The Secret Language of Trees

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Original Air Date: 
April 28, 2018

Using a complex network of chemical signals, trees talk to each other and form alliances with fellow trees, even other species. In fact, whole forests exist as a kind of superorganism. And some trees are incredibly old. Did you know a single bristlecone pine can live up to 6,000 years? And the root mass of aspens might live 100,000 years? We explore the science and history of trees and talk with Richard Powers about his epic novel "The Overstory."

That Tree in April 2017
Photo Gallery

Mark Hirsch took 365 photos — one a day for a year — of a single Bur oak tree. The project changed his life.

foggy trees
Articles

Suzanne Simard is a forest ecologist who's revolutionizing our understanding of trees. She has discovered that trees use underground networks to communicate and cooperate with each other. It turns out that whole forests can exist as a superorganism.

Tree
Articles

Richard Powers’ “The Overstory” has overturned a lot of conventional thinking. Though human characters shape the plot of this 500-page epic, the real heroes are trees.

Length: 
20:23
Audio

It's one thing to imagine the intelligence of a forest, but could you experience it? The Japanese concept of "forest bathing" might help. Forest guide Amos Clifford is a former Zen teacher who's one of the world's experts on forest bathing.

General Sherman, AKA Karl Marx
Audio

There's a famous sequoia named General Sherman that's the biggest tree on the planet. It has its own distinctive history linked to the Civil War general and a radical anarchist group. Cultural historian Daegan Miller tells this fascinating story.

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April 28, 2018
December 15, 2018
November 09, 2019
August 29, 2020
September 18, 2021
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Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:15):

It's To the Best of Our Knowledge. I'm Anne Strainchamps. When was the last time you really looked at, really thought about a tree?

Mark Hirsch (00:29):

There's this beautiful oak tree that I've admired for 19 years. I'd looked at it with fond appreciation, but I never once stopped and took a picture of it.

Anne Strainchamps (00:36):

Photojournalist Mark Hirsch.

Mark Hirsch (00:41):

I parked my truck. Wearing my street shoes, I ran down there in the snow and make a bunch of pictures. I go home and I post it on my Facebook page. A friend of mine, he sends me a note, "Dude, what's with you and that tree? You ought to do a photo a day with it." I officially started my project that very next day.

Mark Hirsch (01:02):

Every day was a fresh view for about two weeks. Then it started looking the same. Then I'm like, "Oh my gosh. What have I gotten myself into? How am I going to carry this forward?" For all those years I thought I was a pretty good photographer, but it didn't take me long on this tree project to realize that I'd been seeing the world through blinders.

Mark Hirsch (01:30):

I started to slow down. I'd be out there bent over, a foot to 18 inches of my eyes off the ground, looking closely, the way the grass was laying and the way a leaf had fallen off the tree and was cradled in the blades of grass, juxtaposed with an acorn on the ground or a kernel of corn, and laying there in the grass waiting for the indigo sky to get just right. A nighthawk is swooping around. A firefly flies through the picture between me and the tree. It was like somebody took a yellow paintbrush and made a swish of paint. I'm like, "Ah!" I'm watching, and there's more. I'm running around. I'm trying to herd fireflies. I'm herding fireflies. I'm like, "Is anybody driving by?" They're like, "What is that guy doing?" They have no idea how much joy I was getting out of it, how much joy they would probably have if they did the same thing. For 365 days I was drawn to that tree. I've never looked so long and hard and considered at anything in my life.

Anne Strainchamps (02:38):

That's Mark Hirsch. His photos turned into a book and calendar called That Tree. You can see some of them on our website at ttbook.org. A lot of people are seeing trees in a whole new light today. In fact, there's this amazing new science of trees that's shifting the entire paradigm. Maybe you've heard of Suzanne Simard. She's the forest ecologist who discovered that trees use underground networks to communicate and also to cooperate with each other, which is a whole new vision of how nature works. I met her in a forest.

Anne Strainchamps (03:19):

Good spot?

Suzanne Simard (03:19):

This is fine, yeah.

Anne Strainchamps (03:22):

What's your background? How did you get into forestry?

Suzanne Simard (03:25):

My family came from Quebec and moved across and settled in the inland rainforest of British Columbia. My grandfather and my uncles all horse logged. Every summer we would spend in these cedar hemlock forests that were so rich and diverse and huge playgrounds for kids. That just became part of me. I think I was always wired for forests and wired for earth. It's just a natural calling.

Anne Strainchamps (03:53):

Let's walk in a little bit if we could. When I read popular articles or blog posts about your work, the headlines often say, "Trees talk." Do you think trees can communicate?

Suzanne Simard (04:10):

Yeah, absolutely. My work actually looks at one way that they communicate. I think there's multiple ways, but I'll just talk about what I know. I look at how trees are connected below ground by these mutualistic fungi called mycorrhizal fungi.

Anne Strainchamps (04:25):

Mycorrhizal fungi.

Suzanne Simard (04:27):

You can think of them as extensions of the root system. The plant or the tree depends on that fungus to go out and explore the soil. The fungus goes and explores and grows into all these little teeny tiny niches or accesses nutrients that are unavailable to the tree.

