David George Haskell: Songs of Trees: Interconnections Between People and Trees
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Jan 6, 2018
Preeta: Welcome to our weekly Awakin call today, we're in conversation with David George Haskell. In a few minutes our moderator Pavi Mehta a remarkable and beautiful writer herself will engage in a deep dialogue with our speaker. This week's theme is Songs of Trees: interconnections between people and trees. In advance of the call we asked our audience to reflect on any special relationship that they have with trees and how they connect or communicate with them, and we've had an explosion of comments about people's favorite trees.
So this is obviously a topic that has touched off a lot of deep searching and reflections. We have the great pleasure of having Pavi as our moderator today. Pavi herself is just a beautiful soul a remarkable writer and probably thank you so much for joining us look forward to this conversation.
Pavi: Thank you so much for that introduction Preeta. I'm looking forward to this as well and am going to jump right in and introduce our guest today. David George Haskell is an ecologist and evolutionary biologist whose work is located at the throbbing intersection between science and poetry. He integrates rigorous research with a deeply contemplative immersive approach his subjects are unexpected and unexpectedly revelatory.
His widely acclaimed book the Pulitzer finalist The Forest Unseen chronicles the story of the universe in one square meter of forest ground in Tennessee. His follow-up book in 2017 The Songs of Trees encompasses a study of humanity's varied roles within biological networks as heard through the acoustics of a dozen trees around the world that he visited regularly. An author poet, professor, researcher and conservationists, David's innovative approaches to teaching and fieldwork his radical commitment to a whole bodied study of the natural world and his remarkable lyrical gifts have yielded a lush and Illuminating body of work that returns us to our place in the web As one reviewer, put it "With a poet's ear and and a naturalist's ear, Haskell re-roots us in life's grand creative struggle and encourages us to turn away from empty individuality. The Songs of Trees reminds us that we're not alone and never have been." It's an honor to have him with us today. Thank you David for the incredible dedication behind your work and for taking time away from your trees to be with us today.
David: Thank you Pavi it's a great pleasure and great honor to join you here today.
Pavi: I wanted to jump right in, and take a backward look and ask if you could share with us some of the formative influences in your early life, that led to what seems to be a lifelong love story with the natural world.
David: That's a very interesting question, and I think we're all in deep relationship with the natural world of course we're part of the natural world and we're learning these days from ecological and evolutionary science is what philosophical traditions have been have been saying thousands of years of course, that there is in every biological way possible, and in other ways, that there isn't really a division between humans and the rest of life's community. And that realization comes to many of us through multiple means, and it comes to me partly through being a biologist and evolutionary biologist.
So engaging the intellect with those questions, part of it comes from experience and those experiences are as you suggest, rooted early on in my life. I remember quite distinctly spending many afternoons on the edge of that little pond poking, around looking at the tiny little creatures that lived in the pond, and that pond in some ways became a place for study and for reflection. I didn't have any of those words as a child of course, but it was a place for contemplation, what we might even call a meditation on the water, and the watery creatures, and the algae, and the pond scum, and so on and every week it was something different there, so I took great delight in that and in understanding the lives of little insects in particular.
All those things seemed to me at least at first as a child to be separate from from an intellectual study of the world, but as I pursued my college education and then became a teacher I came to see more and more of these were things that all were interconnected to one another and were telling different parts of the same story. So indeed as a child I did have connections to other species and to places that were not dominated by human effects, although of course humans are part of nature as well, but I also had the privilege of growing up with a family with a number of biologists, people who could identify the birds and the orchids and point things out to me that as a child I may otherwise have just walked right on past and never really opened up to.
Pavi: That's wonderful, and I'm struck by that image of you as a boy just looking at the water and not just at the creatures, but at their ecosystem and their relationships. I'm thinking of The Forest Unseen where in the book you're fundamentally asking, "Can the whole Forest be seen through a small contemplative window of leaves, rocks and water?" And that's a remarkable question. That approach of studying the macrocosm through the microcosm was that something that came very naturally to you or something that you arrived at over time?
David: Yes, that project was a place where I tried to integrate different strands of my life, so part of my life was as a teacher and as a scientist sharing ecological stories with my students, and then trying to understand those a little more deeply through my own research.
I also had a practice of meditation of just being being quiet for several times a day, and also I just took great deal of enjoyment in walking in the forest and opening my senses without any particular goal in mind, and so for many years these were all present in my life, but they weren't really interconnected in any particular way.
So when I undertook the work that led to this first book The Forest Unseen I tried to draw those strands together to ask, "What would it be to take a meditative approach to just one tiny little patch of forest?" And as you described, I went to the same square meter or forest over and over again, and gave my attention to it through a year, and now through many years.
And at that place to ask questions that come from my life as a biologist and as a naturalist, and as a teacher, so not to divide these different parts into different segments, but to try to unite them into one into one project, and I think you know one of the big messages from the contemplative traditions whatever religious traditional philosophical tradition there in is that through the contemplation and study of what at first seem to be rather small things it might just be attending to the breath or directing one's gaze again and again to particular piece of visual art or returning and again and again to a particular pathway to walk or to a particular passage of music or prayer or poem, that on the face of it seems, well an experience that would be quite limited in what could offer us, but instead and this is apparent in contemplative practice, instead the practice of repeated attention to these places unfold more layers of the story, more layers of experience to us, so that we see perhaps further and deeper by restricting the gaze.
