The Hidden Life of Trees

As I write, glancing—a little too often to be very productive—out of my office windows on this bitterly cold January afternoon, the winter sun is just beginning to sink. In another half hour, it will set the bare canopies of my front yard’s great oaks into flames of orange, pink, and deep plum.

It’s a trick, of course––a bit of nature’s magic, a show that will repeat itself on clear evenings for a few more weeks before days begin to lengthen and the sun angles itself toward spring. At our latitude in Charlotte, foliage won’t be far behind. Winter’s wizened, naked crones will don green robes and become girls again. But, if I can be still like these stately arboreal sisters, resist mind’s rush toward the longer, warmer, busier days of spring and instead sync myself to winter’s slower rhythms, I can participate in this spectacular mystery play.

Relationship with and participation in nature, particularly in the life of forest trees, is precisely what Peter Wohlleben encourages in his international bestseller The Hidden Life of Trees. In this genre-blending work, Wohlleben, a forester turned ecologist, provides a naturalist’s lessons about the ecology of the forest with the voice of a gifted storyteller, convincing readers that forest trees are indeed social beings that share resources with one another, nurse their “children” with sugar and other nutrients, and have an ability to learn from experience. Above all, Wohlleben champions looking at the environment through the much longer lens of forest trees, those giant beings I like to think of as our first ancestors.

Okay, perhaps I’m stretching the metaphor a bit by referring to them as ancestors, but I’m not the first to project human characteristics upon trees. It’s easy to see why. Their vertical structures bear resemblance to human bodies—long torsos that branch into elegant limbs, then extend further into slender, finger-like branches; crowns that, when fully leafed, resemble full heads of hair; knots and scars that mimic facial features. And, though they don’t have the human capacity to pick up their roots and walk, it sometimes seems they might.

Writers and artists from Virgil to Tolkien have told such tales, endowing forest trees with human feeling and mobility, while honoring their role as keepers of ancient wisdom and sacred mysteries. The largest of living beings, trees have roots in the underworld, trunks on land, and crowns stretching toward heaven, enabling them to span the three worlds of heaven, hell, and earth and making them central figures in mythologies throughout the world. Virgil even asserted that the first humans were born of a mighty oak.

Indeed, trees have captured human imagination since our beginnings, which by the way is much more recent than theirs. Trees began to populate the earth 385 million years ago. Human beings didn’t begin to evolve until around two million years ago, and when we did, it was with dreams of trees.

Our hominid forbears lived most of their lives in the relative safety of the tree canopy, dropping to earth for limited forays until climate change caused vast numbers of trees to die off and forced these early ancestors to adapt to life on the ground. Still, we haven’t lost our fascination with the great beings in whose arms we slept, ate, and nursed our young. We wonder what they’ve witnessed in their much longer lives (the oldest tree on record is 9,550 years old), how the world has changed, and the ways in which it hasn’t.

We also realize that, despite living in an electronic age, we haven’t yet lost our dependence on these creatures whose bodies served as our first nurseries. Granted, as the daughter of a carpenter, I’m a particular fan of hardwood floors and knotted pine furniture, but as I look around, I see that I’ve never really left the forest nursery. I live in a wood-frame house, sleep in a four-poster pine bed, pull my clothes from walnut dressers and paperback books from oak library shelves, toss tonight’s salad in a bowl made from teak. And who among Americans today is much different? What would we do without the trees?

Well, for one thing, we’d have a pretty hard time breathing. Remember, trees breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out the oxygen—a good enough reason to contemplate their importance to human life. But because they are so essential to our health and well-being, trees have long held a primary role in human culture. After all, without trees there would be no recorded literature. In that sense, my vocation as a writer is as much tied to the trees as my father’s.


This year, Charlotte Lit will celebrate tree culture in our “city of trees.” Planning is underway, so stay tuned for a series of events that will include author readings, lectures on Charlotte’s tree canopy, a paper-making workshop. Meanwhile, add Wohlleben’s book to your winter reading list. Maybe even read it under a tree-shaded table in the park. Your blood pressure will likely drop and you’ll be filled with a phytoncide-fueled sense of well-being. Yep, I learned that in The Hidden Life of Trees.