Anne Strainchamps (04:45):

Is this like a secondary or subsidiary root system almost?

Suzanne Simard (04:49):

It is. In fact, if you think about how much is down there compared to the root system itself, under a single footstep in this forest there would be hundreds of miles of fungal network.

Anne Strainchamps (05:00):

Wait. Under a single footstep?

Suzanne Simard (05:02):

Yes, under a single footstep.

Anne Strainchamps (05:04):

What does this have to do then with whether trees can communicate with each other?

Suzanne Simard (05:09):

The way that communication happens is that through these mycorrhizal networks that link tree after tree after tree. They send resources back and forth. When I say resources I mean things like carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, water, defense signals even. They all send resources or nutrients out to trees that might be struggling under stress. We've seen the more shaded a tree is, the more a nearby tree that's in the sunlight will send to that shaded tree.

Anne Strainchamps (05:39):

The trees are helping each other?

Suzanne Simard (05:42):

Yeah. It really turns upside down how we've traditionally thought and managed forests. We still manage them to this very day on this competition model that they're individuals competing for resources, but what I have found is that they're all connected together and that they're sharing these resources. It doesn't mean competition's not going on as well, but there's a multiplicity of interactions.

Anne Strainchamps (06:04):

If any of us were to go walking in the woods, would you have to dig very far down to see-

Suzanne Simard (06:10):

To see the network?

Anne Strainchamps (06:11):

Yeah.

Suzanne Simard (06:11):

No. Actually we can do that now. See if I can get some roots. You get some root and you start looking at the root tips. When you see the little bulbous parts at the end, see that little root?

Anne Strainchamps (06:30):

Yeah. Before it branches?

Suzanne Simard (06:32):

Yeah. It's more fleshy. That's fungal material that's wrapped around the root tip. Out of that, even though you can't see those mycelium, there's emanating hyphae that come out of that little root tip.

Anne Strainchamps (06:45):

They're so beautiful when you look at them. They're branching. They're like a combination of hair and coral.

Suzanne Simard (06:51):

I know they have beautiful branching patterns that we've hardly studied at all. The fungi, when you go into my forest, when you pull up a root system, the fungi are abundant, and they're all different colors. Each species has a different color. They have different shapes. Some of them have [trilobate 00:07:09] branching. Some of them have bifurcating branching or they branch into two. You can also, in my forest at home, you can pull up this forest floor and see just big mats of fungal material underneath. It's like pulling off pages of a book. Literally I can open up the forest floor and I can see these pages and pages of mycorrhizal fungal networks just right before me. It's incredible.

Anne Strainchamps (07:33):

You've discovered a whole new world.

Suzanne Simard (07:34):

I have.

Anne Strainchamps (07:37):

Some of your work has involved what you call mother trees. Can you explain what's a mother tree?

Suzanne Simard (07:44):

One of my graduate students, Kevin [Byler 00:07:45] and some other colleagues and I, we did this big study where we took a forest, Douglas fir forest, and we looked at all of the connections in the forest. We were looking at two fungi Rhizopogon vesiculosus and Rhizopogon vinicolor. I know that's a mouthful. Keep in mind, there's like 100 other species of fungi in that forest. We looked at two. We found that every tree was connected to every other tree. The bigger and older the tree, the more connected it was. Those trees, we call them mother trees or hub trees. We call them mother trees because what we also found was that the young seedlings were regenerating within the network of the mother tree. You can think of this like a huge brain growing out through the forest from this single tree.

Anne Strainchamps (08:29):

It sounds like neural networks, right?

Suzanne Simard (08:30):

Yes. Basically, they're like neural networks. We've actually found that the patterning of the network is just the same as a neural network.

Anne Strainchamps (08:38):

Now, I read that you said somewhere something about when a tree like a mother tree gets ready to die, it will deliberately pass its resources on to its children, I guess.

Suzanne Simard (08:52):

One thing we found is that we have this thing called kin recognition known in animal species. Now, we're discovering that there's actually kin recognition between plants. We've done some experiments to show that these mother trees will actually send more carbon to genetically-related individuals than strangers. That means that the mother tree is nurturing her young to pass on her genes to future generations.

Suzanne Simard (09:17):

You asked about dying trees. We know and we're doing experiments with this in the beetle-killed forests of the North. The management paradigm is to cut the dying trees. We're trying to look at, and this is based on previous work done in grasslands, where when a tree starts to die and it knows it's going to die, it will start shoveling carbon or sending its own carbon and nutrients to linked trees in its understory. It's actually passing on what it has left to the next generation. Our studies are so simple. All we've measured is carbon and phosphorous and we don't know if there's any other messages. Even if we can't figure out what those messages are, we know enough now that those trees are hugely important, those mother trees, or in Aboriginal cultures, they're called grandmother trees. We know that they're important for their genes, for what they pass on to their young. What we're doing is we cut them out because we are trying to capitalize on the wood before they die so that we can sell it on the market. To me, it's like a lost legacy. We're really cheating the ecosystem of its natural healing power.