And I applied this approach in the forest by returning again and again to a tiny little patch of forest and trying to pay attention to it, and tell the stories of that forest rather than rushing around all over the world and trying to grasp the ecology of forests through shallow attention to thousands of different places. And there's a place for that -- for example many textbooks take that approach, where they jump from one location to another and by the time one is finished reading a biology textbook for example, one has traveled to thousands of thousands of places around around the world, lots of different stories. I wanted to take a an approach that was most definitely in a very different direction.
Pavi: Fascinating -- and what's what's occurring to me as I hear you talk about drawing that path between the contemplative practices and what you actually did in your field work in the forest is there's almost a radical simplicity to it, there's not a lot of fancy equipment if any that's required and you're just being present. In meditation and in those contemplative practices there is that real focused gaze and there are techniques in those practices. So can you describe how you trained your attention and were there any practices you were following in the forest?
David: Yes, you make an excellent point which is that one does not need a great deal of fancy equipment, of course having a camera or digital recorder or even some equipment that could sequence DNA or look into the interior of cells, those can also open marvelous avenues to new stories and so forth but for this particular project. I restricted myself by design to some rather simple. methods and my rules were to just show up and try to open my senses to the place. I had a notebook and a pencil, occasionally I used a small hand lens or a pair of binoculars, so I had a little optical help, but otherwise it was just me and my senses. So of course what that forced me to do in the forest is to finally awaken the sense of hearing, and to open up to the different qualities of light as the day proceeds, and as the night falls and then through the seasons, and of course the light is very different in the forest, the changing light environment is critical importance to the animals and plants and other creatures in the forest, but it's very easy for we humans to wander through and not pay attention to that.
And then the sense of smell of course which reveals all kinds of hidden stories particularly in the microbial world because we can't see microbes across, but we can smell many of them just by by drawing on those close to the leaf litter or close to a lichen covered rock. Or up against the bark of a tree, where essentially pressing a little chemical detective that chemical detector of the cells in our nose to the very complex ecosystem and by doing that we grasp a few of the interactions of the species that are present. So my method was on the face of it quite simple. Don't bring a lot of equipment, but in another way it was challenging because we of course are all very well trained to turn off our senses and in fact to make it through the day we need to turn off many of our senses to focus on one thing at the time, and that's all very good, but as we get better and better at focusing, we also need that practice of unfocusing, of reorienting the senses back to the world around us so it's a little bit like the inhaling breath and the exhaled breath, each one is necessary, but one without the other leads to pathology abd we can't draw the Breath of Life. Likewise with attention and focus we need practices that allow us to devote our attention with great care to a small number of things at the same time particularly in a world where we're beset by propaganda and flashing lights and sounds and all sorts of things that are bombarding us bombarding our senses and therefore our psyche we need to put up shields we need to withdraw from that some of that so that we can attend to to the things that are important to us day by day. But as we erect these shields we also need a time to take the shield down and to open the senses in an open-ended way and an unfocused way to wake up to the world around us.
Pavi: I love that you use that phrase 'awakening the senses.' For some of us reading your book it's amazing to be exposed to the nuance and the subtleties that you're able to tune into, and it can feel a little bit hopeless for some of us as we reflect on the fact that we are missing all of that as we walk through the world, like, "Why am I not seeing or hearing that?" Also because we are so visually biased I wonder whether the rest of our senses kind of go to sleep. Was there a particular sense that you found hard to awaken, and then felt a thrill when it did open up?
David: Yes that happened I would say with all of the senses. Even though we are a very visually oriented oriented species as you point out, but even in the visual sense mostly we take a glance at things, we don't really even pay attention to the details, so for example imagine a tree on a city street, or a tree in the forest or even a plant sitting on in a pot on on a you know on the windowsill. Well we take a glance at it, and we just label it with the name. "Oh, that's a plant. That's a tree." And by labeling we cut off ourselves from from from a deeper experience a deeper visual experience of that particular creature, by returning again and again to this we can come to see all the visual particularities, exactly what is the texture of the soil right around the base of the plant and how does that texture differ as one moves away from the plant? What is the bark like? How are the leaves oriented? Is each leaf the same, or does each leave have its own peculiar character, and how are the leaves different in the bark and in the shape and orientation how are things different today than they were yesterday. So with the sense of vision one of the things that really woke up for me over the year was the extent to which the palette of light, and by palette I mean the range and tonality of colors that were available, how that changed radically through the year.
For example in mid-winter, this is a deciduous forest, all the leaves were down and of course it was quite gray and brown, but yet the light coming from the sky was full of all kinds of colors and so when animals came past I could see them in the full glory of the colors, but then in the summertime the leaves form this complete canopy that lets only yellow green light through. So something that would otherwise look quite bright red actually in the forest understory in the summer looks quite dull and cryptic, and then in the Autumn when the leaves start to fall all those wavelengths of light all those colors of light that previously were not present now suddenly reemerge under the forest canopy, and I had this incredible sense of an opening up, almost like a weight was being lifted, that somehow the sense of vision was transformed almost like new dimensions had been added and so that's just the sense that I thought I knew the best.
By paying attention to it I learned all the all these new things, now of course with the other senses, the sense of smell and so forth, but most of us go through our lives with it almost totally turned off, I mean how many of us today have actually attended to the details of the odor of the food that we're eating, of all the different rooms that we walk through, or how the smell and even the taste of the air changes as we walk down the street or into our homes or into a friend's home -- if the smell is very obvious of course we notice it, but mostly all those subtleties they enter our nose, but they don't enter our consciousness and so all of that is available to us if we just start to pay attention.
