In a far darker vein, I am reminded of Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian, whose protagonist Yeong-hye, towards the end of the story, says she needs only air, water, and sun to survive and live. She sees herself as a tree or as one becoming a tree. Refusing to eat or speak, she spends most of her time in a hospital trying to imitate a tree and basking in the sun. Writing about the novel in The New Yorker, Jiayang Fan quotes its author as saying that the character of Yeong-hye drew inspiration from a line from Yi Sang, an early 20th century poet who was heavily censored under Japanese rule. His poetry reflected the violence of imperialism. “Yi described catatonic withdrawal as a symptom of oppression,” writes Fan. The poet believed that “humans should be plants”.
In this literary and creative imagination, the life of a tree is not just an imperative for humans to breathe clean air and live in a pollution-free environment. The question is: do we have the imagination any longer, especially in times as noisy as these, to listen to trees? Many would scoff at the idea and wave it away dismissively. But there is enough material at hand to lead us to reflect on what trees mean to us beyond the talk of environmental damage and polluted air. There is a deeper connection with humans that often tends to get lost in the here-and-now conversations.
Ecologists, foresters, and biologists have long been arguing that interconnected through a complicated network, trees have their own language that human can learn to hear. Biologist George David Haskell argued in his book The Song of Trees that it is the interconnection among trees that spawns communication networks in their kingdom. Glossing this research, Ephrat Livni writes about being “in a redwood forest in Santa Cruz, California, taking dictation for the trees outside my cabin. They speak constantly, even if quietly, communicating above – and underground using sound, scents, signals, and vibes. They’re naturally networking, connected with everything that exists, including you.”
I remember the extraordinary experience of walking through a redwood forest surrounding the Chabot Space and Science Centre in Oakland. As we left the sunlit path winding through the forest and entered its deeper recesses, the light dimmed and the trees, reaching up to the skies, seemed to move closer around us. The stillness had a sound of its own. There was a constant, low buzz in the depths of the forest.
Haskell draws our attention to the many references to trees and their songs in literary and musical history: pines whispering, leaves crackling, branches falling. Artist Nandalal Bose, writes Bhaswati Ghose, “… while articulating his thoughts on drawing trees, remarkably compared their features and even personalities to those of humans.” There are rich literary genres and folklore developed around trees, portraying them sometimes as wicked humans, at other times protectors against the wicked.
I end, then, by citing the strange phenomenon of the “Crooked Forest”, tucked away in a small corner of western Poland. Near the town of Gryfino, surrounded by a larger forest of straight pine trees, there exists a group of 400-odd pine trees that are bent at sharp crooked angles at the base of their trunk. Planted in the 1930s, no one quite knows why the trees are crooked, and reigning theories – from genetic mutation and snowfall to human manipulation by farmers – are an apt demonstration of how our worlds and those of the world around us are deeply, historically, intertwined.
Published in arrangement with The Wire.