Anne Strainchamps (10:26):

That's a pretty powerful lesson in terms of resilience also, isn't it? I would think it would apply to human beings too. For the last decade or so, health researchers have proved what we all know anecdotally, people who have strong social networks, friends, family, live longer or healthier. It sounds like the same thing is true for trees.

Suzanne Simard (10:47):

It is true. The more connected those trees are, and the more diverse and locally adapted the community is, the community that knows its own environment, the better off it's going to be. I'll just tell you my own personal experience. I had breast cancer a couple of years ago. I'm doing great, but the thing that really got me through was my connections. It's the friends I made. It was this incredible, magical network where you could just feel the love going from person to person. We're all doing great. For me, it was like I was living the very thing I was seeing in the forest. I just feel so much comfort. I know I'm going to be okay, just like that tree is going to be okay as long as it stays within its community.

Anne Strainchamps (11:30):

Thank you. Thank you so much.

Suzanne Simard (11:33):

You're welcome.

Anne Strainchamps (11:35):

Suzanne Simard is a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. She also helped inspire Richard Powers's new novel, The Overstory. He'll join us next. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To the Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (12:03):

We've been talking about the emerging new science of trees, which is changing the very definition of treeness. What if a tree is not a single entity, but a kind of hive mind, a networked intelligence, impossibly old, unimaginably vast, existing on a time scale we can barely comprehend? How do you even begin to wrap your head around that? Novelist Richard Powers took a stab in a monumental new novel called The Overstory. 500-plus pages, dozens of characters, multiple generations, all revolving around trees. Powers is a MacArthur Genius, a National Book Award winner. He's written 11 previous novels, and this book is a major publishing event. Steve Paulson asked him to begin at the beginning.

Richard Powers (12:59):

First there was nothing. Then there was everything. In a park above a western city after dusk, the air is raining messages. A woman sits on the ground, leaning against a pine. Its bark presses hard against her back. Its needles scent the air and a force hums in the heart of the wood. Her ears tune down to the lowest frequencies. The tree is saying things, in words before words. It says, "Sun and water are questions endlessly worth answering." It says, "A good answer must be reinvented many times, from scratch." It says "Every piece of earth needs a new way to grip it. A thing can travel everywhere, just by holding still." The woman does exactly that. Signals rain down around her like seeds.

Richard Powers (14:13):

Talk runs far afield tonight. The bends in the alders speak of long-ago disasters. Spikes of pale chinquapin flowers shake down their pollen. Soon they will turn into spiny fruits. Laurels insist that even death is nothing to lose sleep over.

Richard Powers (14:37):

Something in the air's scent commands the woman. Close your eyes and think of a willow. The weeping you see will be wrong. Picture an acacia thorn. Nothing in your thought will be sharp enough. What hovers right above you? What floats over your head right now? Now?

Richard Powers (15:03):

Your kind never sees us whole. You miss the half of it, and more. There's always as much below ground as above. That's the trouble with people, their root problem. Life runs alongside them, unseen. Right here. Creating the soil. Cycling water. Trading in nutrients. Making weather. Building atmosphere. Feeding and curing and sheltering more kinds of creatures than people know how to count. A chorus of living wood sings to the woman, "If your mind were only a slightly greener thing, we'd drown you in meaning." The pine she leans against says, "Listen. There's something you need to hear."

Steve Paulson (16:03):

Wow. That is wonderful. What a great setup to the book.

Richard Powers (16:09):

Thanks for choosing it.

Steve Paulson (16:11):

I'm guessing that most novelists who want to write about the more-than-human world would write about animals, because we can identify with them. Why did you want to write about trees?

Richard Powers (16:22):

It's interesting that you said how much easier animal empathy identification is. Of course, that's the way we've been shaped by natural selection, to be extremely sensitive to things that look like us. Things about our size, things that move on our time frame. That empathy is only grudgingly given outwards beyond the circle of the human. I thought if we really want to get to this heart of why we feel so alone here, what psychologists call species loneliness, that we should take the problem directly in hand and say, what would it take for a human being like me to actually look at a plant, to look at a tree and say, "I will give this the sanctity that I ordinarily only give to my own kind." It's a big challenge.

Steve Paulson (17:16):

Was your goal then to create empathy for trees?

Richard Powers (17:20):

I think it was the goal of the book. I would also call it a necessary first step for whatever transformation is going to be required of us to live stably on this Earth. Originally I thought it would be marvelous to try to write a novel where the trees themselves were the characters. That's a bit of a technical challenge.

Steve Paulson (17:40):

Tolkien did it, I suppose, with the Ents.

Richard Powers (17:42):

With the Ents, yeah.

Steve Paulson (17:43):

In Lord of the Rings.

Richard Powers (17:44):

Absolutely.

Steve Paulson (17:44):

Was that in the back of your mind?

Richard Powers (17:45):

The Ents were a great source of inspiration for me. Slow to anger, slow to act, but when they do, you want them on your side.