Christmas Yet to Come: Reading “A Christmas Carol” as a writer

In addition to being a seminal work of literature, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a beautifully-constructed story, and writers can learn by studying it. A memorable protagonist, compelling flashbacks, conflict and tension—and by the time the “Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come” arrives, we’re totally sold on the ending, Ebenezer Scrooge’s redemption.

We bring it to you today not only because it’s Christmas day, but because this last week of the year is a perfect time to think about the Christmas seasons in your future. What will you have written by this time next year?

Or maybe the question is larger than that. Perhaps we should read A Christmas Carol as a caution. None of us wants to find ourselves an old Scrooge, having not done what we were called to do—to have not told the stories we wanted to tell.

And so we ask again: what will you have written by this time next year?


From A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

Chapter 4: The Last of the Spirits

The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. When it came near him, Scrooge bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.

It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible, save one outstretched hand. But for this, it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded.

He felt that it was tall and stately when it came beside him, and that its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread. He knew no more, for the Spirit neither spoke nor moved.

“I am in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come?” said Scrooge.

The Spirit answered not, but pointed onward with its hand.

“You are about to show me shadows of the things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us,” Scrooge pursued. “Is that so, Spirit?”

The upper portion of the garment was contracted for an instant in its folds, as if the Spirit had inclined its head. That was the only answer he received.

Although well used to ghostly company by this time, Scrooge feared the silent shape so much that his legs trembled beneath him, and he found that he could hardly stand when he prepared to follow it. The Spirit paused a moment, as observing his condition, and giving him time to recover.

But Scrooge was all the worse for this. It thrilled him with a vague uncertain horror to know that, behind the dusky shroud, there were ghostly eyes intently fixed upon him, while he, though he stretched his own to the utmost, could see nothing but a spectral hand and one great heap of black.

“Ghost of the Future!” he exclaimed, “I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But, as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart. Will you not speak to me?”

It gave him no reply. The hand was pointed straight before them.

“Lead on!” said Scrooge. “Lead on! The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know. Lead on, Spirit!”


A Christmas Carol is in the public domain, so it’s easy to find and download in a number of formats. (Goodreads has some options here.)

Writing a Better Year

A favorite book from my childhood is Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson. The story begins with a blank slate: just Harold and his crayon on an empty page. By drawing on the page with his crayon, Harold takes a journey and creates his world—pies and perils alike.



Creative writers do something similar: create worlds on the page. If you’re like most writers, you want each creation to be better than the last. Every story is an opportunity to further develop your craft, to write a better story.

What if we were to bump you and Harold together?

We’re about to welcome a new year, which might be the optimal (or at least traditional) time to try this experiment. For your next year, instead of resolving to do something, resolve to create something. And the creation I have in mind is not what you think: I’m not going to suggest that you decide what you’re going to write and then go write it. (That would be too easy. Any writing web site can tell you that.) Rather, the challenge is to create your world, the way Harold does.

In other words: you are a creative writer, and you are hereby challenged to write your next year into existence. Here’s how:

  1. Decide. Decide that you are going to see the year as a blank canvas or a blank page on which you can tell any story you want—that you are the author of your own story.
  2. Describe. What does your ideal year look like? Fill in the canvas: describe the entire year as you’d like to see it play out. Be specific: when will you write, where, and what. Try writing it as a short story with you as the protagonist. Describe yourself with good adjectives, like persistent and passionate and even plucky. What obstacles will the hero/heroine encounter, and how will they be overcome? What will the protagonist learn by the end? How will you be changed?
  3. Debut. Select a day to begin. You could wait until January 1st…but who says you have to write the story that way? How about beginning today?

It’s easy not to do this. It’s far easier to let the year happen as it will, to respond to the ebb and the flow, the flotsam and the jetsam—so easy. Easy to let your writing get swallowed up by the monsters we call time and to-dos and teenagers. We all have our monsters, and most of them we have drawn into existence ourselves, just as Harold did.

We can also draw them another way. It’s your year. You can create it anyway you choose.

 


Like the idea of “writing” your year into existence? Join Charlotte Lit co-founders Paul Reali and Kathie Collins for a free community conversation on January 4 at 6 pm. During the session, you’ll imagine your own “creative hero’s journey,” and you’ll leave fired up—and with a plan. [More Info & Registration]