Aaron Perry


Y On Earth - Podcast Cover
Stewardship & Sustainability Series
Episode 24 – David G. Haskell - The Songs of Trees

Winner of the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award for Natural History Literature, and the 2013 Reed Environmental Writing Award. Dr. Haskell delivers a unique perspective grounded in modern biological/ecological science and enriched by a more prosaic and timeless cultural ethos of connection and biophilia. His most recent book, “The Songs of Trees,” was named one of the Best Science Books of 2017 by Public Radio International’s “Science Friday,” and was selected by Forbes.com as one of the 10 Best Environment, Climate Science and Conservation Books of 2017.

Enjoy this discussion between author David Haskell and podcast host Aaron William Perry – set in close proximity to towering Cottonwoods along the gently flowing Boulder Creek with scores of ducks in the background!


(Automatically generated transcript for search engine optimization and reference purposes – grammatical and spelling errors may exist.)

Welcome to the YonEarth Communities Stewardship and Sustainability Podcast Series.

Today we are visiting with Professor and author David George Haskell.

Hi David.

Hello and it’s good to be with you.

Welcome to the show.

Thank you.

David is a British-born American biologist, author and professor of biology at

Cawani, the University of the South in Cawani, Tennessee.

In addition to scientific papers, he has written essays, poems, op-eds,

and the book The Forrest Unseen, as well as his recent book The Song of Trees,

which we’ll be talking about today.

This book The Song of Trees has won the John Bro’s Medal for Distinguished Natural History Writing,

as well as public radio international science Friday, named one of the best science books of 2017.

And Maria Popoba included the book in Brain Picking’s favorite science books of 2017,

The Forbs.com, named the book One of the Ten Best Environment Climate Science and Conservation Books of 2017.

And David, it’s so wonderful to have you here today and to know that so many in our communities

and our global culture have responded to this book so positively.

Well, thank you.

It’s a delight to be here.

And I know that you have your undergrad degree in biology at the University of Oxford.

And then you went on and did your graduate work at Cornell.

What were you doing your graduate work in?

My graduate work was mostly on the evolution of bird sounds.

So birds, of course, structured their societies and communicate to one another,

mostly through acoustic means, some through feather displays and so on,

but they’re very acoustic creatures.

And so I was interested in getting into that acoustic world and asking the birds,

how come this sound is so different from this one?

How do species diverge in their sonic displays?

So that was my initial foray, if you like, into the sonic world of other species.

And I’ve since birds were the gateway drug, if you like.

I’ve since moved into the sonic worlds of trees and soundscapes and started in a very scientific mode,

a Cornell doing quantitative analyses of bird sounds and now has moved into a more open-ended mode,

that includes sound recording and computers, but a lot of listening out in unstructured ways and outside.

You know, as we were planning over the last few days where we wanted to record this discussion,

you suggested Boulder Creek right along this riparian corridor in downtown Boulder, Colorado,

where we have plenty of cottonwoods and all kinds of other species as well.

And why did you pick this spot? What made you think of this spot?

This is an interesting confluence of human life and plant life and non-human animal life.

Whenever I come to this place, they’re always interesting creatures,

just that, you know, a minute ago, a kingfish flew over, there’s a little gathering of crows happening in the American region.

And the trees here provide part of the atmosphere of the place, these really old cottonwoods,

that are integrated into animal and human environment.

So people are drawn to the pocket, the library is here, the summer farmer’s market is right here,

so there’s an interesting drawing together of pathways that happens at this point.

And so it’s a delightful place to be, but it’s also a very interesting place to be,

because many different life paths converge in this one place, including the life paths of trees.

You know, I’m struck that you have a background and credentials in hard sciences,

in disciplines that generally are very technical and can be very reductionist.

Yet, when I’m reading your book, The Songs of Trees, I am struck by the lyricism, the poeticism,

that you’re using in your prose to describe this magnificent tapestry of interconductivity

that is the reality here on this planet. And I’m struck by gosh, this is a scientist writing this,

and that isn’t something I would have necessarily expected.

How did that happen?

Well, I think it’s part of the structure of the world.

