David Russell Mosley
23 September 2016
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire
Today thanks to Addison Hodges Hart (older brother to David Bentley Hart) and Kevin Johnson (ringleader at The Inner Room), I read the article at Brain Pickings entitled, “The Secret Life of Trees: The Astonishing Science of What Trees Feel and How They Communicate.” The article is essentially a review of Peter Wohlleben’s book The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate. Wohlleben is a forester in the Eifel Forest in Germany. And this book, it would seem, is a combination of Wohlleben’s experiences working in the forest, especially as he began to see it in a new and fresh light while taking tourists through it, and scientific research into how trees act, react, and even think. I highly recommend the article to you and hope to get my hands on a copy of the book, eventually.
The essence of the article is very similar to that of the article “The Secrets of the Wood Wide Web,” which follows the work of Merlin Sheldrake in noting how fungi create networks in forests and which I wrote about here. Wohllenben even notes this, according to the author of the article, but also sees the trees as in direct communication with one another. They share nutrients by their roots, restrict their growth around friends and only slightly compete with some of their neighbors for resources. The most beautiful example given of this is when Wohlleben encounters moss covered stones:
“The stones were an unusual shape: they were gently curved with hollowed-out areas. Carefully, I lifted the moss on one of the stones. What I found underneath was tree bark. So, these were not stones, after all, but old wood. I was surprised at how hard the “stone” was, because it usually takes only a few years for beechwood lying on damp ground to decompose. But what surprised me most was that I couldn’t lift the wood. It was obviously attached to the ground in some way. I took out my pocketknife and carefully scraped away some of the bark until I got down to a greenish layer. Green? This color is found only in chlorophyll, which makes new leaves green; reserves of chlorophyll are also stored in the trunks of living trees. That could mean only one thing: this piece of wood was still alive! I suddenly noticed that the remaining “stones” formed a distinct pattern: they were arranged in a circle with a diameter of about 5 feet. What I had stumbled upon were the gnarled remains of an enormous ancient tree stump. All that was left were vestiges of the outermost edge. The interior had completely rotted into humus long ago — a clear indication that the tree must have been felled at least four or five hundred years earlier” (presumably a quotation from the book in the article).
These stones turned out to be rather old vestiges of a once enormous tree. They were being kept alive by their own power as well as that of the surrounding trees. For reasons beyond our current comprehension, the forest wanted to keep this tree alive.
It is hard to read an article such as this and not to think of Tolkien. Tolkien was a renowned lover of trees. One of his two most enigmatic characters is so identified with trees that he appears treeish himself, but, it would seem, is not tree. I am, of course, talking about Treebeard, Fangorn, the Ent, perhaps the first of the Onordrim. Tolkien’s invention of the Ents is a curious tale in and of itself. It happened when he encountered the word ent in Anglo-Saxon as a word for giants, which differed from another word for giants eoten. As Tolkien often did when he encountered an interesting or new word in another language, he wrote stories surrounding it and that is how we got the Ents. And yet, it is obvious that the Ents are not giants, not like the ones we meet in The Hobbit anyway. Their own closest cousins, or second closest, are the trolls who are made of stone in mockery of the Ents. The Ents themselves, Treebeard tells us, can become too treeish to the point of practically being trees just as there are trees that can and do become entish to the point of being able to move and wander and attack as we see in the huorns. In any event, Tolkien seemed at least capable of imagining what we are now learning to be true; trees can and do communicate with each other, and likely with other plants and, more subtely, with animals, in their forests. Trees exist in society not just in Tolkien’s Legendarium, but in reality.
Trees have always been fascinating to me. From the large copses far off in the distance that I saw from the road as child, to the actual forests in which I have walked, to the old gnarled trees on totally or semi-forsaken farms. When I was an undergraduate student taking homiletics, one of my professors took the students in my homiletics class on a retreat. We went to a local camp, stayed in a large cabin and spent the weekend practicing various spiritual disciplines. Key among these was silence. We could wander wherever we wanted and simply had to come back at a set time. I took to the woods. Here is a small sample of what I wrote after that walk, forgive the failings of my 20 year old self:
“Have you ever heard someone say that they ‘couldn’t see the forest for the trees?’ well the reverse happened to me, I hadn’t seen the trees for the forest. Then, as I walked out of the wood I noticed a tree and I began to truly see it. I don’t mean that I could not make out what it looked like until that point, but I began to see it for what it truly was, a creature of God’s that did a much better job at being a creature of God than I did.
I began to see how trees do what I do not, they do what God tells them. They stand firm, rooting themselves deep in their community. They provide for their community; homes for some animals, and sources of food for others. They stay where God has called them, through both good times and bad, dry seasons and wet ones. They put up with their neighbors, and are even willing to lay down their lives so that others may live. And if God says it is time for them to die they do not struggle or fight or weep but go as God has called them. Trees embody what we should be, servants, joyful, willing servants.”
As it turns out, trees do fight when attacked and they also provide for more than just their animal neighbors but for each other as well. Still, there is something about the longstanding nature of trees that strikes me. We have much to learn, and the long-viewed nature of trees is something we can learn from them. They do not measure their lives by years, not naturally anyway, but by decades, centuries, even beyond their evident death, as the tree-stones Wohlleben encountered teach us. It would not be a wasted life to sit in a forest and to contemplate the trees. Having a family means I cannot spend all my time so doing, but I am glad of the reminder that I ought to spend more time so doing. I am certain I will learn much.