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“The Root of the Matter” a book review by Doug Mitchell

by Doug Mitchell
| May 16, 2022 1:40 PM

I’m a fuzzy studies guy. Don’t get me wrong, I can do some math, and I may even have earned a gentleman’s B+ in physics, but science is something I respect deeply and takes me a while to comprehend.

That’s why it might not surprise you that my initial reaction to reading the first few pages of David George Haskell’s beautifully written book, The Songs of Trees, was a resounding, “what in the world is this guy talking about?” I was immediately captivated by his writing and his rich descriptions of life in the overstory (another great book) of an Ecuadorian jungle, but just couldn’t seem to find the science. Unless, of course, Haskell was actually trying to tell me that trees really do communicate with the world around them. Nah, couldn’t be.

Spoiler alert – that is EXACTLY what The Songs of Trees is all about. I know, I’m quite late to this scientific party that Darwin started those many years ago upon the HMS Beagle, and that has been the subject of significant research ever since. Haskell takes readers around the globe, from the broad expanse of the boreal forest of the Gunflint in eastern Canada to the corner of 86th Street and Broadway in Manhattan, to be in community with and listen to trees.

In doing so, at least for me as a reader new to this science, he opens wide a door of discovery to an unseen world of wonder and a new way of thinking about our relationship with the natural world.

I would categorize the book as “experiential journalism” if the writing itself wasn’t such an important part of what makes The Songs of Trees so special. Not to knock the writing of outstanding experiential journalists, but typically they use a more direct style of storytelling. Not David George Haskell. With this book you get rich, evocative prose that not only delivers the science, but really makes you feel like you can feel the soil, hear the raindrops, and smell the duff. He translates the communication that takes place within and between plants, as well as within the broader community of verdant life forms that we too often mistake as inanimate objects.

One of the reasons the book struck a chord with me was its relevance to the global challenges we are facing today. For example, in talking about the long term health of the Balsam Fir forest, Haskell writes, “The essence of the Gunflint community is the network of interactions, not the collection of selves,” and recognizes in the biosphere the existence of “the creative tug between the individual and the community, the atom and the network.” He is clearly speaking directly about the science of non-verbal communication in the natural world, and in doing so Haskell challenges us to understand and accept that we humans are not the only living things struggling with how to relate to one another in what should be our shared goal for a better future for us all.

Great books challenge and inspire us, and this book did both for me. Perhaps we can learn a thing or two from nature about how to communicate in meaningful ways and in doing so build harmonious, vibrant communities of shared purpose. That is of, course, if we are willing to lean in and listen to each other and to The Songs of Trees.


Join the Glacier Book Club on Wednesday, May 18th at 6:30pm for a lively discussion with Doug Mitchell and author David George Haskell about his book The Songs of Trees. The club meets virtually and is free to all participants. Visit glacier.org or call 892-3250 to register.