Why I’m a tree hugger and you should be too

When Frau B looks out of her fourth-floor bedroom window, she sees two tall trees. On the left is a spruce. Its mass of deep-green needles presents a burst of colour all-year-round.treehuga

But she’s more interested in the maple tree beside it. Each September, she watches its leaves turn from vibrant green to grimy brown and yellow. A few weeks later, the wind snatches them away, leaving a stark tangle of branches for Frau B to observe during the winter months.

At the age of 97, even she is a whipper-snapper compared to a tree.

When I told her the other day that scientists in Norway had discovered a 9,500-year-old spruce, she sighed.

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a tree community in Volkspark Humboldthain

“Mich nimmt der liebe Gott auch nicht,” she said, meaning ‘God won’t take me either.’

It’s something she says quite often, usually with a smile. This time, it conjured up an image of a long line at the gates of heaven. When Frau B eventually gets to the top, she is rejected alongside a Norwegian spruce. Together, they lament the curse of their longevity.

In the past few weeks, my relationship to trees has morphed from passive appreciation to zealous awe. Peter Wohlleben, the author of The Hidden Life of Trees is mostly responsible.

The book was an impulse-buy, having met my three criteria for spontaneous literary purchases: an inviting title, a pretty cover and the promise that I would be a slightly different person after reading it.

My transformation has become especially apparent to LSB, who now finds himself at the receiving end of a barrage of excited outbursts:

“Do you know that trees use fungal networks to communicate?”

“Woah! You will NOT believe this! Trees can detect the saliva of insects and use THAT knowledge to send out chemicals to attract their predators!”

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tree bark in Volkspark Humboldthain

“Okay, I promise this is the last one: did you know that parent trees deprive their children of LIGHT in order to keep their growth rate steady?”

“…I know, I know: I’m sorry but I just have to tell you this: trees of the same species INFORM each other about impending environmental threats!”

At first, he listened politely, nodding occasionally as he scrolled through his phone. But as the days turned to weeks and my enthusiasm failed to wane, he advised me gently that I was putting the “bore”into arboreal.

It hasn’t stopped me though.

What I find so extraordinary about trees is in fact quite unremarkable: they’re just like us.

They have memories, which they can pass on. Communication happens via a sophisticated electric network forged over millions of years. The sick are nursed and the tendency is to protect one’s own.

Eventually though, like you, me and Frau B, they breathe their last and descend into the ground. There they turn to humus and enable new life, once again, to begin.

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a sick tree is propped up by its neighbour in Volkspark Humboldthain

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Want to succeed in journalism? Photograph yourself with a tree

“Me a financial journalist?”, an Austrian lady with lively eyes exclaimed, tearing into her steak. “I thought; never!”

She was over here two years ago to report on the economic crisis and had stopped by at my house for dinner. It was the first time my parents and I had met her but she had come highly recommended by her Viennese aunt, a friend of my father’s. I was in my third year of college and still under the impression that the world was my oyster.

“How has the recession had an impact on you?” she asked between bites.
I thought. “Wealthy parents no longer want me to teach their children Irish”, I mused “and as a result I’m more conscious of the price of coffee. Coffee is my main source of expenditure”. She scribbled this down in her notebook.

I was about to explain to her that Insomnia’s €3 coffee and mufffin deal (do you remember?) was topping my list of recession busters but that were the food not so disgusting, the “Weekly Madness” deal in Londis would have come out tops, when she asked “What would you like to be?”

“I would like to write feature articles for newspapers” I said.

She poured herself some juice and sat back. “You need to be open”, she said, “and you need to stand out. I never saw myself writing about economics.. I mean, me and finance come on”..

“You need to send good photographs to editors”, she continued. “Not boring ones. Ideally you should be out in nature. The photograph I used to get this job was of me with a tree. It’s important that you be different from the crowd”.

In the days, weeks and months that followed that conversation, I considered setting the self-timer of my camera and wrapping myself originally around one of the sycamore trees in my garden, but weather and the proximity of my neighbour’s back window to my creative space did not permit.

I did however take on board her advice, and the photograph that I use in the “Who Am I” section of this blog features me with a Slovenian tree which I accosted on the shores of Lake Bled during an interrail adventure with my LSB two summers ago. Though I have been a hard-working teacher for a week now, I’m keeping the old literary passion alive and my big toe in the door by accepting the position of editor of a new literary website: www.writing.ie, which launched last night after months of hard work by a small group of driven and creative people from whom I am learning to multitask. For the “about us” section of the site, I have chosen to feature a photograph of myself beside a large sunflower, as my sycamore tree wouldn’t fit on the photograph. Who would have thought that a financial journalist could inspire such a circuitous plug. I guess her editor would agree with me that she is one hundred percent natural…

The Tree of Life: at the Root of it All

At the top of Bray Head last Saturday, while tucking in to an exquisite quorn chicken baguette of his making, my boyfriend explained to me E=MC². He did a really good job; there was a lot of imaginary rock throwing into the water and the thermos flask of mocha doubled up as a handy representation of the speed of light squared. He told me about nuclear fusion and fission – about subatomic structures and the search for the “god” particle. Absent mindedly I munched my pringles and watched the sea, trying to fathom it all. It began to rain.

Our descent proved phsyic(s)ally yet more intense. I had nerd questions to ask and gnarly roots to stumble over. I sort of wish I hadn’t let my apprehension of mirrors, electricity and maths prevent me from studying physics for the Leaving Certificate. An in-depth knowledge of the stuff is probably the closest you are going to get to the meaning of life.

In the second episode of Channel 4’s programme about Amish teenagers during their “Rumspringa” phase, a pure-faced, bonneted Amish girl points to a tree and asks the artist in Kent whom she is visiting how it could possibly have come from “nothing”; by which she means ‘no God’. She is incredulous at the idea of evolution. Her alternative narrative of aboresque origin; the biblical creation story –  in spite of its obvious falsity – suddenly appears to me strangely, ironically sophisticated. God, as existing outside of time makes redundant the need to explain relativity and progress: the hallmarks of evolution. While Amish girl looks at a tree and classes it begotten not made, scientists dig deeper and deeper and deeper to identify subatomic structures … until they arrive at: Nothingness; the “god” particle; claritas?

It is simply impossible for me to understand this until there evolves in my brain a further imaginative and existential dimension – as King Lear said –  surely “nothing can come from nothing”?

We reach the foot of the hill: the inside of our heads beating to the buzz of billions of neurons. The view up is tree-lined and the magnificent cross at the peak bears its arms like branches. I need to pee.