The world is made from molecules and energy transfers, and those arranged and incredibly complicated architectures

that have deep history, the life on this planet is at least three and a half billion years old.

And that is poetry, that is art.

And so the world is divided into separate categories where academia is,

you know, the division of science over here, and then the division of humanities there, and so forth.

No, you know, a river has its rhythms, it has its music, it has atoms,

it has living creatures, it has DNA within it, environmental DNA.

So all these different things that we divide into different disciplines and departments,

I think are all present together.

And even saying that they’re present together, I think, is a little bit of a falsehood because

there is no separation, you know, the atoms are in the water, in the creek are, in fact, the music.

They are moving with a particular rhythmicity.

And so there is no separation, there’s a blossoming coming from one place.

And one of the great, the delights, the freedoms of writing in a more open-ended way, in a nonfiction book,

rather than in a scientific paper, is that some of those metaphors, analogies, rhythms,

can come to the surface of the writing.

And it’s entirely appropriate that it would, whereas in a scientific paper,

which is also a really, you know, wonderful place to be writing, but there’s a particular form.

You know, scientific papers are almost like the formal poetry of science in that there is a structure

for what needs to go in which part of the paper.

And you don’t get to throw in wild speculations or interesting metaphors

because that’s not part of the agreed upon cultural rules for communication within that paper.

And I think that’s great that, you know, those rules are there for very good reasons.

So scientific approach and then a poetic approach, I think a complimentary, they work together.

They’re not in our position to one another.

And that’s one of the reasons to come out and stand on the side of the creek is that

that truth becomes abundantly evident,

whereas sitting in a seminar room in a university or a high school or something,

that those truths are hard to perceive.

And that’s the great challenge now in education, of course, is to break out of the boxes that we have created

and embrace some of the actual connectivity of the world.

And I think, you know, in some places we’re doing a good job, and in other ways,

education is utterly failing in that task.

So fascinating. So it strikes me as something we see in the sciences,

as well as in the realm of business and economics that more and more of us are working diligently

to resolve very challenging and complex issues related to sustainability on this planet.

And I’m struck that some of our tools, things like financial models built in Excel,

discussions and decision making in boardrooms, aren’t necessarily bringing in the type of natural intelligence

that is needed to deal with these challenges in our time.

And what I hear you saying is that there’s something specific and uniquely precious

in our connecting to places, wild places, like this one here that we’re standing next to.

Yes, and I think the key is that these different practices and ways of thinking about the world,

or relating to the world are not in opposition to one another.

So modeling in an Excel spreadsheet or mapping forests using sophisticated satellite technology.

We need that way of approaching the world, but if that’s all we have,

then we’re not drawing on the full set of intelligences, wisdoms,

community understandings that exist within the human community of life,

but also exist within, say, the root system of this cottonwood,

or in the relations of the invertebrate animals that live on the creek bed here.

And an example that really brought that home to me in a way that I found very sad

and disturbing was a few years ago I was part of a group of people that met in some corporate offices in New York City.

We’re on about the 50th floor.

In that meeting room was going to be decided to fate of tens of thousands of acres of forest,

in Tennessee, forest that was owned by a particular corporate entity.

And there were some big environmental groups, there were lawyers there,

there were, of course, the people from the timber company,

all discussing and showing interesting data on the PowerPoint screen and so forth

about what’s happening to the forest and what different people’s perspectives were on trends

and what the best thing for the forest was.

The forest I felt was completely apt, almost completely absent there,

because most of the people in that room, and particularly the decision makers,

had spent maybe one, perhaps two or three hours in the actual forest.

Rather than those decisions being made by people who had a lifetime,

maybe multiple lifetimes through conversation and ancestry,

a relationship with the trees and the birds and the soil,

and the people, the lagers, the bird watches, the people living downstream,

the people living in the forest.

All of these are different ways of understanding the forest,

and yet so much of that understanding just wasn’t there.

And so we were using human power,

but doing it in a way that I thought was unruited from some guides

to good use of power in the world.

And that’s just one example from my own trajectory.

It happens again and again, and often these are very well-meaning gatherings

that have, in a structure, failed to open the door to sensory experience

of the ecosystems that we’re discussing.