Pavi: That's remarkable. And is it something that you turn on and off, or is it something that whether you're in the subway or in a conference room or in the forest you're taking in all of that information?
David: You know I think it's both and I think most people who who engaged in these kinds of practices would agree that in a certain way it changes how you relate to the world when you're out of that meditative place, that meditative state you become more aware for example of sounds and smells and changes in light, but in another way you you have the ability to turn away from that and to free yourself from from just being reactive to them, so in other words you restore agency to yourself as to whether you want to give your attention to the sounds and the smells and the visual changes in the texture or whether you choose in this moment to be focused on something else, and I think internally that's quite freeing, because we're no longer victims of our surroundings, not entirely and instead we have some control about what we react to. We can also attend to those sensory inputs, hopefully without judging. To just note and to appreciate and not react, and with my students this is something that I do quite a bit with sounds, is to ask them to listen again and again to sounds, to be present for their physical manifestation, for their source, for the ways that the sounds emerge and interact in their environment, but not to react to them so quickly.
So often we hear a sound and immediately we judge it, for example,"Oh, that is a pleasant sound. I like that! Well, that's a nasty sound that's a noise and it makes me angry, or it makes me feel that I don't want to be here." Whereas in fact these are all just different kinds of vibratory energies present in in the world around us and we can control, on a good day, at least, we can control how we react to them or whether we react to them. And one of the practices that I have is in particularly noisy environments or environment I would otherwise find quite unpleasant I just do a little sensory meditation and run through the senses and just list off the various impressions that are coming to me from the outside, and then become aware of how I'm reacting to them internally. And through that I realize well this place I previously judged as just being 100% unpleasant in fact has all kinds of interesting different layers to it, interesting stories to it, and there's more possibility there that I had first appreciated, and there's also more possibility for me to be in that place without being quite so annoyed or judgmental.
Pavi: Sounds like incredibly valuable life skills to have and I'm struck by your approach. It seems like there is such a dedication and a commitment to refining the ability to see reality as it is, and unconditioned, and in the process be restored our agency it feels tremendous that through through the teaching that you're doing and the writing that you're doing it becomes an Avenue for the rest of us to experience in that way as well. In terms of the auditory experiments that you did with your with your students, I remember looking at the kind of origin story of the songs of trees and is it true that the book came out of listening to birds?
David: Yes, there are really two different origins for that book, and again the book is a confluence of several different things that I thought were interesting and important, and one of them indeed came from listening to birds. I've taught for many years a course in Ornithology-- the scientific study of birds and part of what I do there is ask students to learn how to identify many of the local species and of course to identify them by sight, but also by sound. What is the the song of a hooded warbler or a crow or some of the other local species that we have close by here? And learning dozens and dozens of bird sounds is actually for many students quite hard so to help with this I invite students into some acoustic meditations where we sit either inside or outside and first just name all the different sounds that we can hear, then we describe them, and then we sit just in the physical presence of the sound without without any further sort of naming or description, and through doing this we come to realize that we're in very rich acoustic environments wherever we are and also it also helps students become more aware of the sounds birds are making and it helps attune their memories to the rhythms of birds and the different rhythms and textures of the bird sound. But in doing that I started to notice all the trees are making different sounds here.
For example the sound of the wind in a white pine tree is very different from the sound of the wind in a sugar maple tree or in a red oak tree. So each tree has its own sound, its own Wind song if you like, its own sound evoked by air moving through its needles and leaves and branches and those different sounds allow us to appreciate and interact with trees with a different sense than we normally do. Of course mostly we see trees through our eyes, but we can also listen to them and learn something about their biology through that listening. The other thing that emerged from that listening is I realized wherever I went that part of the sound of the tree was the trees interaction with its environment.
So every tree has its own sound and that sound mostly emerges from from its interactions with the wind and so forth but also the tree sounds emerge from the trees' interactions with people and those interactions take very different forms in different parts of the world. In the Amazon rainforest people's relationship with trees is different from say outside the gates of Jerusalem, or on the streets of Manhattan. And I sat with trees in in each of these places to try to discern what its sounds were telling me about how people and trees were interconnected.
Pavi: That that takes me to one of the next things that I wanted to talk about with you. I'm going to quote a little bit from The Songs of Trees just to give people a sense of the way you're approaching this. You say, "To claim that forests think is not an anthromorphism. A forest's intelligence emerges from many kinds of interlinked clusters of thought. Nerves and brains are one part, but only one of the forest's mind." Can you explain what you mean by that?
David: Yes, so what we have have learned over the last few decades from from ecological science and evolutionary science and studies of the physiology of plants, is that when we walk into a forest, we're not walking into a place that is full of separate interacting individuals.That was the old view of of ecology. Instead we now know that we're walking into a living network, a place where every creature exists only through relationships with others. And so for example a tree is not just one species, one individual, but a tree is a living community. Every leaf on a tree has hundreds of species of bacteria and fungi living within its leaves. Without those other species the leaf cannot function, it gets overrun by pathogens, it can't protect itself from drout. Likewise the roots of trees are also living communities, interconnected with fungi and bacteria and other creatures below ground. And so the life of the tree emerges not from individuality but from network relationship. And that tree is therefore connected to the trees next to it and to the trees further on, and not just connections among trees, but connections among multiple different species within the forest. So a forest or a grassland or a garden even a city street these are not collections of individuals, they are living communities.
