Listening to Trees

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


| Summer 2018


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?














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