they're imposing a binary gendered view on the forest that in fact what the forest is telling us is that many species, the notion of male and female in separate bodies doesn't work.

And so in these stories that we tell I think we need to be really difficult about - careful about translating these difficult signs into narratives and those narratives have the potential to bring with them baggage that is not helpful in other realms and I think that's particularly true around sexuality and gender right now as we discuss ecology and other species and of course that's an issue that is all over the headlines of the newspapers like right now, here, and of course has been a very important issue in the US and is still very actively debated.

 

G:           Well one of the things that we don't understand profoundly is the mycorrhizal role, the role of fungi is almost completely unknown in how a forest functions and yet it's probably absolutely vital, isn't it?

 

D:           It is absolutely vital and in fact if you break those networks as, say, through application of the wrong herbicides you can wipe out the forest from a patch of mountainside. And we're in the very early days, what's remarkable is that massive amounts of material are flowing from one tree to another. So photosynthesis in tree A can find its way over into tree B and we've known that now for several decades. How that plays out in the network of a forest, don't know. In fact what is the structure of the network in the forest. So if you were to draw a circuit diagram, this species of bacteria connected to this fungus in this tree, I know of no circuit diagram, if you like, or no complete mapping of the network of a forest. Even in a very small scale, there are few studies of bacterial species that get close.

So we don't even know the nature of the connections let alone how those connections today flow both ways all the time and how are those connections being played out. So it's an enormously exciting time because we're about to learn an enormous amount about tree culture, if you like, tree communication and how that then plays out over time.

And I hope we will be cautious in telling tales of that because the forest is far more complex, I think, than we can possibly imagine or simplify in neat and tidy narratives. It's going to be messy and it's going to involve a lot of brokenness and a lot of interconnection.

 

G:           We've got time for a couple more questions. It's just wonderful language. Yes, here. Just right there.

 

Audience: I have two questions. When you talked about the intelligence of the cells in the trees in terms of responding to and reacting to their environment, does that bring to you a sense of similarity to what epigenetics is discovering about human cells and about our response to our environment that we get from our thoughts and our emotions?

 

D:           Yes, so the epigenetics. The old way of thinking about genetics was we inherit DNA from our patients and that's what - that's the genetic blueprint and we make our bodies from that. And then the environment, the present day environment interacts with that. Epigenetics now, we now know that if, say, our great-grandparents experience some particular stressor, that it changes - that signal gets attached to the DNA but not in a way that only lasts a few generations, and so information is flowing form the environment down through the generations. And yeah that is part of the understanding of the environment. It's not just true in plants, it is very much true in people and other mammals, also the other vertebrates.

And it's a memory of place and a memory of experience that flows down through the generations that in general would be adaptive because it helps creatures understand their environment, but only under a limited range of conditions. What we have now is an environment that's changing so rapidly that the memory from two generations ago may not make you well fitted to this present time.

Now how that - so I think of epigenetics is another kind of memory, a change in the genetic code is a memory that will be transmitted potentially forever. An epigenetic one is a memory, a short term memory that one is born with, doesn't derive from the immediate environment and potentially helps one adapt to place.

 

Audience: And my second question goes back to what you were talking about at the beginning in terms of your listening to the tree and the communication that's happening. As humans, we've built ever more complex instruments to communicate with - from radio and television and internet and Wi-Fi and so forth, but there is a belief that we have the ability to communicate in that way without those instruments if we actually learn to tune our own instrument, and I sense almost that what you're doing is tuning your communication abilities at an energetic level to a higher level that allows you to communicate with the trees and that we all have that ability if we –

 

D:           Yeah, I wouldn't say that I'm a higher level I don't think, but I do think that as an educator and as someone who's trying to pay attention and learn something from the world myself, that we need to learn how to turn on our bodily senses. We are in a world that requires us to shut them off so much because we're bombarded by manipulative messages all the time, either very overt or much more covert messages. So we're surrounded by people trying to take our agency away from us.

And we have to have - involve barriers to that. Then we also need - the more we have a necessity to shut down, we need a motion in the other direction to open back up when it's appropriate. So it's not appropriate to have a completely open sense experience when one is surrounded by commercial messages and other manipulations of the mind. And yet when - with trees and I would argue with other people, having the ability to hear and to be present for the texture of sound in its physicality as well as the meaning that is behind that, is it enriching but also very important quality. So if we're going to listen to one another we need this.

And as scientists, as writers, as people trying to discern ethical paths, if we are only plugged in through the electronic networks we're going to make decisions that are reflective of that, well which is ultimately a very human centred world, an abstract world rather than one that is routed in the realities of lived experience, which whether we believe it or not, we belong here in a very deep physical true way. And we're born with an ability to tap into much of that. As much that bypasses our senses, but we have these amazing senses, attending to them is a very simple act but it's also very powerful.

 

G:           We've perhaps time, so yeah one more question down here.