And so network relationships, then produce a kind of intelligence within the forest just as our brain is made out of interconnections among parts that have their reality, have their life only through connection and relationship with others, and we call those in biology nerves and neurons. There's an analog of that in the forest. Incredible level of complexity of connections through billions and billions of bacterial cells in just one teaspoon of soil. So think about that-- one teaspoon of soil in your hand contains as many bacterial cells as there are humans over the entire globe. And so a few square meters of forest soil, or a whole mountain side of forest soil has easily the number of cells and interconnections that is the equal of the human brain. Now that the forest is not connected in a way that is directly analogous to the human brain. Of course the human brain is a very centralized structure, a centralized way of organizing intelligence. In the forest the intelligence and the thought process and the memories and the decision-making is a lot as a lot more diffuse, is a lot more spread out throughout the entire network. It's not knotted up into one little one one small brain. And of course animal brains are part of that network, the forest network, but as I say in the book they are just one part of it.
Pavi: You talk about the contradictory creative duality in nature. Are we atom or network? We are neither and both and that it's not just a question of metaphor, but the fundamental nature of life. One of the most Provocative realities that the book surfaces is that the fundamental unit of biology is not the self, but the network, and the self is a society. Especially in today's modern world it runs so counter to our views of self, and I wonder as you have explored this so deeply has it shifted your perspective on our place as Homo sapiens?
David: Yes, I mean absolutely. Biology has been culminated now for 100 years by an atomistic view, and what I mean by that is - that view says that the fundamental reality is that we are separate individuals and that the atom is the fundamental unit of life.
And we now know that from all kinds of levels in biology whether it's genetics or physiology or ecology that that model that metaphor for life has a certain power to it, it helps us explain certain aspects of life. But it's limited. It's incomplete, and a complementary model is that life is made from network relationships. Each one is a metaphor, each one is a simplification, neither one can fully encompass all the different realities of life. And yet our thinking and our language has been dominated by the first -- the atomistic View, and now we need to make space for the view that says that the individual is in fact an illusion, the individual is a temporary manifestation of relationship, so if that indeed is the case, or at least is a good model for a large part of the living world, that does change how we think about our selves of human beings.
Of course what is true for a tree is also true for an individual human. Our bodies are made of dozens and dozens of interacting species not just human cells, but bacterial and fungal cells and viruses and microbial components and so forth, and without the interconnections among all those members of the community our bodies don't function. But it's also true at the level of culture. Culture is an extension of that Network. So most of the ideas in our heads, and everything from the fundamentals of language to very sophisticated intellectual ideas emerge from connections with other people. So our brain is a temporary locus, a temporary manifestation of a broader phenomenon, and that phenomenon is culture that connects across space and time.
One of the more remarkable inventions of Life of course is human culture, particularly written culture, where in picking up for example a piece of literature that was written a thousand years ago our mind is connected directly to the mind of someone whose body has been dead for a thousand years, but who is still alive -- those words are still alive because they are coming alive within us. And that you know all sounds very mystical but I meant it actually in a very physical direct way in that those ideas exist in human minds and that passed through the generations from one nervous system to another through these externalized connections that we call culture and literature. And so any particular book of course is one tiny portion of that larger living network.
Now the the other really important dimension to this I think is that if the nature of life is networked community, then that changes how we think about ethics particularly environmental ethics. That none of us are alone in this, that all of our actions do indeed affect all other members of the network. So rather than asking, "what do I as an individual what rights and responsibilities do I have?" The question might then be, "how could this network, how can this community thrive? And what relationships are most important within that Network within that community for the good, for right action, for right outcomes? Some of the answers to those questions may be similar to answers derived from individual based ethics but I think that the shift in the questions we ask and the ground from which we answer those questions will be shifted if we believe ourselves to be part of the living network that transcends any particular individual.
Pavi: That's powerful. And I know you write of an ethic of belonging that speaks to that. What are the other potential implications of how this awareness could manifest in the world?
David: Yes, one of those manifestations might be a different understanding of what beauty is of what a sense of beauty is and certainly within my scientific training, you know training in discernment an appreciation of beauty was not part of any kind of formal education, although of course it it is part of the life of every practicing scientist and of every living human being. But we tend to think of beauty as rather ephemeral and subjective and not really rooted in anything we can rely on or that we would. devote a lot of time within scientific analysis or policy recommendations or even ethical analysis. If instead though if we think of beauty as emerging from a process in which all these different parts of the network connect together through our bodies, through our senses, our bodies, our intellect, our emotion and then manifest in a sense of deep beauty that emerges from relationship with a place that gives us a different ground on which to stand as we as we make ethical determinations. I think there's a connection between a sense of aesthetics and a new understanding of what biology is telling us about the nature of networks in life. Those two things are connected, and beauty forms a bridge if you like, between an understanding of the world that is rooted in mostly in scientific analysis, and then one that can connect through to questions of ethics and of finding the good in life.
Pavi: That's interesting and as you as you speak I'm smiling because you when you hear the title The Songs of Trees -- your work sounds perfectly lovely. It brings up images of greenery and the wind going through your hair and tuning in -- and yet in the course of the work that you did for that book you were bitten and stung and scratched and scorched! I feel like you should be awarded a badge of couage for this work! So there's the beauty that you witnessed, and there's also the horror that you were witness to. The drama of both cooperation and conflict in your time with the trees, and can you speak a little bit to the role of those polarities?
