These songs and secrets are not the trees’, no matter what their authors say; they are, instead, dreams hatched in biologists’ labs.
How could that cry be wind alone?
Something has snapped in two. Something has been lost
that won’t return in this life.
—Vievee Francis, “White Mountain”
I had brought the wrong book, that day in 2003. I remember sitting with Walden for a few hours, never finding what I was looking for, shelving it bitterly. I eventually returned to my tree on its point, my pine, with another of Thoreau’s books, The Maine Woods, in hand. “Think how stood the white-pine tree,” he wrote in the book’s opening pages, “its branches soughing with the four winds, and every individual needle trembling in the sunlight.”
The Maine Woods is a dead man’s book, published after Thoreau’s consumption had buried him: it rings with revelation, especially in the first essay, “Ktaadn,” in which Thoreau recounts his attempt to climb Maine’s highest mountain. The higher he ascends into the clouds, the more mystical his writing becomes—“It was a place for heathenism and superstitious rights,—to be inhabited by men nearer of kin to the rocks and to wild animals than we”—before slamming to earth with a force that fractures the essay: “Think of our life in nature,—daily to be shown matter, to come into contact with it,—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?”
It wasn’t lost on me, who was looking for direction, that contact led Thoreau to come unfixed from material fact, to lose his bearings and return to himself.
The great promise of The Song of Trees is that Haskell has discovered something real, durable, preordained, natural—the network of life. But his central, acoustic metaphor is confused; the book isn’t about music, it’s about circuitry. Life, for Haskell, is an array built to transmit electrical stimuli, memory an arrangement of “biochemical architecture.” A similar confusion wrinkles the pages of The Hidden Life of Trees, whose chapter headings often read like an introductory civics text, with titles like “Social Security,” “United We Stand, Divided We Fall,” “Community Housing Projects” and “Street Kids.” We learn that trees practice a vaguely European social democracy (“whoever has an abundance … hands some over; whoever is running short gets help”), albeit one marked by the nationalist fears of the Brexit era. In a chapter called “Immigrants,” Wohlleben writes, “It’s dangerous when foreigners pop up that are genetically very similar to native species,” because miscegenation and extinction of the “native” is likely to occur: “The Japanese larch is just such a case.” And so on.
We can never know what it means to see the world through knotty eyes; trees will always be translations of our own human fantasies, and, as with every act of translation, something of the original cannot but be lost. In turning untamed roots and gnarled trunks into sleek circuits and polished planks in conservative platforms, Haskell and Wohlleben have simplified something strange and complex—the tree—into something immediately familiar, tame, and all too digitally human. At the same time, as translators often do, they have obscured their own, subjective work. Haskell and Wohlleben no longer keep company with the scenes they create, but rather stand outside of them, disconnected. What remains is the illusion of timeless sylvan wisdom.
The first law of ecology, wrote Barry Commoner in The Closing Circle (1971), one of environmentalism’s sacred texts, is that “everything is connected to everything else”: the same stuff coughing from my tailpipe causes your lung cancer and your child’s wheezing asthma. The cool blasting from your air conditioner melts the polar ice caps. Each hamburger or soy-based veggie dog we eat can be measured in acres of Amazonian deforestation, pounds of mutagenic pesticides, gallons of manure and urine. Our actions, connection reminds us, always have consequences.
Somewhere along the way, though, what began as an observation (everything is connected) evolved into an imperative (“only connect!”), a demand to acknowledge the world’s material unity, with the promise that environmental enlightenment will somehow follow, as if ethics is simply the mechanical practice of acquiring information.
But we connect through violence as well as care; we connect when we amble among the trees as well as when we clear-cut them into board-feet of profit. Hierarchy is a chain of connection strung vertically from the haves to the have-nots. “Everything is connected” is a fact, not an ethic; it has no meaning, and tells us nothing about how we should inhabit the world, simply that we do. If it implies responsibility, it is silent on what the nature of our relationship to the earth should be: Do we tread lightly? Or are we to take control?
My trees were being killed. They weren’t my trees.
… Oh yes,
I wanted the world to be wild again. I believed
I might hold weather in my hands
and mend it. The night was finite, or infinite.