Steve Paulson (17:55):

You obviously did a ton of research for this book. It is filled with scientific details, especially about the biology of trees. How many books did you read to be able to write this novel?

Richard Powers (18:08):

I read over 100 books. That's everything from field guides and popular treatments of trees to more scientific, more esoteric books, but it was one of the happiest periods of my life, the five years that I spent reading and writing this book. I would say it kind of saved me, in a way, from my own increasing estrangement from the world of the present. I could not get enough of it. Every book that I read was like a walk in the forest.

Steve Paulson (18:39):

What did you find most surprising about the science of trees?

Richard Powers (18:44):

I didn't know much about it before I started. I had been somewhat tree blind myself for most of my life, that I took them for granted, thought of them probably more like resources than like creatures with agency.

Steve Paulson (18:58):

Wait. Trees have agency?

Richard Powers (19:01):

Oh, they absolutely do. They're social. They have memory. They talk to each other. They do so over the air and they do so underground. A tree that's been attacked by insects, for instance, produces its own insecticides. We've known that for a while. In this profusion of chemicals that the tree produces under attack are substances that go out over the air and are detected by nearby trees.

Steve Paulson (19:30):

Wait, so basically they're telling other trees, "Watch out. I've been attacked by insects. You better get ready."

Richard Powers (19:36):

Yeah. There are people who have compared this to a kind of shared immune system.

Steve Paulson (19:41):

Wow.

Richard Powers (19:42):

Trees that have not been attacked get these signals and start to prepare their own preemptive insecticides. That's stunning to think that natural selection has brought together this chemical mechanism that makes a forest a kind of superorganism in a way. A tree can produce chemical signals that call in an air force that can alert another kind of insect to come and prey on the ones that are feeding on it.

Steve Paulson (20:09):

Really? That's amazing.

Richard Powers (20:10):

Yeah. It's a really stunning thing. Then the underground communication is truly mind blowing. Fungus and trees form symbiotic mutually beneficial relationships between themselves. It gets even crazier. Some of these funguses make little lariats let's say, out of their filaments, with which they trap invertebrates, they trap springtails in the ground. They digest these animals and they feed the nutrients back into the tree.

Steve Paulson (20:40):

Wow.

Richard Powers (20:42):

The fungus can connect trees at great distances, and in fact, it can connect trees of different species.

Steve Paulson (20:48):

It's astonishing. It sounds like you're talking about tree intelligence here. Is that a word we can use?

Richard Powers (20:56):

It depends on the company. It's a word I have become increasingly comfortable using. It's a word that pretty upstanding scientists have begun to think about. Even more conservative scientists have to step back from that word, intelligence, and say, if we mean by intelligence, flexible, non-deterministic behavior in the face of a changing environment, appropriate supple behavior, that's sensing, engaging and responding accordingly, trees are doing that and forests are doing that in a rich, aggregated way.

Steve Paulson (21:33):

Do we have anything to learn from trees?

Richard Powers (21:38):

Step one is to retell our own history. The first step is to realize how completely contingent on these other creatures our own development has been.

Steve Paulson (21:49):

There's another piece of this which has to do with time, because some trees live incredibly long lives. Some live hundreds of years. Some live other a thousand years. I can't even really fathom.

Richard Powers (22:01):

Oh Steve, it goes even older. The oldest continuous trunks, that is the oldest single organism trees, many people cite the bristlecone pine, would be upward of 5,000 or 6,000 years. There's a celebrated tree in Norway that's been dying and resurrecting for over 9,000 years.

Steve Paulson (22:22):

Wait, you're saying there's one tree that's been living for 9,000 years?

Richard Powers (22:25):

The root mass has been. Basal sprouts from that root mass have been coming back since the Ice Age. There are clonal colonies of aspen. The great groves of aspen are all growing clonally out of the same root mass. The root mass is on the order of 100,000 years old.

Steve Paulson (22:44):

[inaudible 00:22:44]. That's just so mind-boggling. Of course there is a long history of animist cultures where pre-modern people have believed that trees are spiritual beings. You strike me as a pretty hard-headed science guy, but I'm wondering if you've ever inhabited this kind of animist worldview.

Richard Powers (23:06):

The Overstory is in many ways an attempt to bring that hard-headed science into an intersection with the kinds of truths that older stories, animist stories, pantheist stories, once told. This to me was the transformation, the eye-opening challenge that I was trying to respond to in putting this novel together. We're living in an age now that's dispensed with a lot of these old myths that-

Steve Paulson (23:36):

They seem antiquated. Those are when people didn't know any better, when they didn't know any science. That's what they believed.

Richard Powers (23:42):

Primitive, superstitious, pre-scientific, but in fact, in dispensing with the things that are embodied in those myths and retreating into a, packed between the hard-headed rational empirical approach to the world, that frame of mind unites in a way with a culture of individualism, a culture of commodity, where we adopt this idea that meaning somehow can only be a personal thing. If we live in this culture where the only source of meaning is what you can make for yourself, then we're going to have a kind of literature that doesn't travel very far beyond either the psychological, the crises of individual people trying to come to terms with their own conflicted interior ambivalence, or the literature of the sociological or political.

