It feels right to start a series of blog posts about writing I love with a book about trees. Without trees, we would have no books. And Listening to Trees is a heartfelt homage. It is aware of itself as the product of its very subject and is printed on recycled, ancient forest-friendly paper. The book feels good to hold. It is a little slimmer than most and can be held with one hand as you adjust your light or pull a soft blanket over your lap. The design is gorgeous–a line drawing of the rings of a tree trunk that become the title and the author’s name in a quirky cursive.
A.K. Hellum is a fellow who loves trees even more than I do. I have been known to hug a tree, to put my ear against a tree and try to hear the sap run, to lean against a giant cedar or redwood and think about the centuries it has stood, to lie on the ground and look up at leaves swaying in the wind. According to the back cover, “Listening to Trees tells the story of a man’s lifelong journey to salvage the world’s declining forests. In this enlightening account of Hellum’s’ half-century career as a forester, we become privy to our environment’s fragile state-of-being through stories of forests that have been stripped of their resources and improperly regenerated over the span of lifetimes.” This is a memoir. It is a love story. It is a plea to listen to trees.
In the preface, I knew I had found a kindred spirit when I read, “I feel that I am among friends when I walk in any forest anywhere. That is more than many of us can say walking in cities. The disappearance of our primeval and ‘messy’ forests is to be mourned for they connect us with a sense of reality and help people to be grounded in their lives. To write about forests has been a journey of self-discovery.” He argues that we are losing our relationship with forests.
Years ago, I reconnected with an old friend from high school who had earned several graduate degrees and worked in a lab that genetically engineered trees. I asked, “So they will be uniform and straight for the mills?” He scoffed. There is more to it than that, he said. I’m not so sure. Forests aren’t supposed to be convenient. They are not for us. They are of us and we are of them. But who cares about such distinctions anymore? Hellum does. A forestry instructor I knew years ago used to teach a course called “Forest Management.” She told me she started her class by telling her students that trees don’t need to be managed. They manage themselves quite well. Then she asked what they would like to talk about instead for the rest of the semester. Another kindred spirit. And yes, she was nearing the end of her career and getting a bit snarky, but she made the point, the point that had to be made. Trees know what they are doing. Like her, I like my forests unmanaged, but these kinds of forests are increasingly hard to find. A few years ago, a made my way through the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy in the southern interior of British Columbia, a glorious five-day slog through some of the last remaining pristine wilderness. Now that was a forest.
Open any page at random in this book and you will see a writer with a keen eye and a tremendous ability to get his observations onto the page. Birch and larch “represent light and youth and are, therefore, forever graceful. Aspens are like chameleons, changing from season to season. Using feminine gestures they strut their colours in spring and fall with a hint of vanity and exude perfume in springtime when their buds break open. In the east breeze their leaves tremble nervously, but they can also be opportunists, moving quickly into disturbed habitats when the chance arises.” Lovely. He goes on to write, “Then there are the poplars that remind me of the newly rich–unkempt, large, and fast growing, flaunting their power through pure size, even though their life spans are normally short.” His description of butterflies will leave you breathless.
At the end of the book, Hellum writes “I feel eternally thankful for the gifts that forests have afforded me directly and indirectly. I feel privileged to have been awarded the opportunity to relate to forests. My advice to future foresters is to rekindle that intimate feeling–it can be called love–that is needed for us to care for forests in our trust. We desperately need to be professionals rather than just employees.” Amen.
A.K. Hellum, Listening to Trees, Edmonton: NeWest Press. 2008.