Listening to Trees

When we listen to trees, we “unself” ourselves — and open to great beauty.

| Summer 2018

  • Listening involves paying attention to the acoustics of the tree itself — the sound of wind in its leaves, the sound of rain in its leaves, and so forth.
    Photo by Getty Images/Chris Adam
  • Yes, I think the city is natural. It’s a product of the mind of a particular primate, and so, in dwelling in the city, we inhabit the natural world; the city is one branch of the tree of life and is an expression of its creativity, its joys, and its brokenness.
    Photo by Getty Images/Baonia

In his first book, The Forest Unseen, David Haskell returned again and again to the same square meter of old-growth Tennessee forest to discern some of the stories that were present there. His new book, The Songs of Trees, uses the same approach with particular trees located in radically different environments — to see how some of the themes in our relationships with trees play out across the world.

We spoke with Haskell recently about the practice of listening to trees, why it’s important that we humans understand ourselves as part of the natural world, and how all of life is embedded within networks of relationships that become clear when we “unself” ourselves.

How do you listen to trees?

Listening involves paying attention to the acoustics of the tree itself — the sound of wind in its leaves, the sound of rain in its leaves, and so forth. These sounds reveal the form of the tree. A maple tree is going to have a very different sound in the wind than a pine tree, and, in different seasons, the tree will have different voices, revealing some of its physiology and nature.

The sounds of the tree also involve the other creatures that are using the tree — insects, birds, and so forth. You must attend to those sounds, as well. And then humans are another creature, of course, whose lives are intimately connected with trees, whether we’re aware of that fact or not. So part of the listening process involves talking to people whose lives are intertwined with trees, in an effort to discern some of the threads of stories that connect us.

Then, on occasion, I’ve also used some electronic gadgetry to hear ultrasound inside the trees — to hear the sway, bend, and crackle of vibrations flowing through the wood. These are sounds that our unaided ears can’t detect.

Humans are such a visual species. Can you give some examples of what listening can reveal about trees that our eyes cannot detect?

6/24/2018 3:36:27 AM

When I was a child, I would spend hours far up a tree in our backyard, where we could see down into the valley and most of the city. In a small seat made with a two-by-four, I would listen to the tree, and feel the tree as it swayed in response to the changing wind. As I moved with the tree, it was hypnotic, and for a time, our fates were intertwined.

6/19/2018 6:04:57 PM

The article seems to be missing an end... PLEASE can you give us the final bit? The last sentence reads: "This process is a transcendent experience because it allows us to transcend the limits of our own minds and emotions. In that expansion, perhaps we can find some ethical insight on" PLEASE don't leave us hanging!

6/18/2018 1:26:21 PM

I have paid attention to a few trees in my time -- the "Digger" pines at Pinnacles Nat'l Monument have a particular soughing that touches my soul, cottonwoods and aspens, my neighbor's giant tulip tree rustles in the wind and rain with many voices, a certain stand of bamboo from when I lived by the coast and it caught sea breezes. Because of this article, I will be having a deeper awareness.

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