David: Yes, and so living networks at least in ecosystems are not places of benevolence. They're not places where it is all joy and good feeling. Instead living networks are the places where both cooperation and conflict are present and in fact part of what animates life, and certainly what drives evolution is the tension between cooperation and conflict that is present in any set of relationships. And I think we understand that very clearly from our own lives as people whether it's within families or local economies, or even more so the global economy. There is this great opportunity, and and not just opportunity this great practice of cooperation, but they're also all sorts of parasites and conflicts and tensions and so forth. So living networks are places where those tensions of played out, and creatures within the networks have to find ways of moving forward. And the traditional way in which biologists have talked about this is that, "Well, it's a very competitive world out there and evolution is just going to favor those creatures that look out for themselves that have a very individualistic look out on things."
Well it turns out that's not at all the case. Every single major evolutionary transition from the origin of life to the development of large cells, to the evolution of of large complex organisms like humans and trees to large sophisticated ecosystems like coral reefs, prairie grasslands, forests, all of these took place through separate organisms organisms that first have quite separate lives, joining together in unions, in very tight relationships, cooperative relationships in order to deal with the rigors and the difficulties of the place that they've found themselves in. And so it turns out that cooperation is one of the Great emerging themes from the grand drama of of evolution. So that's one of the things that I see standing back from this looking at at the larger picture.
Pavi: I'm trying to put words to this and it's difficult but the. way you bear witness, whether it's a square meter of land or whether it's a particular tree in a corner of the world you see life and death and all of the in betweens, and there's this kaleidoscopic view, that's just fascinating. It's humbling and what's powerful is the de-centering of the self that takes place in your writing, and I wonder if that is something that you walked into the writing with or it gradually unfolded for you. Your place as the writer-- how did that shift over the course of your writing?
David: Yes, so in in both books what I tried to do was to listen to the stories of other species and listen to them both through being present for them in the field so whether visiting a tree on the city street or returning again again to one square meter of forest I tried to also, be present to and aware of their stories by reading what other people had written about them particularly other scientists, what we learned about their lives and then my books really tried to present those stories. And I'm in the in the background here. I think the trees and the forests are a lot more interesting than I am. Of course you come to know some of my personality and my thoughts as you read the book. That's inevitable, and I think that's a part of the wonderful thing about reading as we get to see someone else's thought process. And in both books I tried not to put myself in the foreground, but really talk about these fascinating other creatures with whom we share our lives, and then it turns out as I was researching those stories and listening to these species what I learned was that they themselves also are not in the foreground if you like, they to emerge from all sorts of interactions and stories that far transcend themselves.
So indeed that was one of the themes that emerged from the book was the limitations of anyone organism, whether that organism is me or a tree the limitations of that perspective. And yet paradoxically by studying for example one tree on the street corner in Manhattan over several years I came to understand a lot about that particular city by returning again and again through that very focused lens. So there's a paradox in which indeed the individual fades into insignificance when we truly come to know that individual well and so forth. But also paradoxically through that particular individual we come to see maybe not the whole ecosystem but a large portion of the ecosystem.
Pavi: So we're almost at the time when we open it up, and I wanted to ask one more question before we have our listeners chime in. One of the things you talked about was taking approaches from the contemplative traditions into the forest. And one of the things within the contemplative traditions that's often surfaced is tuning into the changing nature of reality, the. impermanent. I think from the human perspective that often comes with a sense of loss, of suffering and pain and I'm wondering how your experience as a mortal has has been informed by your perspective as a biologist.
David: That's a very big question, but you know one of the trees that I returned to again and again for my second book was a very large ash tree. A green ash tree that had fallen down and was starting to decompose and through that ash tree I came to realize that for trees at least the line between life, and death is actually not so clearly drawn.
The tree in its life is a being that catalyzes and regulates conversations in and around its body and after death that process continues on it. It continues to be a member of the community and in the case of a very large tree in the temperate forest that process can go on for decades and decades.
So indeed when that large tree falls there is an ecological analog of grief in the forest, that species whose lives are very tightly bound up with that tree lose something, sometimes they lose lose lose very important things, but in another way the network is reconfiguring itself through that tree's death and new life is emerging from that and that sounds like a cliche, but it's in fact a cliche that emerges through the actions of tens of thousands of species, and it was extraordinary for me to see how many species were drawn to that old dying tree and had gained new life from it, and I think that's also in a much shorter time frame, and then some quite different ways, mostly through cultural ways, what we're contributing as we pass through this life. And I don't want to draw the analogy to tightly here, of course there are differences between how trees contribute to the forest, and how we as individuals contribute to our communities, but I do think that dying fallen tree in a way helped me see my own life and the life of other people around me in a in a different way. In a way that made me think that human culture is a lot more, and human lives are a lot more like the processes of ongoing life within within the forest, which is always a process of loss, but also then of new creativity emerging from that. And the two are present together at all times. That for me at an emotional level when I'm studying Forest that manifests in my emotions as a sense that the forest is a place of incredible and inexpressible beauty and complexity and joy, but also of just unfathomable Brokenness. And those two things for me both are very true, both present paradoxically at the same time.
Preeta: Wow, that's so powerful. This is Preeta. Thank you for this beautiful conversation. David you talked about the balance, this beautiful balance between conflict and competition which exists in all networks and all ecosystems, and you also talked about the inhale and the exhale, the need for both, and I'm wondering in light of your comments about what you described is the trend in biology for the last 200 years about the focus on the individual. Where you see things shifting. We see this in so many aspects of Our Lives. Whether it's politics, political science, and other areas this kind of interaction of the individual and the community and maybe you know a kind of over focus on the individual for the last several hundred years.
But also a view of community living alone also doesn't tell the full story, so do you see this as kind of just the back-and-forth, the ebb and flow of the rebalancing or do you see a kind of a paradigm shift happening or kind of coming up in biology?