Steve Paulson (24:43):

You're basically saying that the contemporary novel really does not know how to write about the natural world. It's too much, too overwhelming.

Richard Powers (24:51):

I'm saying that the contemporary literary novel has forgotten a third kind of dramatic conflict, which used to be at the heart and soul of most stories that we told ourselves. Not a person against their own self, or two people against each other, but the hopes and fears and dreams of the entire human race trying to come to terms with all of the things that non-humans want. You see, I think we got lulled into a false sense of victory. We thought, "Okay, that went out with Jack London. We've won that fight. We beat nature, and we're the last species standing. Everything else now is just a kind of subordinated resource to our project, to the human project." That rips the heart out of us. That's what leaves us in this perpetual state of species loneliness.

Steve Paulson (25:45):

I'd love to give a taste of this. One of your main characters is a tree biologist named Patricia Westerford, and she's the one who discovers the trees can communicate with each other. There's the gorgeous passage where she's walking through a forest in I think it's the Cascades in the state of Washington.

Richard Powers (26:04):

That's right.

Steve Paulson (26:05):

We see the world from her perspective. Could you read that?

Richard Powers (26:08):

Sure.

Richard Powers (26:12):

Hemlock, grand fir, yellow cedar, Douglas-fir. Buttressed monster conifers disappear in the mist above her. Sitka spruces bulge out in burls as big as minivans. Pound for pound, a wood stronger than steel. A single trunk could fill a large logging truck. Even runts here are big enough to dominate an eastern forest.

Richard Powers (26:41):

Clicks and chatter disturb the cathedral hush. The air is so twilight-green she feels like she's underwater. It rains particles, spore clouds, broken webs and mammal dander, skeletonized mites, bits of insect frass and bird feather. Everything climbs over everything else, fighting for scraps of light. If she holds still too long, vines will overrun her. She walks in silence, crunching 10,000 invertebrates with every step, watching for tracks in a place where at least one of the native languages uses the same word for footprint and understanding.

Richard Powers (27:32):

A bit of bushwhacking reveals the extent of the prodigious rot. Crumbling, creature-riddled boles, decaying for centuries. Snags gothic and twisted, silvery as inverted icicles. She has never inhaled such fecund putrefaction. The sheer mass of ever-dying life packed into each single cubic foot, woven together with fungal filaments and dew-betrayed spiderwebs leaves her woozy.

Richard Powers (28:06):

Death is everywhere, oppressive and beautiful. She sees why her kind will always dread these close, choked thickets, where the beauty of solo trees gives way to something massed, scary, and crazed. When the fable turns dark, when the slasher film builds to primal horror, this is where the doomed children and wayward adolescents must wander. There are things in here worse than wolves and witches, primal fears that no amount of civilizing will ever tame.

Richard Powers (28:50):

The prodigious forest pulls her along, past the trunk of an immense western red cedar. She addresses the cedar, using words of the forest's first humans. "Long Life Maker. I'm here. Down here." She feels foolish, at first, but each word is a little easier than the next.

Richard Powers (29:16):

"Thank you for the baskets and the boxes. Thank you for the cradles. The beds. The diapers. Canoes. Paddles, harpoons, and nets. Poles, logs, posts. The rot-proof shakes and shingles. The kindling that will always light."

Richard Powers (29:35):

Each new item is release and relief. "Thank you," she says, following the ancient formula, "For all these gifts that you have given," and still not knowing how to stop, she adds, "We're sorry. We didn't know how hard it is for you to grow back."

Steve Paulson (29:56):

That is such a remarkable passage. You somehow managed to turn science into poetry. I don't know how you did that. One of my takeaways from your book is that once you really understand how amazing trees are, you can't look at the world in the same way anymore. Something changes, and there are ethical implications, most obviously, problems with logging old growth forests, but it seems to go much further than that. Did anything change for you personally? Did this change your life in any way?

Richard Powers (30:30):

Everything changed. I'm living in a new place because of this book. I moved my life to another part of the country. I've been reading and researching for the book for five years. In the first couple of years I kept reading about old growth and how phenomenally different it is to walk into an old growth forest compared to the 98% of the wooded area of the country which is regrowth. I was stunned by the statistic that over 55% of the trees in North America are younger than 40 years old.

Steve Paulson (31:03):

Really? Wow.

Richard Powers (31:05):

I kept reading about these spectacular extant pockets of old growth Eastern forest in the Smoky Mountains. Three years ago, I decided to go have a look. The deeper into these patches of uncut forests that I went, the lower my jaw just kept dropping. I just thought, "This is my country. This is what this place looked like. This whole continent was Alaska."

Steve Paulson (31:33):

You moved to the Great Smoky Mountains?

Richard Powers (31:34):

I did. It just got under my skin. I couldn't stop thinking about it. A year later, I went back down and I bought a house on the edge of the park, and I've been living there for two years ever since. I will continue to live there now into the foreseeable future.

