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CARPE LIBRUM: In defense of trees

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Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world. 

Oak: The Frame of Civilization
William Bryant Logan
2005, Norton, pgs. 336

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel How They Communicate
Peter Wohlleben
2016, Greystone, pgs. 272

Since the early colonization of what is now North Carolina, trees have been essential and controversial. Our area flourished as a source for naval stores: old growth lumber for masts, tar, pitch, and turpentine harvest from pine trees. In our modern world, we seem to view trees as enemy forces, waiting to drop limbs on our precious possessions and littering our perfectly manicured lawns and sidewalks, disrupting the easy flow of power lines. Somehow we manage to disregard that every building we live in and use for commerce comes from trees, as does the oxygen we breathe.

12I am an unabashed tree hugger, literally. I hug trees frequently, especially my oak tree next to the house I grew up in. That tree was one among many that captured my young imagination. The recent removal by the city of three large, historical oaks on Market Street in front of my childhood home has been a tough adjustment. So, let’s just say, I was a primed audience for the appearance of “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate” by Peter Wohlleben and “Oak: The Frame of Civilization” by William Bryant Logan. Together the two books provided a week of arborphilia.

Though they both look at the lives of trees and the relationships trees share with humanity, the books explore these questions very differently. “Hidden Life” explores questions in the context of a German forest (mostly), which is no surprise since Wohlleben worked for the German Forestry Commission for over two decades. So he looks at the forest as a whole—the relationships between Beech trees (his primary tree), spruces, firs, and oaks. But Logan uses the focused lens of exploring the life and history of the oak to tell his story about a relationship between tree, human and the web of life.

Logan, a professional arborist, is clearly enraptured by all things tree-related—but specifically, especially, the oak. I have long been aware their acorns are edible; however, the sheer amount of labor involved to process them into usable food ingredients makes them a last resort in my world. But by the end of his chapter detailing his personal experiments, and the rise and fall of acorns as a staple of the human diet, I was outside picking up acorns and pondering the location of the nearest Korean grocery. Apparently, acorn jelly is still popular in Korean cuisine.

10From the earliest settling of humans through the development of carpentry and eventually ink for writing, Logan traces the importance of the oak tree in human civilization across the globe. Of course, as an arborist, he cannot resist giving a lesson in oak identification, care and protection—nor does he make a plea for the preservation of oaks rather than their wholesale destruction. It makes me wonder that if I gave copies to all our city council members, would they actually read it? And if they did, would they apply his theories and let us keep the trees alive and intact? Am I the only one who feels a stab of loss every time I drive past the location of the former “Sonic Oak” on Market Street?

For all the specificity of Logan’s book, Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees” is a surprising look at what the quiet beings are doing. To begin with, their sense of time is entirely different from ours, Wohlleben argues. 120 years? A mere teenager. Anyone who plants or cultivates trees knows one of the keys to remember is the drip line of the crown mirrors the roots. Thus, don’t just water, fertilize and mulch next to the trunk; the system for feeding and supporting the tree is as wide below as it is above to photosynthesize. There are so many aspects to Wohlleben’s book that I do not want to pigeon hole it by only talking about his work related to root systems, but we can see bark, we can see leaves, branches, buds, and nuts. What is happening underground, which is absolutely essential to the survival and propagation of trees, is still mysterious. There’s interplay with fungi to create the mycelium network that can filter heavy metals from the soil, fight off bacteria attacks, force nitrogen fertilization by killing off nearby parasites for food, and connect the root systems of trees across great swathes of land. He discuses in depth the process of moving water through root systems, and distributing it through the tree and even explains “sweat stains” on trees! It is fascinating and frankly refreshing to encounter a writer and forester who regards trees as worth respect and consideration rather than nuisances.

Right now people are putting up Christmas trees and getting ready to celebrate a time of renewal. For a view of time and life that makes ours look incredibly myopic, these two books are eye-opening.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Greg Marino

    January 1, 2017 at 10:41 am

    I’m assuming my passion for trees is an extension of my departed mothers love of them. Hence, my small Florida property is a growing ground of oaks and magnolias thoughtfully placed or allowed to grow where squirrels have decided where they should be placed.

    I’m not certain what revolved around my Mom’s passion but, she knowingly planted a tree for each grandchild that was born. To have recently visited these trees after the last planted some 25 years ago and to witness their towering heights is a testimony to her love. I wish my children’s love for me was as high and strong as these trees planted for them but alas, I digress.

    So a new year is upon me in North Florida and a dilemma is upon me about what to do with a rogue magnolia that I came upon yesterday while clearing bushes whose growth was being stifled by the lack of sunlight guessed it…the trees I staregically planted some 9 years ago. Since cell the magnolia will obviously and negatively effect the health of the oaks…we’ll likely attempt a transplant when I’m certain whatever cold weather we’re subject to has passed. I’ve done it once…here’s to hoping that this rogue tree finds happiness and provides it wherever it ends up.

    Happy New Year all! Plant a tree or two and foster it. At least the time you spend with the tree won’t likely end up in years of heartache.

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