—Cecily Parks, “When I Was Thoreau at Night”
On May 15, 2018, a freak tornado slapped into my family’s land, snapping limbs, stripping trunks and scattering trees like lawnmower-blown grass clippings. My old white pine, leaning out over open water, shallowly rooted in stony, sopping soil, didn’t stand a chance. I last saw my tree five years earlier, in the middle of a move that would take my wife, my young son and me half a continent west to a strange place with different trees. We had another son, a few years after arriving there, and I wondered: What, besides impressions, will I be able to give him of the tree that once anchored my life?
“The ‘control of nature,’” wrote Rachel Carson in the concluding paragraph of Silent Spring (1962), “is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.” Earlier in the book, she had famously followed the facts along the connecting pathways that seemingly innocent chemicals, like DDT, took on their way to environmental crisis, showing how technological and scientific hubris led to pesticidal dead zones, the poisoned silence of the birds, bodily mutation, and organ failure. But Carson’s book is also a scathing cultural critique of the idea that knowledge is power—power, she knew, is the problem.
Our greatest scientific and technological breakthroughs were supposed to set us free from our earthly bonds, but instead are ending life as humankind has known it. This should be radically humiliating. And yet, if anything, rising temperatures have spawned a new breed of entrepreneurial confidence. Witness the environmental “thought leader” who promises to remake the entire Earth, if not the solar system, in our own image: the Elon Musks, who will fly us all to Mars; the Stewart Brands, who crow, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it”; the geo-engineers, terraformers and imagineers who would fill our oceans with iron filings, artificially whiten our clouds, or send enormous mirrors into space to reflect back the sun’s rays. Witness those who claim to know nature’s way and to speak its language—as if we can’t imagine any mode of inhabiting the earth other than one of mastery.
“In nature nothing exists alone,” wrote Carson. Though she never used the word, coexistence—not connection—is the idea around which her thinking begins to coalesce. It anticipates the work of eco-critic Timothy Morton, who has spent the last ten years (so far) spinning an ecological theory of coexistence, and who, like Carson, suggests that existing together isn’t the same thing as being connected. Instead, as he writes in Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (2016), it is premised on unbridgeable, untranslatable, unknowable difference—“strangeness,” he calls it—between humans and the world. This gap is the native habitat of wonder, where the world surprises us with its beauty and unpredictability and suffering, where the world puts us in our rightful place of humility.
The web, whether of silicon or silk, is one of the preferred metaphors for connection. But it has rarely been noticed that a web is only occasionally a place for tying together. It is, instead, a thing made almost entirely of nothing, where nearly invisible strands span many feet of emptiness, strands which, if gathered together, would signify only slightly more than zero. To focus on the thread is to miss the web’s essence: a place for slipping past, for never catching hold; a place for passing alongside.
To self-consciously coexist is to attune oneself to these gaps, to the possibility that we might live alongside beings that are radically different from ourselves, but upon whom we nevertheless depend. Carson called this bundle of living difference “earth’s green mantle,” a boggling latticework of water, soil, chemical processes and buzzing life, which remained ultimately mysterious despite mountains of accumulated data. If connection implies similarity, responsibility, and control, coexistence asks for humility—a way, Morton writes, for us “to relax our grip” and learn to live with.
Sitting over words
very late I have heard a kind of whispered sighing
like a night wind in pines or like the sea in the dark
the echo of everything that has ever
still spinning its one syllable
between the earth and silence.
—W. S. Merwin, “Utterance”
That periodic white pine on its point: it wasn’t until I heard news of the tornado and asked my father to send me photos of the wreckage, until I received them via email and scanned my screen for survivors, that I realized. I had taken Walden into the woods fifteen years ago, lost in grief, desperate for reassurance that everything would be alright. But it wasn’t. My uncle was gone. There were no answers, and in my disappointment I blamed the book. In truth, the failing was mine. “I went to the woods,” go the words I wasn’t ready to read, “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Where are we?
“The trees will die,” wrote the journalist, author, and activist Bill McKibben in The End of Nature (1989), the first book for a popular audience about the meaning of global climate change. “Consider nothing more than that—just that the trees will die.”