David: Yeah, I mean I think within biology there is definitely a very significant shift underway giving us new ways to thinking about the world. I think the same is true in economics of course. Adam Smith's ideas about the foundation of Economics being interacting free individuals. You know that that's a very powerful view, and it's a view that in some ways freed people from economic systems that were very dominated just by the control of a small number of powerful individuals. And of course a downside of that is that it may neglect the network nature and and many of the cooperative natures of economic action. And I think what's happening now is that we are right in the middle of an incredible paradox. We do have a great deal of emphasis on the individual so whether that individual is an economic entity as a consumer for example of goods or a political entity as a citizen and a voter. and those individuals are becoming more in some ways disconnected because we can lead separate lives out in the digital era and not be interacting with other people and yet at the same time as we have this incredible on individuality at the same time our economies are becoming more and more mutually interdependent so that what happens in London affects what happens in Beijing within seconds and you know centuries ago certainly there were connections among the economies of the world, but they were I would say much slighter and they took much longer to enact. So the power of networks and the manifestation of networks is so much more obvious these days than it was in the past. And so my hope is that we that we come to think about our lives as members of communities more and more and de- emphasize a little bit the narrative of the individual being the only possible way of thinking about the world.
Preeta: I wonder if you see that happening in kind of a disruptive way, or do you see that in a kind of a slower rebalancing evolutionary way of bringing the community and individual sense into balance versus kind of a shift from the way we've organized our societies are economics or politics in the last 200 years?
David: Yeah, you know I really don't know I think I mean it's hard to know what's going to happen next week let alone a few months or years down the line. I want you know from my perspective what I see happening is a great deal of variegation, so some places, a great deal of input. You know almost revolutionary emphasis on the power of communities and the network relationships and in other places sort of a digging down and a digging in to this notion of the individual is all-powerful, and I think that in some ways we're getting a polarization there, and you know the optimistic view is that there can be a fruitful interaction among those polarized [01:00:00] views, the less optimistic view is that it will lead to more conflict unfortunately.
Caller: Hi, David. Thank you for a beautiful sharing. I feel like I'm getting to talk to a reincarnation of Henry David Thoreau.
David: [laughs] Not at all.
Caller: My name is Kozo and I'm calling from Cupertino, California, and I wanted to ask you one of the things that arose for me in all of your shares on this call is this idea of vibration. You know whether you're talking about auditory, or you know feeling or even you know seeing things through the eyes is a type of vibration. And then this idea of resonance. Your resonating with the vibration, and my question is you know in your experiences whether it's with that small patch of land in the forest or with certain trees or with the birds or anything did you ever tap into what people call like a universal vibration? You know like a Divine vibration or vibration that you know that you can't really identify?
David: I would say that certainly any kind of almost all the places that I took time to return to again and again over months and years. There is absolutely a sense in which there are other processes happening. I don't know if I'd call them vibrations because I really do think of vibration as a sort of an acoustic phenomenon or phenomena that comes through my hands say for example touching a surface. But certainly a sense of processes that far transcend what the human senses and the human mind and Imagination can grasp. And as a biologist I would say the most important of those is this sense of really deep time of things. That had happened here over time, and that time still has a great deal to unfold and that I occupy an unimaginably small position within that arc of time, and it's really an extraordinarily humbling feeling. And I know people who work say for example with fossils and others have a similar sense of being humbled by the magnitude of the story that they are connected to. So for things that really struck me in a way that were causing resonance if you like in a chord within me, that was the one that was the most in a way awe inspiring and hard to put a finger on it. You know I'm struggling for words now to even describe what that feeling is is like.
Preeta: Beautiful. Thank you. We have a question that's come in on the web. Gayathri asks, "As a trained scientist myself I am aware how much scientific training emphasizes objectivity and reproducibility thereby diminishing the value of a personal subjective narrative. I'm curious how you managed to keep the unique voice and perspective of yours alive through your years in Academia. Were you supported by any mentors in this quest how has it been received by colleagues and students?
David: So absolutely indeed within science or at least some parts of science, there's a great deal of value placed on at least seeking objectivity. And I would say though that too much of that diminishes both the practice of science, and our lives as people because of course everyone of us comes to that objective practice through a subjective path the path of our own lives and the path of our own sensory impressions and so forth. And what I've tried to do in my writing is tell those larger stories that emerge indeed often through objective scientific analysis for example scientific experiments and so on but to experience them and then to tell those stories through a very subjective lens through the lens of my experience of these particular patches of land and particular trees. And so forth. So in a way, I'm trying to integrate those, and I think that integration is absolutely necessary for us to be fully human. That in addition to the objectivity of science that helps us see big trends and patterns in the world and understand the functioning of cells and another amazing and important things, we also need subjectivity experience to understand why this is important what it means to us, and also what the limitations of scientific method are. Scientific method is really great at answering a certain number of questions, but those questions are limited. Science cannot provide answers to ethical questions.
There is no experiment that can decide between right and wrong. Ethical discernment emerges from experience with subjective experience and then conversations within the community, and that community goes back over the Millennia within the human community of what it means for something to be right or to be wrong. And so to live well in the world I think we need both an objective and subjective experience.
