Listening to What Trees Have to Say

Close up of concentric circles in wood

Valerie Trouet, Tree Story: The History of the World Written in Rings, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020) 

Valerie Trouet holds in her hands the key to world history. It is actually not a key, but a drill. With it, Trouet and her fellow dendrochronologists take samples from old trees and get them to talk about the past. In her book Tree Story: The History of the World Written in Rings, Trouet shows how that drill offers insights into complex and related (hi-)stories which connect local and global climates through the information stored in the cells of tree rings.

“I cover a lot of ground in Tree Story,” Trouet writes. “I talk about wood cells smaller than the diameter of a strand of human hair and about jet-stream winds that circle the entire Northern Hemisphere at the altitude at which planes fly. I link the two through stories that involve pirates, Martians, samurai, and Ghengis Khan.” In this wide-ranging new book, Trouet offers a unique perspective on the giant plants that invites readers to reconsider what we can learn about our planet, our pasts, and ourselves when we turn around to ask the trees.

Each tree records the environmental conditions of any given year, creating an individual chronology that is available for (human) interpretation. By crossdating tree-ring-chronologies and looking at the factors that determine the growth of trees in different regions, Trouet lays out an impressive variety of fields in which dendrochronology can offer otherwise inaccessible data. From the age of the wood in a Stradivari violin to precise historical earthquake data and insights into the lives of ancient civilizations, trees provide those who can read their “writing” with a reliable record of world history.

Tree Story is not the only recent book that ventures into the vegetal world as a source for a better understanding of environmental relationships. As a cultural studies researcher, I’m interested in the ways that arboreal voices attract human attention. When trees begin to talkeven if it is “only” in human narrativewe humans are no longer the sole standard of meaning making.

Trees have a lot to say. The times when they seemed to be content standing silently, growing too slowly for us humans to notice, photosynthesizing away, and waiting to become someone’s kitchen table, are definitely over. A surge of tree-narratives from all ranges of science, culture, and art bring to the fore that trees and their ecosystems do much more than diligently labor for the more mobile living beings: they form the world in which we (humans and more-than-humans) live. It might seem trivial, but we all too often take for granted the insight that trees in unison with other plants provide the very foundation of life on Earthoxygen, sugars, and wood in which and with which to live are as important for birds and beetles as they are for humans. Yet, no one profits from trees as humans do and the ensuing relationship, or, more precisely, exploitation, has prevented humans from seeing what and how trees actually live for themselves.

When trees begin to talkeven if it is “only” in human narrativewe humans are no longer the sole standard of meaning making. 

Valerie Trouet’s book is an excellent starting point to explore the relationships between trees and people and to look at the expectations and disappointments on the way to developing a way to communicate not only about but also with trees. The current spectrum of tree books encompasses scientific and popular science books as well as memoirs and nature writing. And while her book sticks strictly to science, Trouet references many other authors whose tree books take a different approach. Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World (2016, original: Das geheime Leben der Bäume, 2015) is an important, yet somewhat surprising addition to Tree Story‘s recommended reading list. The talking trees in Wohlleben’s book differ significantly from the silent archivists that comprise Tree Story, and his emotional and anthropomorphizing language contrasts with Trouet’s sober, if excited, account of what tree rings can tell us about the past.

Confessing to his own former ignorance, Wohlleben tells readers about the arboreal friends and neighbors in a forest full of individuals who are “just like us.” Building on research about the vast mycorrhizal networks of tree roots and fungi, the so-called wood wide web, which transport nutrients and information, the woodman imagines the forest as a social phenomenon and gives room to enthusiastic calls to re-unite with nature over the fact that we have never been that different, anyhow.

Book propped against tree trunk
Valerie Trouet’s Tree Story (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020), in the wild.

Somewhat in-between Trouet and Wohlleben on the spectrum of recent tree writing stands Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl (2016, also referenced in Trouet’s recommended reading list), which connects memoir and popular science to a stunning account of scientific life. Jahren depicts her career in biogeochemistry as a struggle against the double threat of underfunded science and a biased system that is set up to shelter those who seem to amass the most privilege from the start. Gender bias is often still the case in tree and forest science, despite the fact that many scientific advances are propelled by women like Suzanne Simard, one of the most important researchers of the Wood Wide Web and its “Mother Trees,” and Monica Gagliano, the foremost researcher in plant communication. Still, there is no doubt that Jahren sees the prizenew and more intimate knowledge about trees and their manifold connections with the environments they createas worth it. For Trouet, who provides only hints to the difficulties a female scientist faces in what is still a predominantly (white) male profession, this is equally true. It becomes palpable how rewarding research is for her (as it is for Jahren) when she tells of the straining work of coring trees in the remote places where the oldest individuals grow. This is to say, both scientists make it clear that struggle and hard work has its place in their work, and that bias and sexism not only hinder them, but actively slow down scientific progress.

