Tree Talking

Endurance. Gratitude.

I find myself talking to trees more often than I used to.

It started, rather prosaically, with the elm. I run three times a week. Near the end of the run, on the hill up to our farmhouse, stands the stateliest elm I have ever seen.

I need cheering on at this point in the run, and find myself simply asking the elm for help to get up the rest of the hill. After all, the tree provides an example of endurance. Surely me making it up this hill is trifling in comparison.  They have stood there for a century and a half or so, against the odds, enduring.

(Most trees are hermaphroditic – male and female parts together on the same tree, so “they” seems appropriate, even though I am speaking about an individual tree. We use personal gender pronouns for animals, why not plants?  It is not anthropomorphizing, but rather an attempt to recognize members of the non-human world as subjects, not objects.) 

The disease that has killed so many elms has not yet succeeded with this one. It may be due to their relative isolation from other elms, indeed their isolation from the rest of the woods. This tree stands alone on the edge of a field, which was under cultivation 140 years ago when our house was under construction. I estimate the elm to be just about that old.  I like to imagine their sapling watching the farmhouse being built….

It would be a blessing if this elm had some aberrant genetic material that helps equip them with a certain degree of immunity, especially if their winged seeds find other welcoming places to grow. We just hold our breath and pray this elm endures, because their presence defines that part of the landscape, and they are…well…magnificent.

And then there is the mother (mothers can certainly be “they”s) white pine tree, growing next to one of the trails in the woods now deepening with second growth on the farm. They, much younger than the elm, probably grew up under the shade of early succession trees. I guess this because the trunk is quite straight. If a pine grows in the open, they are likely to be “weevilled”: the terminal bud chosen by a beetle seeking the warmth of the sun and subsequent food for her cache of eggs, the trunk forced to divide around the subsequent wound. Straight trunk on this tree – so terminal bud probably remained growing in the shade – of no interest to an egg-laying mother weevil.

The pine is accompanied, quite sweetly, by a “daughter” tree about ten years old I guess (barely visible in the foreground of this picture.) Science now explains that such a mother tree nurtures the small one…

…as it nurtures me, the smell, sound and growth of this pine reminding me of a huge white pine that stood behind the house where I grew up. The branches of that pine were particularly well-spaced for climbing. I climbed often, causing that delicious thrill of a bit of danger on the way up, before sitting on a particularly secure fork, quite high, absorbing the solitude and the tree-sound most sweet and soothing to my ears:  a white pine singing.

So, each time I pass this white pine on the trail now named for them, I gently touch the bark and whisper thanks, for them, and for the rest of their species.  

This is what I imagine, for better or for worse: that the touch, the voice, but mostly the silent energy of gratitude are registered, in some form. The tree may not “experience” my gratitude right away, but perhaps in tree-time, days, weeks or even months from now, however long it takes. Of course, if there is a response, I probably will not understand it. And – given tree-time – I might not be around.

That doesn’t matter.

Talking to trees no longer feels as illogical or even new agey as it used to. If you have been exposed to Peter Wohlleben’s Hidden Life of Trees, or SuzanneSimard’s Finding the Mother Tree, or a number of other articles, you will have learned about the intricate and highly efficient underground mycorrhizal network between trees of the same species and even of different species. Some call it the “wood wide web”.

Yah, I laugh to myself, but with the added cachet of eons of age over the electronic human version…

But, do I need to be connected to a tree by mycelium to communicate with it? Apparently not: pheromones, roots, sound – all have been shown as mechanisms for messages between these species. So, maybe my voice, maybe my touch?

No one really knows.

Some argue there is no “intention or will” involved in the messages being conveyed between trees, just chemicals interacting, so it is not true communication. Perhaps. But it seems to me that a little humility might be in order. Despite the cutting-edge science going on, we know precious little about this kind of interaction. Response – if there is any – might well be in tree-time, a cadence we are woefully inexperienced at sensing. 

I talk to the trees because they help me face down the unrelenting, increasingly sobering news of the day.  Response or not, for the time being, I will continue to ask for help, because the elm endures and inspires, and I will thank the pine, resting a moment in the peaceful memory they evoke. I talk to them because there isn’t remotely enough recognition of the inspiration and gratitude flowing between humans and other-than-human beings in this world.

We would all do well with more talking to trees.