In terms of mentors absolutely I've had many many teachers, and I think this is true for most people who've had the joy of having inspiring and wise teachers is that those teachers convey to us the objective knowledge of their disciplines, but do it through the lens of their own lives and make these things relevant to us, so they integrate subjectivity and objectivity just beautifully and that's why we're attracted to these teachers because they show us both the beauty of abstracted knowledge objective knowledge, but also the relevance of that knowledge. And as as a young boy I had that experience with a number of biology teachers and teachers of poetry who did this, but also my teachers came from books-- people like Annie Dillard people like EO Wilson Henry Beston and so forth folks who who went into the world to try to understand it through the lens of both objective thought and also of subjective experience. And as a reader that's one of the delights for me of picking up a book and being able to to both learn things that come to me through the path of science, but also come through the voice of a particular group of individuals, a community of people who are trying to understand the world.
Caller: Hi David. Thank you so much for this amazing call my name is Mish. I'm calling in from 13 degree Brooklyn, New York. My question for you is when when I was in California we went for a walk through Muir Woods. Which was a truly beautiful experience and by the time we walked out of there we felt beautifully changed by it, but we noticed in more than one tree was like a face within the tree, and what are you seeing when you see these faces in the tree?
There is one tree in particular this ancient huge redwood. It looked like the face of a wizened old wise man. What are we seeing?
David: now I haven't seen this particular trees. I so can't really provide a full answer. But rom my experience. I would say we're seeing two things partly we are seeing the character of the that particular tree revealed to us, so that those crevices in the bark and those twists and turns and so forth are revealing the story of that tree to us and particularities just as say the shape of a person person's face and the wrinkles on a person's face tells us something of that person's life, so too we are seeing that in the tree, and then we're also seeing our psyche reaching out into that place and trying to understand what this place means for us. And so the tree's narrative meets our narrative. And then it manifests in a particular image in a particular experience of that moment and I would and I'm sort of going out on a limb here, but I would hazard that other people might come to that tree and see something different scribed in the bark of that tree and that difference is no less true. It's just emerging from a different connection between that person's relationship with the tree and tree's narrative and so as strands of narrative draw together what emerges from them is quite different. It doesn't mean one way is right or wrong. It means that each one has its has its own peculiar way of emerging into the world.
Caller: Yes, I understand what you're saying. This must have been quite a tree because the image has never left me. I felt like I was watching a Doctor Who movie.
David: Wow that's amazing.
Caller: And my friend who was with me also saw this face, and I described what I was seeing, and we're very similar in nature so perhaps that's why we were both seeing the same.
David: Yes. Well, I would invite you to continue that process. I mean if you're in Brooklyn Prospect Park is is not too far and there are some extraordinary trees. Am thinking some of the turkey Oaks down by the well house and so forth some places, to gaze even when it doesn't seem to be something that is immediately attracting one's attention but to gaze and see what what emerges from this particular trees bark to repeated almost like attention to an icon to return again and again to gaze at the visage of that tree and see what emerges over the weeks and the years.
Caller: Thank you. That's a great idea.
Preeta: We have a question that's come in from Adonia saying, "dear David. Thanks for this beautiful talk .As a designer I've been contemplating my role in the community, and I was wondering that since you have gotten so close and intimate with trees what is your view on cutting down the trees to create furniture from?
David: Yes, so of course we all use wood. As a writer I write upon sheets of flattened cellulose that came mostly from trees some from recycled trees and other wood fibers. And one of the striking things that I discovered in my conversations with other people about trees is a notion that comes from Japanese carpenters, and these carpenters say that if you cut the tree you need to give that wood a second life that is as long and as beautiful as the first life of the tree. So if for example you cut a tree that is five hundred years old, well, you have an enormous amount of responsibility on you to create something that will last for at least 500 years and whose purpose and use in the world will be at least as noble as the purpose and use of that five hundred year old tree. Now if you cut the tree that is just 10 years old that responsibility is to make something that will have a good and noble purpose, a beautiful purpose for at least 10 years. And I thought that was a rather interesting way and helpful way of thinking about our relationship with trees. That there is indeed a place for humans to interact with trees in the way that uses the tree.
But the ethical impetus that is on us to use the tree well. We use trees just in an our inhale. When we breathe in we're using oxygen that trees have produced. That's a way of using trees that doesn't diminish the tree itself, then there are other ways, harvesting nuts from trees, and then of course cutting the tree down and letting new trees regrow.
And then there are yet more Extreme Ways cutting the tree down and covering it with asphalt so no other forest can can grow there again for perhaps hundreds of years. Each one of these ratchets up the intensity and I think the underlying ethical question is the same -- if we are taking a life what do we then create from that and how does that measure up to the destruction that we have wrought in the world. So finding some some sort of relationship and balance there. So indeed I do think part of a good future for Humanity is going to involve a good future in relation to trees and part of that involves using wood products, which are in many ways more sustainable for example than plastic, but also using them well not in excess of what we need and not in ways that are for example taking five hundred-year-old trees and making disposable products from them which regrettably is happening to this day.
Preeta: What a beautiful question-and-answer. Margie asks from Princeton, New Jersey. She says Kahlil Gibran wrote: " forget not that the Earth Delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair." She asks, "So this is at least partially biologically true -- no?"
David: Absolutely, that's a deep part of our being as living creatures here. We have as a human species has been around 100,000 years. Maybe several hundred thousand years and before that our non-human ancestors of course were feeling the ground under our feet and the wind in our hair. So when we feel those things we are awakening to a very deep part of our being?
Preeta: We've had a lot of people from the web write in some beautiful comments about their interactions with trees and how moved they are by the conversation. It's clearly triggered a lot. One of the things. I want to ask and it's come up in various forms in various different questions, is this notion that you have and that we all have, of the networked nature of the world and your own writings about you know for example climate change. I know you have written about how change happens in the world how we can be part of the change. In service space in this ecosystem we focus a lot on the idea of small acts at the individual level that can have Ripple effects on the network and that as individuals the most we can do is these small acts that begin these ripples because of the network nature of our world.