While trees have historically served as symbols and models for humans and human knowledge, recent tree and plant research calls into question the anthropocentric biases that keep humans at the center of so many environmental stories. On first glance Valerie Trouet seems less likely to displace the human from the center of meaning-making than Wohlleben or even Jahren. Hers is a more objective relationshipone in which trees get to “speak” because the scientific methods are so effective in producing objective evidence. The trees rarely resist or defy the scientist’s plans. That doesn’t keep her from loving trees but it keeps her from putting them in a human’s place:

I love trees, but I am not a tree-hugger. The only times I refer to trees as sentient beings are (a) when I am reading The Giving Tree to my nephew and (b) when I am explaining crossdating, the process of comparing one tree’s ring pattern with another’s.

For Trouet, tree-ring width is a sure sign for tree-happiness or unhappiness. This binary is enough to describe and communicate to her readers the categories with which she operates. Far from Wohlleben’s fascination with the un-deadness of tree stumps and Jahren’s call to “marry” a tree (metaphorically but with nonetheless romantic intentions), Trouet cultivates a certain skepticism towards too much relationship with trees. Their talking and telling her things about the past remains metaphorical, a short-hand for her and other’s work.

Rather than reinforcing a human-centric approach, I think Trouet’s careful avoidance of more-than-rhetorical anthropomorphization does a lot toward the attempt to give trees room to act on the world stage as trees, not as human artifacts such as symbols, motives, or allegories. She reflects on this practice, albeit implicitly:

 I write the tree-ring stories that I find fascinating. And threading through all these stories is the narrative history of wood use and deforestation, which has allowed dendrochronologists to study the past and to contribute to ensuring a livable planet in the future.

Acknowledging the source of the stories “I write”Trouet brings to her story a scientific transparency which helps her to avoid the mysticism and esotericism that taints many otherwise wonderful tree-narratives. She shares this with other scientists. Hope Jahren, although she is enthusiastic about her love for trees and the wish to help foster better relationships between the plants and their human companions, never crosses the line to make trees into people (a line of which, unfortunately, Peter Wohlleben isn’t too mindful). Similarly, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013) skillfully avoids blending the three levels of its inquiry together without making transparent where they contradict each other. This is important, because it resists the temptation to simplify a relationship that has too long an abusive history to be mended easily.

Very large tree with many branches, surrounded by a low stone wall.
An ancient yew tree stands in St. Andrew’s Churchyard in Great Britain, brimming with stories for those who can read them. Photo by Roger Cornfoot, 2016.

All three authors, Trouet, Jahren and Wall Kimmerer, maintain the ability to speak as scientists but open up the possibility of a living-together with treesby writing history with them, growing with them and learning how to maintain connections to one’s environment from themthat capitalist exploitation logics deny both trees and humans. This expresses a type of respect that leaves trees to be foreign and strange but meaningful for humans and for a non- or more-than-human world. They do so by not only listening to trees, but also by telling their stories in a way that shows care for both plants and people:

I think there is a place for such stories of discovery in the current climate of mistrust and disinterest in scientific advances. In the best-case-scenario, I hope you will feel a little tingle of excitement when learning something new from this book, the same one that helps us scientists keep on keeping on.

All three scientists dare to defy the exclusivity of their scientific work. Providing access to what Trouet calls “stories of discovery” and their conditions might actually do more for the trees than just another fairy tale. Perhaps, given such examples such as Jahren’s and Kimmerer’s, Trouet might have dared to venture a little further into the possibility of a place beyond personal fondness and professional curiosity. Her scientifically-minded exactness regarding the dating of a tree’s age does not necessarily require a dismissal of the stories that turn an old tree into a heritage tree. Trouet emphasizes that storied individuals such as the ancient yew trees in England are not as old as people often claim they are. But their stories do hold importance for people. Even though the yew trees might actually be hundreds of yearsnot thousands of yearsold, they also might be proxies for human-nature relationships which express the desire to live together despite all differences.

Trouet’s drill is indeed a key, and perhaps in more ways than she intends. Reading dendrochronology in context with the diverse forms of tree-writing reveals her work not only as an access point to (natural) world history, but also as a set of relations between trees and humans that tells stories of kinship. However much one might want to maintain an objective perspective, we do share histories because we share a living earth. That suggests a closeness that is well worth exploring.

Featured image: Tree rings in Taxodium distichum (bald cypress), possibly from North Carolina, USA. Public display, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Rayleigh, North Carolina, USA. Photo by James St. John, 2012.

Dr. Solvejg Nitzke teaches German literature at Technische Universität Dresden. Her research focuses on the narrative production of knowledge and environments, especially when these practices are disturbed. She has published on material and imaginary catastrophes, climate change, ecological story-telling in 19th-century Austria and nature writing. Her current project, “Making Kin with Trees,” explores the relationships humans hope to forge with giant plants. Website. Twitter. Contact.