“Upend the rain stick and what happens next
Is a music that you never would have known
To listen for. In a cactus stalk …”
Seamus Heaney inadvertently provides an introduction to the premise of Haskell’s book, which expands on the idea of actually paying close acoustic attention to life forms that aren’t usually thought of as producers of sound. He does so by visiting and revisiting a selection of a dozen trees around the world, observing and listening to them and their surroundings through a variety of methods, and using his vast knowledge of nature to put everything into context. And the way that he unpacks this context is the main point of the book.
I was absolutely enchanted by Haskell’s first effort, ‘The Forest Unseen‘. I found the first couple of chapters of ‘The Songs of Trees’ a bit more challenging to get into, but I was more than ready to rhapsodise about it by the end. Haskell once again managed to capture facts of nature in exceedingly beautiful prose. Case in point, this excursion on sea foam: “The foam is made from the pulverized remains of algae and other microscopic life. When these cells break apart in the tumult of the ocean, they release proteins and fats into the water. These chemicals act like soap in a bath, changing the surface tension of water. When the wind agitates the water surface, like a hand whipping a bubble bath, the result is a froth. Sea-foam is a memory of the biology of the ocean, blown to land.”
(Although I did feel that it was a tad bit overdone at certain points — e.g., in describing the information on whether or not to swim in a creek after the rain had added sewage to it, “A click on my social media account tells me whether it would be wise to dunk in this effluvium”).
Regardless, like Haskell and his trees, I definitely plan to revisit both of his books in the future, and I’m already looking forward to it.
“… Who cares if all the music that transpires
Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?
You are like a rich man entering heaven
Through the ear of a raindrop. Listen now again.”
(Seamus Heaney, ‘The Rain Stick’)
The songs of trees: Stories from nature’s great connectors (David Haskell)