Made Beautiful by NATURE... an interview with Tree expert Professor David George Haskell, (Tennessee U.S.A)
I remember as a child feeling connected to creatures that I could sit alongside and watch. I used to spend a lot of time by the family pond poking around with sticks and discovering small thriving communities. I enjoyed growing fresh vegetables in the garden and watching birds in the backyard. Those early experiences of connection to other species seemed very natural for me and as I look back; I see that I did not have a sense of humans being distinct and separate and divided away from nature. It seemed that we were simply one community
As I grew up and delved into the world of biology as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student, I began to fill in some of the intellectual context; that life is, in fact, a great delta of connections, a river delta flowing us from one channel to another. This is true through time in evolutionary genealogy and in the present moment in ecological connection. It is impossible to delineate any one channel, as separated from the rest, as we are ever only upstream or downstream from other species on our shared planet.
Humans are connected as blood kin to other species. Some of those kinship connections go back just a few million years in the case of other primate species, a few hundreds of millions with animals, and a billion or more for more distantly related creatures like trees and other plants. If you follow our family histories back, you get to a point where there was a creature, a species whose descendants became either trees, primates, birds, algae or bacteria. We are all related in a genealogical sense, and we are also related in the present day through the thousands of ecological interactions that sustain us every moment.
Tree lives and human lives have been connected since the very beginning of humanity. Within the sound of those first crackling campfires, human conversation began, and imagination, storytelling, and human culture were born. Our literature is conveyed with the help of trees on sheets of paper, our music carried on vibrating wood, and our industrial economy powered by dependence on trees through wood products, coal and, of course, through all the clean water and healthy air that trees provide for us.
But despite this connection and interdependence, forests are in crisis. We are losing more forests than we are gaining. We know two things - that trees are crucial for life on the planet, including human life; and trees and forests are in decline across the world. It seems to me that the juxtaposition of those two insights present a crisis for us at a global level and also at the much smaller level of the neighbourhood. Some neighbourhoods have trees that are thriving, while others are in decline. So these great questions of what to do globally about trees on our planet can become understood in our own lives, literally rooted in the ground of our neighbourhoods, around cities and farms, agricultural areas where tree lives and people's lives are richly connected.
There are places in the world where old and large trees are thriving, and villages and cities where people are ensuring that in hundreds of years there will be great trees growing for generations to come. Depending on where we are in the world and what we see around us, we have either stories of brokenness or stories that show us that there are productive ways forward. We have the ability to choose. I don't think we are in a state of terminal decline; rather we are in a state of crisis and opportunity. We get to decide now which path we will take.
The places to find hope are when people are living day to day. The answer to our problems is not necessarily only inspired by people elsewhere in the world doing incredible things, but by taking action where we live, looking around and seeing what works and what doesn't work in our home places. One of the messages of my book "The Songs of Trees" is the importance of this practice of sustained listening in our home environment. I believe this is of critical importance to finding ways forward. If we are not listening to the world of our home neighborhood, to the ecology, the rivers, and trees, to the culture of life we live alongside, we have no hope of making wise decisions.
In many industrialized cities, there is far more access to a connection with trees than 100 years ago. At that time, most of the great cities were poisonous places, devoid of trees. The vision of previous generations bequeathed to us much healthier, greener, cleaner cities, at least in some places. In some parts of the U.S today, you can swim in rivers running through city centers, which you absolutely could not do 40 or even 20 years ago. The rivers back then were full of pollutants and often on fire!
Places where there is hope and inspiration may be found where humans have taken on that task of listening in their own connections and honour how trees are connected to their fundamental needs. In New York City for example, there is a commitment to plant a million trees in just a few years, a project that is greening up many parts of the city in ways that provide great benefit to people. Every year, the city's current five million trees remove over 2,000 tons of air pollutants and 40,000 tons of carbon dioxide. Investment in parks and care of trees has brought the people back. Parks are no longer silent places, home for drug users or muggers. These green spaces are now optimistic places, where families and children play, people picnic and athletes work out.
There are places that offer hope such as Ecuador in the Amazon rainforest. Even as there is a crisis underway as oil extraction moves into the region, people are resisting that by taking their understanding of ecology and the mutual dependence and cooperation that takes place in the forest and putting that into the law of the land. The Ecuadorian Constitution now includes rights for nature and an understanding of ecological relationship, something that is absent in the constitutions and the legal code of most other countries. In a country that is facing immense economic and ecological challenges, the people have fought to change the law for nature.
Connection with other species, trees, birds, creatures in our rivers along with other people, bond us into relationships that give us the means for a fully expressed life, a sense of reality and grounding in our bodies. When we use our eyes to look at trees, listen and hear sounds that calm us, smell the fragrance of the forest and the earth, rather than having our only connection a cleverly shot Instagram image, something happens to us internally.
Spending time in this connected state is a healing mechanism for tired, stressed bodies and is complementary to the wisdom and experience of what we have available in medicine. I think it is encouraging that in some parts of the medical profession there is a realization that pills and therapy are only part of the solution and doing the work of returning to a deeper connection with other species and people is essential for health. Modern medicine and nature are not two alternatives to one another – but part of the same system. 50% of pharmaceutical drugs have an origin in trees, fungi or bacteria found in our forests. Even in those brightly lit malls, inside a pharmacy, where we imagine ourselves to be separate from nature, we are in fact deeply connected at a biochemical level with what is on the shelves...
AN EXCERPT OF DAVID'S STORY from the new series MADE BEAUTIFUL BY NATURE.
This is a first person interpretation of an interview with Professor David Haskell written by Veronica Farmer.
To hear when the full story and book of stories told by some of Earth's amazing Nature Guardians is available, sign up below
About David George Haskell
David Haskell is a professor of biology and environmental studies at the University of the South and a Guggenheim Fellow. The Forest Unseen (2012) won the 2013 Best Book Award from the National Academies, The National Outdoor Book Award, the Reed Environmental Writing Award and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Haskell’s latest book The Songs of Trees (2017) has been described as “a book to nourish the spirit” and teaches us that when we listen to trees, nature’s great connectors, we learn how to inhabit the relationships that give life its source, substance and beauty. Along with his scholarly research, Haskell has also published essays, op-eds and poetry. To learn more connect here
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