And if that door is closed, we’re likely to make poor decisions, I think.

This strikes me as such an important point for us to keep in mind as we’re going forward.

I’m mindful that you’re writing about an experience of trees and forests and ecosystems

is so oriented around sound, around the audible experience.

And I’ve struck that the philosopher Kant, a couple two or three centuries ago,

when speaking about intellectual enlightenment,

used this term unwondigke, this term of releasing from voicelessness.

And I hear increasingly in conversations all around the planet

that part of our challenge is that the rivers, the forests,

don’t have that voice in our in our boardrooms all too often.

And it’s as if they can’t walk and show up in the boardroom

to give them voice, it’s incumbent upon us to go to them and listen.

And boy, if more of us would go to them and listen,

perhaps our decision-making would interrupt.

Yeah, you know, that listening, of course, happens at many levels.

At one level, it’s literally just opening ones ears to the acoustic signals of the world.

And the great thing about sound, of course, is that it travels around and through

and over barriers.

So I might not see what is happening behind me,

or what is happening below the ground or inside the building here,

or just over the creek bank there, but I can hear it.

And so sound is the great revealer.

It’s also, of course, the great revealer of environmental injustice, right?

Who gets to listen to the traffic noise that you can’t block out of your bedroom

often, it’s to lower income communities and so forth.

So sound itself is an important part of communication,

but then there’s a listening that goes beyond that that is about conversation.

And it’s about gathering data.

I mean, I would argue that those Excel spreadsheets and satellite imagery

and so forth are another way of listening to the world.

And it’s not that we need to close the door to those ways and just go and sit by the creek

and feel at one with the world, not at all.

We need data come through the scientific process,

but we also need our bodies to be in relationship with the places that are home to us.

And without that bodily connection, we’re cutting ourselves off from a lot of intelligence

and delight, because it’s wonderful to be out here in the sunshine listening

to the ducks and the crows and the river, but also heartbreak

because you cannot open yourself to the particularities of any place on this world

without realizing, oh, this land was stolen from other people.

This land, the creek here is full of neonicotinoids and herbicides from upstream

and the air that we’re breathing has got the affluent of factory farms blowing in

from the east and so forth.

Since there’s a lot of brokenness that is emerged through that listening,

but if we don’t open ourselves to that, how do we know what needs our healing,

what needs our attention?

And so the practice, and I think this is one thing I learned in the book,

listening to particular trees in different parts of the world,

but simultaneously, I was filled with delight in these places,

but also came to understand in a way that was very difficult to take in

how broken the world is, not just through human actions in relation to community life,

but just life is built on a set of rather hard rules,

is that every animal in the world will die often in a painful way,

and so the way to pain inherent in any place,

just from the ecological rules of the world, is phenomenal.

And that’s one of the reasons we retreat indoors and onto computer screens

is to buffer ourselves from that, to push it away.

But I think in a world that has so many crises,

those comfortable buffers are things that we need to challenge in our lives

and try and break through a little bit.

It requires a certain courage, doesn’t it, to engage in that practice?

Courage or at least persistence to say, well, we’ll just keep with this,

even if I’m not feeling particularly courageous about this,

is that no, I need to keep returning to get beyond my preconceptions

to open to a particular place or other people and so on

that seem alien to me, but in fact, a part of my family.

There’s a passage in the preface of the book,

of your book, The Songs of Trees.

And I want to read it, because it’s so beautifully echoes

and encapsulates this interconnectedness, this relationship,

the phenomenon that we’re describing here.

And I’m wondering, would you want to read it for us?

I’d be happy to, if you direct me to this.

It’s your voice, and just this paragraph here, if you mind.

It’s so beautiful.

So this is a paragraph from the preface,

and the first part of the preface is setting up some of the rhythms

and questions of the book about attending to the sounds of trees.

And I write, in all these places, tree songs emerge from relationship.

Although tree trunks seemingly stand as detached individuals,

their lives subvert this atomistic view.

We’re all trees, humans, insects, birds, bacteria.

We’re all pluralities.

Life is embodied network.

These living networks are not places of omni-benevolent oneness.

