Listening to the Voice of Trees

“What do trees say when there is no danger and they feel content? This I would love to know.”

We walk through our woods, armed with chainsaws and mosquito repellant, searching for trees that block access to familiar trails. It doesn’t take long following the twin assaults of Laura and Delta. This is not work that will end anytime soon. It’s easy to ignore the devastation of downed trees, looking at the woods from the back of our house. Not so much when you plod past the cows, walking through the pasture.

Personally, I find the uprooted trees look obscene. Don’t-look-at-me obscene. Being-caught-in- the-privy-with-your-unmentionables-down-around-your-knees obscene. You can almost feel their embarrassment; they wished we understood they want us to turn away. When their roots were ripped out of the earth by the hurricane’s furious wind, it severed connected roots linking them to their neighbors. Was that the shrieking we heard, the moans we mistook for the wailing winds of two horrendous hurricanes?

You chance upon the trees that made it, the stayers. It’s odd how relieved they look. Some may even think no, they look sad, depressed. Here in the quiet of the woods, you are surrounded by a mixed bag of emotions. Could it be the trees felt what we humans felt, when we awoke to stare down the road at our neighbors, checking out the homes that took the biggest hits? Who got off lightly? Who’s leaving, never to return? These must be the apologetic trees, the ones suffering from arboreal survivor’s guilt. Some still stand straight, giant guardians, silhouetted against a now-cloudless sky, protecting what’s left of their war-scarred sanctuary. As they flail their leafy limbs in an early autumn breeze, it’s hard to resist anthropomorphizing them. We pick our way along cautiously, reverently. We find ourselves unconsciously speaking in hushed tones.

You duck cautiously under the bent-over ones, the one that know their flexibility is just a random, freak-of-nature thing. They seem aware that the next slightest wind might finish ’em off. Or…scarier still, that they could remain bent and weary for decades, never to know uprightness again. Pinecones, acorns, hickory nuts crunch under our boots. You wonder, will these trees ever want to bloom again, spread their seeds, reproduce new generations? You can almost sense a vibration—a quiet shooing away of woodland critters who seek shelter in their boughs or trunks. Move along. It’s not safe here. No room in this inn…

 Smithsonian Magazine contributor, Richard Grant, recounts a 2018 visit with a German “tree whisperer,” Peter Wohlleben.  As a forester and author, Wohlleben has devoted his life to the study and care of trees, managing a forest as a nature reserve.
Grant says he possesses
“a rare understanding of the inner life of trees.”

Grant explains that, since Darwin, we’ve thought of trees as “striving, disconnected loners, competing for water, nutrients and sunlight, with the winners shading out the losers and sucking them dry.” It’s the timber industry, he notes, that taught us to see the trees pragmatically, coldly, when we survey splendid forests and see only “wood-producing systems and battlegrounds for survival of the fittest.”

Today, he explains, we have substantial scientific evidence that shows us instead that same-species trees are communal and generous:

“[They] will often form alliances with trees of other species. Forest trees have evolved to live in cooperative, interdependent relationships, maintained by communication and a collective intelligence similar to an insect colony. These soaring columns of living wood draw the eye upward to their outspreading crowns, but the real action is taking place underground,
just a few inches below our feet.”

In his book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, Wohlleben explains the magical communication network shared by trees:

“Some are calling it the ‘wood-wide web.’ All the trees here, and in every forest that is not too damaged, are connected to each other through underground fungal networks. Trees share water and nutrients through the networks, and also use them to communicate. They send distress signals about drought and disease, for example, or insect attacks, and other trees alter their behavior when they receive these messages.”

Reading this, I am speculating about what got communicated in our wood-wide web, here in Southwest Louisiana, as nature’s fury ripped through here twice with gusty 80-145 mph winds. Obviously, trees cannot evacuate. Our cattle found refuge twice under their shaky canopy, feeling safer there than in the open pastures from which the herd fled days before either storm arrived.

Wohlleben confirms that trees are social creatures. Mother trees offer life-sustaining sugars to “suckle their young,” the saplings that are too small to access needed sunlight.  Scientists have also observed chlorophyll in the stumps of forest elders, centuries after they’ve been felled. Could it be that old trees never really die? Perhaps in our human after-lives, we will still be giving and receiving.

Trees enjoy a network of chemical, hormonal and electrical signals, much like humans. There are also pheromones and other scent signals carried through the air. Leaves are the noses of trees; they detect scents. And trees are clever enough to taste too! Grant explains that “when elms and pines come under attack by leaf-eating caterpillars, for example, they detect the caterpillar saliva, and release pheromones that attract parasitic wasps. The wasps lay their eggs inside the caterpillars, and the wasp larvae eat the caterpillars from the inside out.” Clever.

Wohlleben is curious, however: Do trees only discuss alarming things, just chattering about distress and disaster?

“What do trees say when there is no danger and they feel content?
This I would love to know.”

Walking back home from an afternoon of wood-clearing, I also wish to overhear their conversations. As an Interpersonal Communication instructor, I’ve explained to my students that human perceptions are changed though narrative. We select, organize and interpret incoming data, but we use stories to renegotiate our initial insights and observations. Hearing these scientific tree tales, it feels only right to offer a silent apology for our trespassing today. How must we appear, puny machine-wielding humans, from the lofty perspectives of the many pines, oaks, hickories that encircle us? Trees as teachers. Trees as historians. Trees as raconteurs.

Close to home, there is a tree that is weirdly inverted. Its lower trunk is toothpick-thin, while at about six feet up, it doubles its girth. It should’ve fallen months ago, but it is defiant. Anthropomorphizing again, it reminds me of that quirky relative that shows up at every kinfolk gathering. You know, the uncle who’s survived quadruple bypass surgery and is still eating heaping plates of boudin, daily downing six-packs of beer. The loony cousin who gambles too much, indulges in illicit drugs and drives too fast. How are they still standing? On second thought, I will think of this tree as my clan’s matriarch, misshaped by decades of cooking, cleaning and caring for others. Still standing impossibly erect, ever-present, ever-comforting—she’s earned my admiration. Even as I walk uneasily past the potential widow-maker, I force myself to stop…I pat the trunk.

We won’t always live here. Still, I want to always remember these trees, these woods, these woodland rambles. The trees here have gifted me with seclusion, refuge and wonderful memories throughout every season. I’ve walked my dogs here, strolled with my grandchildren, with friends and family. I’ve wondered aimlessly alone here quite often, conversing with my writing Muse, meditating for hours up in an abandoned deer stand. I’ve known this space intimately; it’s my private cathedral, about which Emily Dickinson wrote:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –

I keep it, staying at Home –

With a Bobolink for a Chorister –

And an Orchard, for a Dome…

Like the tree-whisperer Wohlleben, I too yearn to eavesdrop, to actively listen to these wood dwellers surrounding me. What will I hear? Choruses of capitulation, dirges of discontent or symphonies of satisfaction?

I too would like to know.




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