Anne Strainchamps (31:59):

Novelist Richard Powers in conversation with Steve Paulson. Powers is a MacArthur Genius and National Book Award winner. His latest novel is called The Overstory. Coming up, wishing you could have your own profound experience with a tree?

Amos Clifford (32:17):

Begin by remembering a tree that's been significant to you in your life. Just close your eyes and let the memory of that tree come to you. As it comes to you, really let the vision, a visual memory of that tree form. Importantly, notice how you feel with that tree. Notice the memories that come up. Notice the associations that you have. Was it a place of comfort? Was it a place of play? Was that tree your friend in some way? Maybe take a moment right now as you're remembering that tree to just send it some love. Know that it's still with you. That that tree is alive inside of you.

Anne Strainchamps (33:20):

The Japanese art of forest bathing comes to the U.S. next. It's To the Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (33:35):

We've been talking about how much more complex, how much older and more intelligent trees are than we usually acknowledge. It's one thing to imagine that, but could you experience it? There's a Japanese concept called forest bathing that might help. Charles Monroe-Kane got in touch with an expert, a former Zen teacher named Amos Clifford.

Charles Monroe-Kane (33:56):

I'll be honest with you, I have never heard of forest bathing in my life and I was picturing something with water or maybe even, I don't know, some people getting naked next to a tree, but it's not like that at all. What is forest bathing?

Amos Clifford (34:08):

It's really just a slow walk through the forest, usually guided, where we're paying attention to our senses, noticing where we are, noticing how the forest is touching us through all of our senses, and also noticing what really simple pleasures are present right there just for our enjoyment. When you think about hiking, for example, which is a beautiful activity, a great way to be in nature, very often you're about trying to get somewhere else, you have a destination in mind. In forest bathing the destination is to just show up right in the moment and the gateway to get there is our senses.

Charles Monroe-Kane (34:51):

You say we need a guide and I can understand that. What does the guide do?

Amos Clifford (34:55):

The first thing we do is that we greet you and then we walk a little ways into the forest with you in usually a small group and then we'll go for about 15 minutes. We'll do essentially a series of sensory scans. We'll start with perhaps just feeling the touch of the forest on your skin and then we may move to what are the sounds around you, what is the closest sound you can hear? What's the farthest away sound? What's the quietest sound? How are all the sounds working together? Then we go into just breathing as the air comes in and out of your mouth, tasting the air, noticing its textures, noticing the sound also of the air coming in and out of your mouth. Shifting now to smell. What sense do you detect? Move your head a little bit side to side, like an animal might be doing. Eyes are still closed with all of this. Then noticing with your body, this is a sense we call body radar. Just turning slowly in a circle, letting your body recognize which direction it wants to face. Then once you're there, very slowly opening your eyes, and as you open your eyes, allow yourself to see whatever's in front of you as if you're seeing it for the first time. Maybe it's your first time on the planet and you're seeing it and just enjoy that.

Charles Monroe-Kane (36:16):

I was thinking about the word bathing and was thinking about taking a bath versus taking a quick shower or whatever. When you bathe, you have a lot of senses hitting you at the same time. I wonder if just we can unpack one of them, because I think there's too many to hit at once. I was thinking about smell. Can you tell me just a little bit about smell and how that you think is different when you forest bathe versus forest hike or walk?

Amos Clifford (36:38):

I think actually you're smelling things all the time, you're just not noticing it. In the forest, when you're moving through really quickly, you are smelling things, you're just not noticing it. What we'll do is we'll do things like ... Here's a low-hanging fruit that any of your listeners can go out and try. Next time you're in the forest, just scoop up a handful of duff or dirt from the forest floor, and slowly bring that up to your nose, and just inhale that through your nose, and notice the textures of scent that are in that. Then while you're doing that, maybe just rub that together between your hands and see if new scents are released. As you're doing that, let it slowly flow from your hands back to the forest floor. Really engaging your sense of sight. Looking at that, what is that like? As you're doing this, allow the sensory to become sensual. What I mean by that is connect to the emotional experience of that.

Amos Clifford (37:41):

Then as you've released all of that dirt back into the forest floor, rub your hands together a little bit and look at the traces of dirt on your hands and smell your hands now, and just see what scent remains on your hands. If you really want to continue this experience, taste that dirt, lick your fingers and taste some of that dirt and really take it in that way also. This is a very powerful experience. It's very simple. It's really easily accessible. The only caution that I would have for it is do this somewhere where humans are not poisoning the land one way or another.

Charles Monroe-Kane (38:22):

Fair enough. Do you have to be in the deep forest? Can you forest bathe in a park?

Amos Clifford (38:27):

A natural forest far away from human-made sounds is, of course, ideal. However, you can do this anywhere. I've actually had a great experience interacting with a single tree growing in the middle of a big parking lot at a shopping mall.

Charles Monroe-Kane (38:43):

No way. Really? Tell me about that. What happened? That's interesting.