Instead, they are where the ecological and evolutionary tensions

between cooperation and conflict are negotiated and resolved.

These struggles often result not in the evolution of stronger, more disconnected selves,

but in the dissolution of the self into relationship.

It’s incredible.

Thank you.

That’s the message from the trees.

The tree is a living community, not a separate self,

and that’s the great and attractive paradox of trees

that we use them as often as symbols of individuality.

And yet, if you break the relationships among hundreds of species

that comprise a tree leaf, or a tree root, that tree, this life ends.

The paradox of it, that’s so compelling.

I would love to talk a little more about the sounds here.

And in the book, you are visiting a number of different trees

and a number of different places all around the planet.

Walson Fur, Green Ash, Hazel, Cottonwood, a Japanese white pine, and others.

What’s that experience that you’ve been practicing in your own life

and that you’re sharing with others through this book?

So, maybe I should back up and say my first book was a meditation

on one patch of old growth forest in Tennessee.

I returned over and over again to that one place.

It’s an active ecological meditation, open my senses to the place.

What I wanted to do in this second book was apply that same contemplative approach,

but in places that I had chosen or had called out to me in some way,

as being really, really different from one another.

So, a tree on a street corner in Manhattan, right?

There’s a tree and there’s concrete and big buildings and so on.

I mean, you’re very as urban as you can get in terms of a tree life.

And then another tree is in the Amazon rainforest,

in a place where there are tens of thousands of square kilometers of forest all around it.

So, polar opposites in terms of the degree of urbanization

and at least the superficial impression of where the humans were the dominant creature

or not in each place.

It’s a very different and of course very interesting stories about ecology

and people in each place.

And yet, under that, there’s a unity though.

And that unity is a tree in Manhattan and the tree in the Amazon

is both made out of interconnections.

And people are critical parts of those interconnections now.

Of course, in New York, a lot of people are unaware of how they’re related to the tree on their street,

even though that area, excuse me, they’re unaware of how they’re connected to the tree on the street.

Even though the tree is connected to them through the air, by cleaning the air,

it changes the soundscape, it cools the street by 20 degrees

and in the summer time.

So, if you’re in New York, you are deeply connected to the trees of the city.

In fact, the city has done a good job of honoring that

and of having a proactive strategy to keep trees growing on city streets.

Some other cities haven’t quite as good a job of that.

So, there are also hidden connections in the cities.

In the Amazon, though, which seems, first to arrive,

see, well, this is a place where humans have no part.

Well, people have been living in that forest for 9,000 years.

The structure of the forest is partly determined by the presence of people there.

And the lives of the people who live in the Amazon are very much connected

in a very consciously aware way to the lives of particular trees.

And then, even though the Amazon appears to be a vast forest,

almost invulnerable to human influence,

it’s a place of rapid ecological transition,

because the forest is the rainfall patterns are changing,

the fire regimes are changing and roads are being pushed in

to extract oil, particularly from the western parts of the Amazon.

So, in both places, humans are right at the center of these networks of life

that have trees within them.

And so, you know, I pick those two examples, Manhattan and Amazon

as poles, if you like.

And there are other ways in which trees in the book of Gray and

very different places, olive trees in East Jerusalem, for example,

a place where the olive has encouraged an allowed human life

by providing food for thousands of years,

and is now at the center of conflicts over land.

Who’s land is this? And people planting olive trees

is polychalax and cutting other people’s olive trees down and so forth.

So, the olive is at the center of both giving life to people,

but also of it’s at the center of the ways that people fragmenting

and pushing apart from one another.

So, in Jerusalem, we see a very intense example of how relationships

would trees both give life to people and also at the center of our

of human conflicts.

And that’s not exclusive to the Middle East that’s happened around the world

again and again.

I mean, now, you know, a lot of human calories are being derived

from palm oil plantations in Southeast Asia,

and the last remnants of many tropical ecosystems are being destroyed

for that. And so, this life giving but also destroying

a duality is present in many different ways,

and in different parts of the world.

And so, the book tries to use particular case studies to get into those questions.

It’s an incredible survey not only of the forest ecosystems,

but also it’s almost an anthropological work in exploring the human relationships

and interconnectivities with these systems.

