Hermann Hesse believed that if we could learn to listen to the trees, we would achieve a profound perspective on our human lives by grasping the deepest meaning of aliveness. He used listening in the metaphorical sense. But the tremendous existential gift of trees — to use in the metaphors they furnish, and to themselves in the materiality of survival — might indeed be a kind of musicality, accounting for their virtuosity at resilience: beyond “the blind optimism” of a tree’s poetic enchantment lies a supersense for listening to the world and responding with inspired ingenuity, encoded with superior wisdom on how to live and how to die.
So suggests arborist William Bryant Logan in his contribution to Old Growth — an excellent anthology of essays and poems about trees, culled from the decades-deep archive of Orion Magazine, with contributions as varied as Ursula K. Le Guin and Michael Pollan, and a foreword by the poetic bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer.
He draws out the musical analogy, reflecting on Charlie Parker’s famous advice to young musicians on the steps to becoming a true jazz artist: learn the instrument, learn the tunes, and only then soar with the skilled freedom of improvisation that makes jazz. Pointing to Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” as a perfect embodiment of that three-step triumph, Bryant writes:
Understanding a particular tree, Bryant argues, is a matter of discerning “its notes, its scales, its sharps, its flats, and its time signatures.” In the 1970s, the botanists Francis Hallé, Roelof Oldeman, and P. B. Tomlinson identified six sets of choices, which serve as the chords that every tree combines to compose its particular tune: to branch (most trees) or not to department (palms); if branching, to the unit only at the base of the stem or all along with it; to grow new branches only upward (staghorn sumac), only outward (pagoda dogwood), or in some combination of the two; to produce each unit in a continuous upward or downward direction determined at its outset, or to change direction as it grows; to flower at the tips of branches (staghorn sumac) or along their sides (maple); to increase the trunk and branches continuously without rest or to have a dormant season.
The tree does this through deft improvisation attuned to the various chance conditions and events of its environment, changing the scale of its melody as needed. (This reminds me of Coltrane’s own observation that jazz musicians are born with a certain feeling “that just comes out no matter what conditions exist.”) Botanists call the tree’s responsive improvisation reiteration. Bryant writes:
In his classic love letter to trees, penned long before the science of reiteration was understood, Hesse observed that trees “struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws” — that is, to play their tune. But as much as they might be, in Hesse’s words, “the most penetrating preachers” in the art of living, they have at least as much to teach us about the art of dying. Beyond the already disorienting science of why a tree, like a human being, is partly dead throughout life, trees are living testaments to Richard Dawkins’s great perspective on the luckiness of dying, virtuosos at the art of letting life go with the same purposeful poise with which it is lived.
Citing a common saying about oaks — “Three hundred years growing, three hundred years living, three hundred years dying.” — Bryant considers the third stage of a tree’s life, known as negative morphogenesis, or “growing down”:
What unfolds in this dying stage is a process known as Phoenix regeneration:
Recounting his encounter with a colossal long-fallen Osage orange tree, from the dead trunk of which two miraculous former branches had risen vertically as new trunks lush with life, Bryant returns to his musical improvisation analogy:
Old Growth is a trove of wonder and wisdom in its entirety. Complement this fragment with Dylan Thomas’s short, splendid poem about trees and the wonder of being human, Thoreau on the actual value of a tree, and forester and biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus on how the astonishing science of “tree islands” illuminates the key to resilience.