Amos Clifford (38:47):

I was a little bit feeling rushed. I was running an errand. I parked my car and there was this one very slender little tree in one of those islands in the parking lot. There was a slight breeze blowing and I just held the trunk, put my hands around the trunk of this tree. I just felt its slight movement and I let myself just move with that tree. As I did that, I just noticed my body starting to relax.

Charles Monroe-Kane (39:13):

That's interesting.

Amos Clifford (39:14):

It really shifted my day. Trees have some kind of connection with humans between humans and trees that are really significant. The more I spend time in the forest, the more I think about what did the Buddha do? He wandered around in the forest. Where was he sitting at the moment of his enlightenment? He was sitting at the base of a tree.

Charles Monroe-Kane (39:35):

A tree, right.

Amos Clifford (39:36):

Now, I've always thought of that in the past, I thought of that as just an interesting setting for the story. The more I connect with trees and the more I'm in forest environments, the more I begin to suspect that it's actually an essential part of the story. That there's something about the combined sentience of the person and the tree being in relationship that supported the Buddha's awakening.

Amos Clifford (40:03):

Just so you know, I don't really identify myself as a Zen practitioner anymore. My practice is being in the forest. I would say the equivalent of my sitting meditation for me is what we call sit spot in the forest. Sit spot means we'll do this on most of our walks. We'll just invite people, find a place that you like. Don't overthink it. Just sit there for 20 minutes. Many people won't say it on the walk, but that was the best part of the walk for them.

Charles Monroe-Kane (40:35):

I was reading about this and I came upon the cornerstone philosophy. It's a simple phrase. The forest has your back. The forest has your back. What does that mean?

Amos Clifford (40:46):

This is something we train guides in, because guides can get really involved in the training and wanting to know how to help people have good experiences. What we want them to remember is that they're working in partnership with the forest. We say be in actual partnership with the forest. Your job is to open the doors. You do that by slowing people down and getting them into their senses. The therapy job is the forest's. The forest has a way of offering itself to us. We just have to open our hearts to it, and then the wealth of the healing capacity of the forest is perhaps limitless.

Anne Strainchamps (41:38):

Amos Clifford is the author of Your Guide to Forest Bathing, and he was talking with Charles Monroe-Kane.

Anne Strainchamps (41:50):

There are trees and then there are celebrity trees. Famous individuals like the Sequoia named General Sherman, which is the biggest tree on the planet. Now why was a tree named for a Civil War general who laid waste to the South? Cultural historian Daegan Miller uncovered the story after he went to Sequoia National Park with his girlfriend. It's where they got engaged and where he set a chapter of a book called This Radical Land. Steve Paulson wanted to know more about this first encounter with a mythic tree.

Daegan Miller (42:28):

Sequoias can grow up to about 300 feet tall. They're enormous. They can live to be 3,000-ish years old, 3,000-plus. Historically there are two reactions to the sequoias. The first is to see them and just stunned with the wonder of these enormous, some of the oldest living things in the world, the biggest living things in the world. The other historical reaction has been to shrug. I will admit that the first time I saw a sequoia, I was like, "That's a pretty big tree."

Steve Paulson (42:57):

"What's the big deal?"

Daegan Miller (42:58):

Yeah, partly because that California landscape, everything is humongous. The Sierra Nevada Mountains in that section, they're amongst the tallest mountains in the Lower 48 states. It wasn't until my now wife and I got right up to the sequoia, tried to wrap our arms around one, that we started to feel just the enormity of this living being. And there was one sequoia that had been hollowed out to some extent by a fire. She got inside and stretched out her arms.

Steve Paulson (43:27):

She got inside the tree?

Daegan Miller (43:28):

She got inside the tree, stretched out her arms as far as she could, and couldn't touch the inner bark. We've lived in apartments smaller than that.

Steve Paulson (43:37):

She actually walked inside the tree.

Daegan Miller (43:38):

She actually walked inside. Then it started to hit home that these, they're unparalleled, the enormity of what we were witnessing.

Steve Paulson (43:47):

There are some individual trees, sequoias, that are actually famous-

Daegan Miller (43:51):

Exactly.

Steve Paulson (43:52):

... themselves. One took on the name General Sherman, after the famous William Tecumseh Sherman, the guy who at the end of the Civil War marched through the South, and then after that he had a second career as a U.S. Army guy fighting the Indians.

Daegan Miller (44:08):

One of the things that happens in the post-Civil War U.S. is the military mission of the country really turns westward, really turns towards these wars of extermination against the American Indians. William T. Sherman, William Tecumseh Sherman, he's the main general in this western campaign. The sequoias are the biggest trees in the world. They're not the tallest. They're not necessarily the widest, but apparently by volume of wood, they are the biggest trees in the world. The biggest of the sequoias in 1879 was named the General Sherman. There's a deep irony here. Sequoia comes from the name of a Cherokee Indian who was supposed to have invented a written Cherokee language, Sequoia.

Steve Paulson (44:50):

The name honors the local Cherokees.