And it’s so fascinating you’ve got this background in biology yet

you’re really exploring the interdependencies with the human realm

in a way that is not common to come across in books like this.

Yeah, you know, I think it’s a Darwinian way.

You know, my training is in evolution and ecology.

And I think one of the messages that we haven’t quite fully heard

from the Darwinian revolution is that we belong here,

is that the human body, the human culture,

is another manifestation of life’s diversity.

You know, right now it’s a particularly loud manifestation of that

where we’re, of course, a very dominant force on the face of the planet.

And unique in some ways, but in most ways,

just part of that great unfolding story of life.

So to study a particular tree, as a human is to realize how much

I am part of that tree’s story and my life is just as biological,

just as ecological as the trees is.

And partly in this book, I really tried to attend,

really open my ear to those tree human connections.

You know, someone else might write the same book about trees and insects

or trees and birds.

Those would be fascinating lenses to bring to this.

But for this, I really wanted to situate human culture.

And it’s the great diversity of human culture.

And uncover some of those hidden connections to trees,

particularly in cities where, I think, you know,

urban forests are so important to our well-being.

And some people get this, and luckily now we’re in an era

where urban forestry and tree management in urban areas

is understood more and more to be very important.

And yet it’s still a little bit on the side in terms of

when we think about what are the key challenges facing urban areas

or facing humanity now.

You know, trees on streets often doesn’t, you know,

make the top 10 list.

And yet, I think the scientific data and the cultural data

show that indeed in urban areas an enormous part of the quality of life.

And even the presence of life is in relation to,

do we have other creatures often other trees around us

to draw our imaginations into the living world?

But also to give us life because without those sensory connections

we as humans start to with.

And that’s, you know, we have that sensory connection

every time we eat, every time we breathe,

bringing that into consciousness, I think,

is an important part of what we need to do.

And religious traditions have taught us this for millennia.

Before you eat, give thanks.

And, you know, we may or may not situate ourselves

in those religious traditions now.

But the lesson that transcends a particularity of any religion is

if you forget where you came from, that your life is given to you

through relationship, if we forget that,

then we’re running away from the source of life

and heading towards things that disconnections

that ultimately cause us not to thrive.

So rich.

There are so many strands we could pick up.

And to pick up a couple,

I am utterly struck having lived in my younger days

in New York City for a spell

by the incredible potential for greater affora station

in our urban environments.

And as our transportation modalities and systems evolved,

I think we’ll probably find that human

bipedalism is actually one of the most important pieces of that framework.

It affects our cognitive performance,

our immune systems, and so on.

And I’m curious if we might not just see

cities in the next several years

become even more replete with forest ecosystems,

essentially, and if that’s not one of the keys

to some of these complex challenges that we’re facing.

Yes, I think it is.

You know, mentioning human bipedalism

is an echo of that.

We’re not brains in jars.

We’re embodied beings.

And so re-inhabiting something as simple as human motion,

it shouldn’t be a radical proposition that human motion

is a necessary part of well-being.

But in fact, you know, our work environments,

our living environments are often structured around sitting on our butts

as if we were brains in jars

and not encouraging human movement,

not encouraging human interaction with other species.

Yeah, so indeed this is an important part of urban planning.

In urban areas, particularly older urban areas,

there’s a historical legacy that can be quite a constraint.

So for example, in Brooklyn, a decision was made in the 19th century to have

one big park, Prospect Park,

and not to have lots of other smaller parks scattered around Brooklyn.

So now if you live close to Prospect Park,

you got lots of beautiful trees and open space,

and it’s the wonderful place to be,

to connect with other beings,

to see people enjoying themselves,

people from all different walks of life.

But if you don’t live right close by,

you have got a half hour, one hour trek to get there.

And so if Brooklyn decides,

okay, we’re going to walk back from that,

well, the real estate cost for creating a new park in a neighborhood

where those parks don’t exist at very, very high.

And so then you have to think creatively,

well, let’s create many parks along the street,

along the sidewalks.

So expand the open areas around the base of trees and sidewalks

and create a place that’s essentially a little mini-prayery ecosystem

that helps the stormwater drainage,

but it also provides a place where people can connect

to the lives of other species.