 

Audience: Pleased to be evening up the gender balance in the questions. At most of your - sorry, I haven't read your book yet but a lot of what you've been talking about has been about natural forests and I'd just like to turn to plantations or planted forest. You've probably never been to Canberra when we had a wonderful plantation down the middle of Northbourne Avenue. I wonder what you would have said to the Chief Minister and others about cutting down those trees and how loudly the trees screamed as they were cut down. I'm sure I could hear them. And the other large area of planted trees is the National Arboretum and I just wondered if you could make some comments on both of those instances of how we are treating our trees.

 

D:           Yes. So the second half of the book, in fact, deals with trees that are very much in the built environment, so in cities of various kinds. And because I think those are very, very important relationships between people and trees, both for people and for the trees. Plantations, of course, take many different forms; there are forestry, tree plantations that have their role in some places. I think we've gone a little bit over the top, especially in the southern United States, eradicating everything else from the landscape and just putting fast growing trees in, I think is overstepping some boundaries.

In built environments where people have very deep physical connections to trees and see trees every day, those trees become part of our network of friends. Part of - literally part of our social network of bonds, and we have deep emotional bonds to them. And so when trees are taken out by, say, a municipal government there maybe - I don't know the particularities of that case, and so my comment would be I can't comment on that because I don't know why.

There are times when trees do need to be taken out because there's a plan to do something else in that area, hopefully with more trees, with different trees. But anyone who does that in the city believing that that will not have deep emotional and social consequences is living in a dream and this plays out every place that I have spoken. People have come up to me with these questions about why is the city cutting down these trees, why were not consulted.

So part of urban forestry and caring for trees in an urban space is relationships with people. Yes, it's partly about the trees but it's also about inviting people into that process of how do we live in relation to these trees. Some of them are going to have to be cut down at some point and partly in a city you have to cut some of the older ones down to stop them crushing traffic and pedestrians and so forth. That's a big issue in the New York City. But if people in the neighbourhood aren't involved then there's a sense in which we've broken the most important connection which is between people who live in a place and the trees that live in a place.

It turns out that helps the trees as well. In New York if you plant a tree, municipal workers come in and plant a tree and leave it, it has about a 50/50 chance of being alive in 10 years. If you plant that tree involving people in the neighbourhood, and put a little tag on it saying hi, I'm a London plane tree or whatever the species is, please don't let your dog poop here, give me a little water if it's a hot summer, that tree's probability of survival goes up nearly a hundred percent over 10 years because it's been given a name, membership within human social network, it belongs and people are looking out for it. So these are not abstract concepts they're actually about life and death for the trees.

And Arboretum, unfortunately I haven't visited the Arboretum here but there's such an amazing opportunity to form deep relationships with trees over generations. Most Arboreta were formed by people who are no longer with us, sometimes several generations back, we get to enjoy the fruits of their labour. Learn a little bit, most Arboreta have an educational agenda, at least part of the agenda is educational. How can we identify trees. How - bring kids in to start to learn them to enjoy some of the shade and some of the aesthetic - human aesthetic response to trees.

So I personally have enjoyed many wonderful hours in Arboreta. I think now we're in a world, of course, acclaiming change in climate and a world in which invasive species are a problem. So one chance that people, say, in the 19th century didn't have with Arboreta is thinking about, is it appropriate to plant this species here, it is going to escape the walls and become a real problem in - for native communities and agricultural communities and of course that's a dimension that people who manage these areas are very well aware of but it's an additional complication.

 

G:           David, the avenue along which you drove to come into the city today was once a very long grey, green stretch of trees and it is no longer.

 

D:           No longer.

 

G:           And because I work for the national broadcaster I'm not going to express an opinion on that <laughter> but I'm going to thank you myself and turn over to Candice.

 

D:           Thank you.

 

C:           Thank you very so much to David and Genevieve. Thank you.

 

D:           Thank you.

 

C:           What a wonderful discussion we've had tonight. It's so interesting to think much more deeply about our connections to nature and the natural environment and ourselves and how we affect that so –

 

D:           Thank you.

 

C:           - it's been really wonderful to hear from you both, thank you. So this does draw a closure to our conversation this evening. If you have any more questions I'm sure David would be happy to talk to you downstairs in the foyer where we have some refreshments and the book. I know you're dying to get a copy in your hot hands and read more, is available in the bookshop tonight at a special discounted price of 10 percent off the price. And I'm sure David would be happy to sign a copy –

 

D:           Absolutely.

 

C:           - for you. Events such as this one rely on the support of Australia's publishers. I thank Black Ink Books for making it possible for David Haskell to visit the library and for supporting our events program throughout this year. And a final thank you to all of you for coming along this evening and being our audience, as ever we appreciate your attendance of our wonderful event program that we have here. So we shall see you in the foyer. Thank you.

 

D:           Thank you.

 

End of recording

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