Daegan Miller (44:52):

Right, the local Cherokees, who were marched out on the Trail of Tears, marched out of Alabama and the Southwest in the 1830s. Then in 1879 the biggest sequoia is named for a famous Indian-killer, William Tecumseh Sherman. The irony that someone who is all for exterminating the Indians, that his name gets overlaid on top of a tree whose scientific name is meant to honor an American Indian, who was marched out on the Trail of Tears, there are many layers of head-scratching irony here in the naming of the sequoia.

Steve Paulson (45:28):

The story gets even more complicated, because then there was this little band of radical anarchists who basically move into the sequoias, stake an ownership to it, actually rename General Sherman, the sequoia tree. They rename it Karl Marx.

Daegan Miller (45:45):

Right. If you made this up, no one would believe it. They'd be like, "This is a trashy novel. This would've never happened." Let me back up a little bit. In California, in the U.S. in general in the post-Civil War, there was lots of radical politics really driven by the politics of labor. In the mid-1880s, 1885, 1886, a couple of labor organizers get together. They're trying to figure out what's going to be the best method for overthrowing the capitalist system in the U.S. What a number of them hit on is that they need to create their own commune, their own community. This band of anarchists and socialists and political and economic radicals staked a claim to a huge tract of land that included the giant forest that included General Sherman. They started a commune that they called Kaweah Commonwealth.

Steve Paulson (46:37):

They actually just move into this forest.

Daegan Miller (46:39):

Yeah, they moved into this forest.

Steve Paulson (46:40):

Way up high in the mountains, set up their commune.

Daegan Miller (46:45):

Set up their commune. The communards weren't interested in logging the sequoias. In fact, they had a preservation scheme. They were going to log some of the smaller, more manageable trees. The plan was actually quite successful. It was successful because in that part of Central California, there's not much timber. For the settlers who wanted to build, they ended up having to buy their timber from Northern California. How do you get the timber from Northern California down to Central California? You ship it on the Southern Pacific Railroad. The Southern Pacific Railroad was like the Facebook of its day, was this enormous corporation. It was one of the most hated corporations of the time. Controlled an enormous amount of wealth and political power. The communards were successful enough that they started to cut into the Southern Pacific's profit margin.

Steve Paulson (47:34):

I assume the Southern Pacific was the arch enemy of the-

Daegan Miller (47:37):

Was the arch enemy.

Steve Paulson (47:37):

... these commune people.

Daegan Miller (47:38):

Exactly. The Southern Pacific took this radical political economic threat very, very seriously. Some of the fixers from the Southern Pacific Railroad got together with some of the incipient conservationists and preservationists and helped pass legislation in Congress creating Sequoia National Park. They created the park that was big enough so that the park ended up seizing and extinguishing the communards' property.

Steve Paulson (48:05):

What happened to that tree that we were talking about, which had been General Sherman, then renamed Karl Marx, which we should point out is the biggest tree in the world?

Daegan Miller (48:15):

In the world. I should say that nearly as soon as the communards got there to the giant grove, they streamed into the giant grove and rebaptized the Sherman tree Karl Marx. When the park is created in 1890 it takes the cavalry to actually drive the communards out, and then the cavalry reverts the name back to the General Sherman. General Sherman stands today. You can go visit it. It is known as the General Sherman.

Steve Paulson (48:41):

Why did you want to write about all of this?

Daegan Miller (48:46):

One of the things that's amazing to me about trees is that they're objects of science, they're biological, they're ecological, but they're also, they've always been objects of human culture. Anywhere you go in the world, anywhere you go in time where there were trees and there were humans, human life is intertwined with the life of trees, which means that trees are witnesses to our time on earth, to all of human history. A tree that's as old, a 3,000-year-old tree, that gets us back to the Romans. Civilizations have come and gone. Economies have come and gone. Ideas have come and gone. The idea that there's something that's living that you can touch, that you can wrap your arms around, that's seen the expanse of human history, but that's also mute, it can't tell us the human history.

Steve Paulson (49:36):

At least we can't understand it.

Daegan Miller (49:38):

We can't understand it. One of the things that I think trees have long been is this sort of mystery for humans to reflect upon, reflect upon what we're doing on earth, what we're doing with each other, or to the non-human world. I found this mystery just completely beguiling. I wrote this book and I wrote this story about the sequoias, in part to figure out what it was my then-girlfriend and I saw back in 2005 in this trip where we decided we wanted to get married. What did these things mean? What were we doing?

Anne Strainchamps (50:15):

That's Daegan Miller. He was talking with Steve Paulson about his new book, This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent. That's it for this hour, but there's more in our podcast feed. Did you know we have a newsletter? It's got articles, photos, notes about what our producers are reading and thinking about, another way to stay in touch. You can sign up for it at ttbook.org/newsletter. To the Best of Our Knowledge is produced at Wisconsin Public Radio by Charles Monroe-Kane, Mark Riechers, Shannon Henry Kleiber, and Haleema Shah. Sound designer and technical director Joe Hartke brought the forest to life this week. Steve Paulson is our executive producer. I'm Anne Strainchamps. Thanks for listening.

Speaker 10 (51:04):

PRX.

Last modified: 
September 24, 2021