So there are enormous, enormous challenges.

But they ask and cracks and openings into ways through those.

The place where we have a real opportunity,

of course, is in the sprawling suburbia.

I mean, most of the landmass of North America in the whole world

is maybe 2%.

An enormous amount of housing,

and particularly here in Colorado, is sprawling out.

And so as those new cities,

those new suburbs emerge in what way

will we invite other species into them?

And of course, Colorado has some areas that have done a pretty good job of that.

And other areas where that has not been part of the equation.

There’s one to do there.

There is.

And one of the challenges on the front range, in particular,

is that because most of the front range was short grass prairie,

the role of trees in urban areas,

say Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins, and so on,

is difficult because people want shade in their backyards,

and that shade in fact helps reduce our commissioning costs.

It provides pleasant places for people to hang out.

It stores carbon.

And yet those trees are not the native ecosystem, mostly.

And so the front range has actually pretty low tree canopy coverage

for urban areas. Denver is one of the lowest in the country.

And we can see the benefits of planting more trees.

And yet the ecological context is not quite so clear.

Should we bring more exotic species in?

In a way that most other cities wouldn’t consider.

I say New York is moving away from exotics,

and back into native species.

Here in Boulder, the question is,

is the ash trees are all being killed off?

Do we plant just cottonwoods and ponderosa pines?

And maybe some box elder, those are the natives.

Or do we expand the palette a little bit?

In a way that would be probably not so ecological desirable,

or ecologically desirable elsewhere,

but maybe very appropriate here.

And so every region has its own challenges,

and that’s another reason why we need to be out listening to the trees,

so that people making decisions about the urban forests of Boulder,

or Denver for Collins.

If those folks are not in relationship with the trees of their hometown,

then those decisions are going to be rather.

They will be imported from elsewhere and may not be well locally adapted.

You know, I’m struck thinking about your comment about New York and Britain,

and thinking about some of the potential costs in creating more forested pockets

in some of our heavily urbanized environments.

And I’m struck that while I was researching to write why on earth,

I came across some scientific literature indicating that for us humans,

literally just gazing at living trees in plants for five minutes

will measurably reduce stress hormones and, of course,

through our bloodstreams and so forth,

and that there’s even research showing, apparently,

that a pheromonal interaction with trees is affecting things like our immunity

and potentially our cognitive performance.

Of course, the great writer Thomas Berry suggests that,

as we lose our relationships with these trees and living landscapes,

we ultimately see our intelligence and our creativity,

our imaginations, atrophy as well.

So I’m just curious, you know, as a society,

we are spending so much money on health and well-being,

on stabilizing levels of serotonin and so forth,

and getting out and walking to places hopefully not too far away

is actually going to help with those same objectives

and not cost us in the same ways.

Indeed. I mean, so the more senses that one can involve

in that process of connection, that the deeper the benefits

for the people who are involved in that.

So even just gazing at green on the computer screen

has a certain level of benefits, seeing some pictures of trees and so on,

and that’s why National Geographic’s Instagram for Beauty is so popular.

It’s like, hey, I get to connect with an amazing picture of a lion

or this beautiful portrait of the Rocky Mountains.

So, you know, that’s hitting a certain spot in a very deep spot

in the human brain just visually.

The acoustic element then adds more, so soundscapes.

And but then the smell has this really,

the smell bypasses most of the processing senses,

centers in the brain that the other senses are filtered through

and goes right to a different part of the brain

that then pops into consciousness and into unconscious memory

and the emotional components of memory,

which is why the smell of, you know, our parents or grandparents kitchen

or the, you know, the elementary school floor wax

is such an evocative thing for us,

because it takes us right back through the decades.

And the same then is true of connection with other species,

the smells of Christmas trees for some people,

or incense in a particular situation in a house of worship.

All of those smells, now that what we need to do then

is to bring the smells of forest floor back to that

and of a healthy river and so forth.

So those become part of our memory.

The challenge in terms of health care and well-being

is that there’s money to be made in treating those illnesses

and you can patent pharmaceutical interventions

whereas city planning doesn’t roll into the bottom line

for Blue Cross Blue Shield or for drug companies and so on.

