Reading Water, Hearing Trees

It’s Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday! In honor of the man who’s mostly famous for sitting by a pond, here’s a look at a few recent books that might be of interest – whether or not you choose to go to the woods, build a cabin, and live deliberately.

Some of us believe with Henry that “we can never have enough of nature.” In that spirit, Book Squad member Shirley B. and I recently led a rousing discussion of George Frazier’s “The Last Wild Places of Kansas” as part of our Action Book Club. We were hosted at the Baker Wetlands Discovery Center by its Education Coordinator, Roger Boyd, as well as the author George, and his daughter Chloe joined us to offer some tips on “ottering.”

So ottering we went, and Roger led us to a critter trail he had found earlier, complete with a slide to the water. Otters leave fairly distinctive signs, as both George and Thoreau have described. For the purposes of this review, suffice it to say that otter scat offers a window to understanding, well, you know that quote of John Muir’s that says when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe? You can’t pick out otter poop by itself.

This is especially true if you’ve plumbed Tristan Gooley’s “How to Read Water,” a deep and refreshing book published last year. Among ten thousand other things, Gooley points out that otters love crawfish, and crawfish indicate calcium in the soil (the better to build chimneys with), and calcium tells you that you need not worry about sudden storm surges, for the substrate is porous. The next time you find scat laden with crawfish parts and rain starts to fall, you can rest easy.

“How to Read Water” explains that one need not be an otter to get a feel for aquatic phenomena. Merely studying water drops on your kitchen counter can lead to oceanic insights. Once you view water topographically (like Kansas, it’s not flat), puddles lead to voyages in the South Pacific, and rivers present zen-like profundities: pondering hydraulics in streams, Gooley observes that “a pillow is both fluid and stationary.”

Which reminded me of poet Wendell Berry’s lovely line, “The impeded stream is the one that sings,” reinforcing the notion that we usually hear water than more than read it. Similarly, despite centuries of Shakespeare going on about finding tongues in trees, we seldom listen to arboreal arias. David George Haskell is here to change that. Author of “The Forest Unseen,” a highly recommended look at one wooded spot over the course of a year, Haskell has just written a book called “The Songs of Trees.”

I have to say that I was hoping for something along the lines of Peter Wohlleben’s awesome “The Hidden Life of Trees,” which I reviewed a few months ago, explicating the surprising science behind previously unheard maple murmurings, chestnut chants, and dogwood dirges – and Haskell supplies a little of that – but by “songs” Haskell means not only sounds, but stories. Which isn’t a bad thing. Once you get over your excitement at the notion that trees might sing, Haskell’s global survey of tree stories will enthrall you nonetheless.

Haskell says that life is not just networked, it is network, and that trees are nature’s great connector. His book provides insights on how extensive the “wood-wide web” really is, and reminds us that we too are a part of the songs of trees.

For a long time I’ve been practicing identifying birds not just by their markings, but by their calls. To celebrate Thoreau’s bicentennial, I’ll think I’ll practice arboreal aural I.D. and tune into trees. But I’m a little confused: some of the songs of trees Haskell describes seem more like songs of rain and wind acting on trees, and not actual woody emanations. If that’s the case, even dead trees sing.

In “The Practice of the Wild,” another great singer of natural connections, poet Gary Snyder, also mused on dead trees: “How curious it would be to die and then remain standing for another century or two… If humans could do it we would hear news like, ‘Henry David Thoreau finally toppled over.'”

We need the tonic of wildness, Henry said. Long may he sing.

-Jake Vail is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.