In the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, where I grew up, needle-leafed evergreens grew so thick they became invisible, in the way that abundant things do. In my memory, they grow in walls along highways, homogeneous, never-ending. Roads curved or straightened and either way you’d never see ahead or over, because of the pines. You couldn’t catch a view. The ground, wherever I played—at school, at home, in the front yard, in the backyard, by the creek—lay thick with red dry needles. The branches started twenty feet above my head, too high to climb.
But at the end of our driveway, somebody had planted an ornamental pear. Unlike the evergreens, it observed the seasons with due respect: frothy white for spring, dense green for summer, shades of red and orange for fall, naked in winter. Most significantly, its branches started low. If I swung myself between the two lowest ones, I could lodge my heel into the tree’s crotch, and from there propel up, up, up. I had a branch that was mine, the highest I could go. I stayed up there for ages. There, I was taller than an adult. I could see. I watched cars and bikes and people go underneath me. A couple of times, neighbors had whole conversations in my shade—Courtney can come to our house tonight for a sleepover, and Zach was out of control at the crawfish boil, and tell your kids don’t ever go into the yard of the man who lives next door to the Strongs; he’s a little strange.
Most of the time nothing happened, and I leaned my head against the branch and watched the sky through the leaves. I wondered what the tree’s thoughts were like. If it thought in images or feelings or something else entirely.
In an adult-sized world, kids climb trees so that they can see properly. Trees are among the first allies many of us have in trying to get perspective. In the latest HumaNature episode, kids and grown-up citizens of Melbourne, Australia, expose and reinforce that oldest of alliances.
Researcher Hope Jahren is moving our connection to trees into adulthood, too. In her memoir Lab Girl, she takes us along on her field studies and into her lab. Hers is a fantastical world, in which trees both doom and enable their offspring; in which ancient forests thrive in the most barren parts of the Alaskan steppe; in which trees remember their childhoods; in which, even as humans study plants only as food, medicine, and wood, we accidentally learn, too, that they are whole universes. Jahren writes about science and also about doing science, about what it is to find a calling and follow it. She is Oliver Sacks for botany.
In Germany, forester Peter Wohlleben has applied similar ideas to the woodland he runs, and writes about them in his book, The Hidden Life of Trees. He illuminates that trees are social creatures, and that a forest could be considered a peopled community, rather than a silent setting.
I’ve found pleasure, lately, in learning that science sits on branches and wonders what trees think about, too. That grown-up adults in Melbourne, Australia, wonder the same. It’s a delight to know that trees are more complex and fuller of personality than I suspected as a child I might one day have to pretend.
I don’t need to climb trees to see anymore. Now, as an adult, I can book a plane flight, or go bungee jumping. Also, I’m tall enough to navigate adult-sized tables and turnstiles and ticket counters. I can see, as much as any of us can; and I’ve learned that what I can’t see has little to do with how high above the ground I get. So I don’t need that ornamental pear anymore, and I’m less antagonistic toward Georgia evergreens.
But I think about my ornamental pear, sometimes. My gateway tree. I’ve found other trees, since then, in other times of my life and other places I lived. The lonely tree that caught the sunset on the side of the road in New Mexico. The Austin live oaks. My favorites, now, are the krummholtz trees at ten thousand feet in the Snowy Range of Wyoming—spruce and fir twisted into low curlicued sculptures by the relentless wind. Where grass can’t grow higher than a horizontal inch, where in high summer snow still lingers, these trees’ seeds sprout delicate shoots. When trees lucky enough to be born on lower slopes grow straight and protected, these flex with the wind and grow that way, rippled, perpetually hunched, and, despite everything, hard and beautiful and here.
– Erin Jones