Not that Blue Cross Blue Shield and drug companies aren’t providing

helpful societal services,

but given that the living earth is so central to our well-being,

the question then is how in a, in a mostly for-profit health care model

that we have now, how do we put things like planning

for the health of people in 20, 30 years

according to by suburban development rules and so forth?

How does that factor into health care costs?

So that’s a question for economists that we have a disconnected economy

in terms of finance and money and we need to reconnect things.

This beautiful David, I want to just mention,

thank you, I just want to mention before we get to the final section

of our discussion that to our audience,

this is the Why On Earth Communities Stewardship and Sustainability

podcast series and we are today outside under the beautiful

sunshine and blue sky along the Boulder Creek here in Colorado

speaking with author and professor David George Haskell

about trees, about our inter-connectivity with each other,

with forests, with ecosystems generally,

and his latest book, The Songs of Trees,

highly recommended, wonderful, beautiful read.

You can get more information on that and on David’s work

generally at dghaskell.com and that’s H-A-S-K-E-L-L.

Also, for any of you who are interested in the Why On Earth

audiobook and e-book resources, please use the code

podcast at whyon earth.org to get discounts on those

we’d love for you to check those out as well.

And David, I deliberately saved a discussion of this region

for the final segment of our chat today about this

is your chapter on cottonwoods.

And I grew up not too far from here on along another

repair and ecosystem, maybe 30 or 40 miles from here,

very much like this one.

And cottonwoods were in the fields and the flood plains

where we played growing up.

They are such an amazing part of the ecosystem around here.

And I was struck while reading your chapter on the cottonwoods

that there were a couple of passages I thought I would share

with our audience.

And one is about a place in Denver where one

repair and ecosystem called Cherry Creek flows into

another called the Platt River.

And it’s this place known as Confluence Park now

for those of us familiar with Denver.

And it’s actually the way those two rivers come together.

It forms a why.

And part of the fun for the Why On Earth community is we’re looking

for why is all over the place.

So I thought maybe if you don’t mind reading this passage,

and I wanted to reflect on something toward the end of it,

but maybe this underlying.


So here we’re in Denver and Confluence Park.

Although interstate 25 cuts through with 10 minutes walk

and some of the city’s most busy streets demarcate the park

to the north and south, the clamor of Tyre and Piston

largely overshoots the basin, opening a space at the center

of the city for the pearl of water and the voices of children

cottonwoods and birds.

Here the city is a low drone, spiked with sirens

and motorbike pipes.

The river cuts a middle way between these extremes

of rhythm, loudness and tone.

The where on the river is a base roll with splashy grace notes.

Its steadiness unifying the tapered rifts of animal

and plant voices.

Thank you.

So beautiful and so jazzy and poetic.

And I thought as a small gesture of gratitude, David,

for joining us in this discussion,

I would share with you and give you a poem I wrote

as a young man just after moving back from New York City

to this area and walking down into the cottonwood forest,

if you’ll call it that, along a riparian corner

close to my childhood home.

And if you don’t mind, I’ll read it.

I would love that.


Just share this with you.

It’s called Cotton Wooded Buddhas.

And as you were mentioning earlier in our spiritual and religious traditions,

of course, trees figure in so many ways.

We have the tree of life and the cobalistic tradition that makes us

way into Christianity and elsewhere.

We have the Buddha achieving enlightenment under a tree, apparently.

Incredible stories and metaphors.

Well, this was my experience coming back to the cottonwoods.

And it says,

thoughts perched on fallen willow.

Nothingness carried off by faint breeze of dusk.

Towering around me are the silent still Buddhas,

now gray, solemn, speaking steadily of nothing.

And I listen attentively.

Flesh becoming fallen willow as spirit floats around

in the neverness of now.

Sun setting on today reads,

click cladding in their patient co-ondance,

fires blazing now in the last farewell embrace before nightfall.

The cloud fire slowly burns itself out again,

tangerine pink vessels sail on in ever-darkening sea sky.

Cotton-wooded Buddhas keep on singing their gold song,

swirling, sinking into the night.

