Driving down into Ironbridge last week, I passed a small working crew on the road. At some point in the last few days, an old oak tree had shed half of its trunk into the field behind. The crew were cutting up what had fallen and wrapping a huge chain around what was left sticking out of the bank in order to drag it out.
The strength needed to uproot it seemed to be appropriate to the tree’s venerable age. It was necessary work – it was looming out over the road after all – but I couldn’t help but be sad at the loss of it. I’d walked underneath that tree just the week before and admired the way it cantilevered out of the bank. Now it was going, gone.
The death of an old tree is strangely affecting. We’re not always kind to trees. We should be more thoughtful if only, as environmentalists will remind us, we owe the air we breathe to them.
We humans treat them as a crop, or a home for interesting wildlife or even a useful carbon store. Occasionally people will go in the opposite direction and hug trees, as if they’re sentient humans themselves.
Some trees can seem a bit like old friends sometimes though, can’t they? I suppose it’s because they’re particularly noticeable for being old or big, anchoring the communities that build up around them.
Sometimes they have a great story attached, like the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest where Robin Hood and his Merry Men were supposed to meet. In fact, there’s a whole competition for trees such as these. It’s run by the Woodland Trust and has been going for five years: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/press-centre/2018/10/2018-tree-of-the-year-winners/
The stories of trees can be absolutely brilliant. For example, in 1651 Charles II was escaping from the Roundheads after the Battle of Worcester. He had to spend one day hiding in an oak tree just outside Boscobel House, near Wolverhampton, whilst soldiers searched the nearby house and woods. This fantastical tale was commemorated on May 29th as Oak Apple Day. Souvenir hunters took so many cuttings from the original oak that it withered and died and had to be replanted from an acorn. Thousands of pubs also took their name from this Royal Oak. Just imagine – the King and a colonel sitting up a tree! E-S-C-A-P-I-N-G! It doesn’t scan, I know…
These trees can inspire a great deal of love and human endeavour if they’re threatened. In County Clare, Ireland, a motorway (the M18) was diverted in order to avoid the Fairy Tree, an ancient hawthorn.
Brighton has the Preston Twins, a pair of elms that survived Dutch Elm Disease, split in half a few years ago. There was a huge public interest in the Twins, so much effort was put into binding it back together and, happily, it survived.
The untimely end of Sheffield’s 450 year old Melbourne Oak helped to blow the sparks of the Save Sheffield Trees movement into a raging inferno. Campaigners are fighting what is termed the Sheffield Chainsaw Massacre.
The financial benefits of trees were highlighted in order to fight a highways contract that has already felled 5,500 trees in the city, with plans to fell another 20,000 within the next two decades – but there is an emotional appeal too. Some of those trees, as in many towns and cities, were paid for by their local communities, some were memorials to fallen war comrades, some were planted by wealthy industrialists and some are reminders of ancient fields and boundaries.
With their roots wound firmly around our hearts, sometimes it can be hard not to give them human characteristics but they’re always couched in terms of how we understand trees. They’re huge presences and grow slowly over years so in literature we often see them as ancient, wise and painfully sloooooooow.
Characters like Treebeard, Tolkien’s Ent in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, do everything slowly (which irritates the hobbits and us humans). We can’t conceive of their perception of time, experienced over centuries rather than decades. In that case, by return, trees would probably see us as irritating little flies with unpleasantly sharp edges.
If they did talk, we couldn’t understand them. Yet we persist in giving them characters, mostly old and wise but not always. Witness Green Noah, the (bloody terrifying) demonic tree in Lucy M. Boston’s books The Children of Green Knowe. The Tree of the Dead in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is pretty pant-wettingly scary too. When they move, it might be slow, but it’s frightening.
Perhaps their age, underlying their survival against some stiff odds, is justification for this characterisation? Nevertheless, it seems to be a quizzical aspect of our personalities that we can’t quite shake off. Scientists shriek at this anthropomorphisation: trees are not like humans. It’s highly unlikely that trees care whether we admire them or not. They are not interested in a hug. Individually they are impressive but impassive.
Recent research reveals that trees do talk, to each other, in ways we can’t quite access. Within forests, a huge underground mycorrhizal network exists, nick-named the Wood-Wide Web, where a voltage based signalling system sends messages from one tree to another. Below ground there have been sounds detected which are inaudible to humans. Suzanne Simard has conducted fascinating experiments on trees and discusses her work in a TED talk here:
The stringy white filaments of this network are interconnections between fungi and tree. The fungi will take about 30% of the sugars metabolised from sunlight by the tree and it will return the favour with nitrogens and other nutrients it draws from the forest floor. Various mushrooms and toadstools are just the visible tip of the massive underground system.
The networks also carry sugary sap or carbon from a ‘hub’ tree to saplings or other trees that are growing and/or ailing to feed them up. Root tips from related trees have been found to stop short of each other as if acknowledging that they should not fight for water or space. They literally won’t step on each others’ toes. Crown shyness amongst related trees also exists, where tree canopies won’t quite touch.
So far the humans investigating them have observed pain signals and reactions only. If a deer chews on some leaves, the tree will recognise its saliva and start drawing up bitter chemicals into its leaves to discourage any further grazing. That kind of swift reaction suggests that trees are more Whomping Willow than Treebeard.
It was the ‘hub’ or ‘mother’ trees that interested me most. These are particularly large or old trees who nourish their own groves of saplings, help the ailing trees surrounding them and stabilise large areas of growth, interacting with other tree species as and when necessary. The loss of these trees, especially if sudden, can destabilise a community of trees. It leaves the saplings more prone to disease and their relative lack of strength, once exposed, can be disastrous in high winds. Eventually the trees around the hub will recover but it takes time.
Peter Wohlleben, a German forester and author, has been working with and observing trees for 3 decades. He is a strong proponent of the notion of trees families who communicate with each other. Wohlleben assigns attitudes and personalities to different trees and describes stands of saplings as classrooms where young trees learn lessons about survival. To him, trees chat all the time. It’s a fascinating and alluring theory that goes entirely against scientific protocols: you cannot assign human characteristics to trees or anything else you are studying.
Then Wohlleben describes coming across a huge beech stump that must have been felled some 4-500 years ago. Below the outer layers, he found a tree rich with chlorophyll. The surrounding trees were still, some centuries later, keeping this tree ‘alive’ with sap and by extension, including it in their network, their discussions. The Smithsonian did an interview with him here.
I found this incredibly moving, despite myself. Did trees have much-loved members of their communities who they could not quite bear to let go of? Did the legends of ancient trees linger on amongst the younger ones?
Could this be the start of a new kind of tree folklore that we’re witnessing? In the past, terrible things were supposed to befall anyone who damaged trees thanks to the spirits or fairies that looked after them. The Japanese government have prescribed tree bathing as a medical response to depression and other illnesses. If they can be that good for us, perhaps they can harm us too, if the cause arises? I must admit that I hope this is the case, sap that I am. I kind of like that interaction though it means I’ll always be nice to trees!
So, trees do talk after all. To each other, but not to you.
They just might be talking about you though…