I wonder what you think about that as a kind of a view of social change is it enough in your opinion when we're talking about issues like climate change?
David: Yes, so we never know what will be enough. We don't know the future. What we do know though is in network communities what seem like small actions sometimes indeed are small actions that don't have great consequences, but in other times small actions even if they don't add up with lots of other small actions, but a few small actions can have enormous consequences for the network. But from no particular part of the network is that predictable. So I think that's one of the main lessons from studying networks within forests and within human social change is the great unpredictability of cause and effect.
And to not diminish the import of small actions within networks, in fact small actions really can and do transform networks. The other thing is if we realize that we're acting within networks aeally important part of any kind of social change has to be linking up in relationship with others within the network.
And through doing that we we open all sorts of unimaginable possibilities for the future. If we do not put effort into forming those relationships, into forming those in the connections, then we're not making the full use of the network. We're not we're not even really inhabiting it in the fullest possible way, so I do think social change of course does emerge through all sorts of network connections.
Whether that will be enough to for example tackle the great questions of poverty and of inequity and of climate change and extinction we don't know, but what we do know is that if we put no effort into this those solutions will not be found so I think you know Wendell Berry has a an interesting perspective on this.
He says it's really not for us to decide whether we think we should be hopeful whether we think we can affect the change that we want to happen in the world. It's up to us to actually do it, to try. And it's up to the Future to decide whether we were successful or not. So we should not trouble ourselves with questions of how hopeful or otherwise we ought to be. We should get down to the work if you like of first paying attention to the world. To the work to the ecological world and to the world of our human neighbors, and then discerning where our right path forward is within that community.
Preeta: That's really beautiful, and wise. You've received a number of teachings recognitions, prizes, honors, and I think I'd love to hear and several have asked what teaching methods do you bring to the classroom that have been innovative that have brought students into more of these contemplative type practices.
David: Yeah, so as a teacher. I really think that first-hand experience is very important and so in whatever we're discussing in the class, of course we do readings, and then we have class discussions and all those things are the part of our current model of education, but I also very much want the students to be directly engaged with all of their senses, so I have taught a course on hunger and food and so students in that class grow food in the garden, and they work in the local food bank and work with people in our community who are hungry, and those who are working to try and alleviate hunger. And so through those experiences they come to understand truths that are not available just through picking up a book and sitting in the seminar room.
I also ask them to take moments contemplation to take into their lives periods of silence, periods of directed listening, of attending to their senses. And I offer these as experiment. I tell the students, "There's no particular outcome that I'm looking for here. What I want you to do is to have this experience of contemplative engagement with yourself and with the world and then to reflect on that experience nd see what what it means for you." And for some students it may not have any particular meaning at this moment in their lives, but for many I do think it offers, a sort of additional dimension to both their academic studies, but more importantly to their studies of their own psyche and of their own place within the community and within their own narratives and Arc of their lives.
Preeta: Lucky students. You mentioned how in the course of working on your first book about the square meter in the forest you opened up your own senses beautiful ways I'm wondering can you talk a little bit about how work on your second book might have shifted you. What changes happend in you as you worked for those years looking at those twelve trees?
David: Yes, with the second book I really wanted to place myself in a number of spots where it seemed that what we call nature wasn't really present, in the middle of cities and Industrial zones and so forth.
And I wanted to do that because the first book was set in an old growth forest and there were many wonderful stories of course in the old growth forest and people's lives are also present in that Forest, but I wanted to in some ways swing the pendulum of experience the other way and see what I might learn from that. So that was a set of planned experiences to challenge myself out of a particular mode that I've been in for several years, in the old growth forests and through that I came to understand that that the city street and the many species that are present in and around city streets have many ecological stories present within it as an old growth forest, partly because the city street was created by people and people are members of the ecological Community just like any other members of an ecological Community. There is no sharp division between humans and everything else at least some of our religious tradition sometimes taught. That I really think is the insight from Darwin and from ecological science is that division is an illusion. So that emerged for me as a very key insight of studying trees within cities is understanding how deep the connections between people and trees and other species can be even in places where those relationships don't get a lot of press and don't seem to be present on the surface.
Pavi: . I wanted to read out something from David -- an article that he wrote recently where he says, "A necessary complement to the objectivity of science is the subjectivity of experience. An enthusiastic openness to the lives of other species. The timing of tree blooms on city streets, the calls of frogs in the wetlands or the arrival of migratory birds is an act of resistance to deceptions and manipulations that work most powerfully when we're ignorant. Post truth does not exist in the opening of tree buds.
Preeta: So beautiful. David how can we as a community support your work?
David: I would close with an invitation not so much about my work as an invitation for everybody who is listening or reading -- to find a tree or find a little corner of a city neighborhood or a patch of forest and choose that as a place that you'll return to again and again with open senses.
To try to listen to the stories of that place, but without any expectation of what you're going to find there. And return again and again and turn on the sense of curiosity. Turn on your sense of smell and texture through the fingers and then look at the quality light and really befriend that place and then extend that that friendship over weeks and months and perhaps years and see where that relationship takes you. I really think that's what I was referring to earlier-- this question of awakening to the particularities of place. That would be my hope both of myself to continue those processes, but also for other people to invite those experiences into their lives without the predetermined notion of where that experience is going to lead.
Preeta: Thank you so much.
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