I wander back through the rushes,

taking my time in forever wonder.

So David, as a small gift,

just one of my favorite poems.

That’s beautiful.

So many layers here.

Walking back through the rushes of the rush of life

and the rush of sound from the wonderful.

Thank you.

A pleasure.

And I was hoping we could spend the last few minutes

talking about these cottonwoods.

Of course, we’re standing next to one right here.

What’s your relationship with cottonwoods?

And who are they?

Who are these wonderful creatures?

Well, we would need to sit here for a few decades

to ponder who are they.

The cottonwood is this creature that,

his trunk is so solid,

you know, in places in the west there are not many trees

and you look out and there is a cottonwood standing

as a signal of stability.

It’s signaling where the water is.

And yet it’s a bit of a trickster because it looks so ancient.

You know, tree that big in the east

would be a venerable creature of hundreds of years old.

And yet a cottonwood that reaches 100

is an old old cottonwood in the west.

So they grow to enormous sizes in just a few decades.

And then pass away and move on.

And so if I give one answer to question, who are they?

I would say they’re the dancers on western rivers

that are always in motion.

So western rivers are forever changing their course

and going into flood and back down.

And the cottonwood is a champion at adapting to that.

Of course, they’re seeds that the fluffy seeds blow

all over in early summer.

But for that seed to turn into the tree,

it has to land on water that is on a descending flood.

And so the seed lands in some moist sand

with no other competition around.

If it lands in the grass, it’s done for.

It can’t out-compete the grass.

It lands on moist sand and then its taproot grows down

and chases the descending flood over weeks.

And if it doesn’t keep up with the water, it’s done for.

So you know, it’s something like one in a billion cottonwood seeds.

It actually makes it to be a tree.

And of course that’s why they produce so many seeds.

And a little bit like the palm trees on the coast

that are forever sending out seeds to colonize the next June after hurricane.

These rivers are a little bit like the June systems of the coast,

always shifting, always in motion,

and the cottonwood leaps from one to another.

So our human senses seem, you know,

cottonwood seems so strong and old and permanent.

And yet it’s not.

It’s a dance of skipping around,

taking some of that motion of water into its life.

So that’s, you know, that’s one reality.

It really comes out to me.

But I’d say though that the cottonwood might have a very different answer

about, you know, who the cottonwood is.

And, you know, the Orioles that come here in May,

the crows that are hanging around here,

and the winter would have their own answers for what is the cottonwood.

Because it’s a tree that draws, of course,

draws together so many different strands of animal life

and other creatures around it, around its being.

So beautiful.

You know, I’m wondering,

our audience is a wonderful network of professionals,

entrepreneurs, accountants, lawyers, educators,

community leaders, folks farming, folks preparing food,

folks working in really any arena or sector

of our human doingness here in our modern culture.

And I’m just wondering, David,

with your unique and particular perspective on all of this,

what, if you could give one piece of advice

to invite all of us, humans, what, what might that be?

Well, it’s not so much advice as an invitation,

and that is to pick a particular place,

and many people have these places,

so the invitation would be to deepen that relationship.

But to pick a place, say, for example, a tree near where you live,

or a particular patch of grass on the, you know,

the backside of a suburban developmental site,

some place where you can return, again and again,

to open your senses to the stories of the place.

And by opening the senses, I mean doing that sensory inventory,

what is the quality of light today,

and how is it different from yesterday?

What am I hearing, and what do those, those sounds mean?

So, and the key, it’s like a meditation,

a repeated giving of our senses to a place,

without any expectation of what we’re going to find there.

And those are, those are the practices that I think,

most of our jobs, most of our family lives,

don’t really encourage.

And so we need to make a personal commitment to say,

this is an interesting experiment I want to try.

Let me do this, even though it’s not required from my job,

and it’s going to be challenging to fit it into the rhythm

of my family life, and so on.

So the invitation is to pick a particular patch of this living earth,

and return it again and again with open senses,

and see where that experience leads,

what stories, what insights it leads into.


Thank you for that invitation.

David, and thank you for joining us for this.

Thank you.

It’s been a great pleasure.

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