It is now 2018, and the baobabs are dying; the sequoias are, too. The Psalms were wrong: Lebanon’s cedars break not by the voice of the Lord but by the decree of Exxon-Mobil. Even Pando, which survived the last ice age, is falling sick. No matter how many terabytes of data the supercomputers crunch, it’s hard to know exactly how many trees will die in the coming years, how far forests will flee from their homes of today. The science is inconclusive, but the impression is clear. Landmarks fade. Connections come undone. We simply don’t know anymore where we are.
One dark night in 1954, Carson and her twenty-month-old grandnephew, Roger, whom she would adopt a few years later, went for a walk along the wild Maine coast. “It was clearly a time and place where great and elemental things prevailed,” she wrote. Carson described the experience in a short essay for Woman’s Home Companion called “Help Your Child to Wonder.” “I sincerely believe,” she wrote, that “it is not half so important to know as to feel.” Carson slips between wrack and water line, along that damp pause that is neither yet land nor sea, her grandnephew’s bundled vulnerable body clasped warmly against her own, the two of them together passing among rockweed and ghost crab and purple-shelled mussel, feeling their way, together, ecstatically, in the dark, among the living world.
If knowledge and power and control follow in the footsteps of connection, Carson’s coexistence encourages a recognition of our own ignorance and the other’s autonomy—which is a way of throwing us back on ourselves, critically and self-consciously. What can we really know about the wild world? How can we exist without diminishing life’s heterogeneity? What are we doing?
What’s most striking in Carson’s best writing is the way she embraces her own ignorance: fallible, impressible, self-aware and humble, all she has is herself. “Exploring nature with your child is largely a matter of becoming receptive to what lies all around you,” she writes. “It is learning again to use your eyes, ears, nostrils and fingertips, opening up the disused channels of sensory impression.” Becoming receptive to a world of which we are a part, and at the same time from which we are radically apart, is a way to let oneself be marked, and, in the marking, to discover that we live, and that we live alongside.
I wonder: What would it mean to contemplate a tree free of one’s pretensions to authority, to attune one’s humanity to its nature, to let it speak, rather than interrogate it for those secrets one already believes true? One might venture a question. The tree might hesitate, as they do in Richard Powers’s novel, The Overstory (2018)—“the trees refuse to say a thing.”
Isn’t everything, in the dark, too wonderful to be exact, and circumscribed? For instance, the white pine that stands by the lake.
—Mary Oliver, “White Pine”
The white pine is dead; the space between us has become absolute. But I’ve been marked. My eyes open wide, and still I hear and feel the breeze and the bark and the roots.
“It is said,” Thoreau wrote in his 1862 essay, “Walking,” upon which he worked as he lay dying, “that knowledge is power”:
Methinks there is … need of a Society for the Diffusion of Useful Ignorance, what we will call Beautiful Knowledge, a knowledge useful in a higher sense: for what is most of our boasted so-called knowledge but a conceit that we know something, which robs us of the advantage of our actual ignorance? … I do not know that this higher knowledge amounts to anything more definite than a novel and grand surprise on a sudden revelation of the insufficiency of all that we called Knowledge before—a discovery that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy. It is the lighting up of the mist by the sun.
One day, when the angle of the sun lit up her world just right, I imagine that the artist Katie Holten saw something different when she looked at one of the trees growing along her New York City streets, or one of those growing in the park. “A dot. Ink buds. Twigs of reason. Branches of knowledge. Entangled thought-lines. I saw them all unfurl—letters germinating, sprouting, spreading forest-like across a blank page, then another.” I imagine Holten rushing back to her studio and there thoughtfully unfurling onto a crisp white sheet her masterwork: a wild typeface, one where each letter is a different species of tree. A, the image of an apple. B, a beech. An alphabetic forest of 26 trees ending with Z, the zelkova. A forest, called About Trees, into which she invites her audience to wander. About Trees is spun simply. Holten weaves 51 excerpts from fifty authors who write about trees, from Borges’s “Funes, the Memorious”—“Funes not only remembered every leaf on every tree of every wood, but even every one of the times he had perceived or imagined it”—to Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees,” and back again to “Funes, the Memorious”: “In fact, Funes remembered not only every leaf of every tree of every wood, but also every one of the times he had perceived or imagined it.”