The slides, photographed by The Smithsonian’s Stanley Yankowski, are drawn from the 4,637 specimens amassed by the prolific wood collector Archie F. Wilson (1903–1960) — the largest private collection of arboreal specimens from around the world, donated to the museum’s already formidable wood collection a year after Wilson’s death.
Wilson, who served as a research associate at the Chicago Museum of Natural History and went on to preside over the International Wood Collectors Society, cut his samples into meticulously sanded 7×3-inch blocks. Each slide presents a thin slice from one of the blocks, stained to reveal specific microscopic features of its structure.
Beyond their aesthetic rapture, these specimens have taken on a wonderfully hope-giving new role in advancing science and the law. Half a century after Wilson’s death, they have become part of a vast database documenting the chemical fingerprints of wood, known as the Forensic Spectra of Trees — or, because scientists do delight in acronymic puns, ForeST. Much like artist Ryota Kajita’s stunning photomicroscopy of Alaskan ice formation are being used to understand climate change, scientists are using Wilson’s samples for vital wood identification, not only in advancing botany, but in combatting the worldwide epidemic of illegal logging and timber trafficking, which has swelled to about a third of the world’s wood trade — ecologically exploitive contraband estimated to be costing the global economy up to $152 billion per year, with unfathomed environmental costs as entire ecosystems are being decimated. (Trees, lest we forget, are the relational infrastructure of the living world.)
In Brazil, nearly 20% of the Amazon rainforest has been savaged by illegal logging in the decades since Wilson’s death — the loss of woodland approximately equivalent to the size of California. In China, rosewood has become the blood diamond of the wood trade — a species protected under the multilateral endangered species treaty CITES, yet ruthlessly logged for the manufacture of expensive Ming and Qing dynasty furniture reproductions. A quarter of Russia’s timber exports come from illegal logging and a devastating 61% of Indonesian wood production is traded illegally.
Accompanying the ForeST database is an advanced spectrometry instrument that showers the wood sample with heated helium atoms to instantly reveal its chemical profile, enabling customs agents and the various custodians of environmental policy to perform simple, cheap, noninvasive wood analysis that identifies illegally traded species and helps prevent these losses of tree life that take generations to recover.
“We don’t know where we belong, but in times of sorrow it doesn’t seem to be here… where space is curved, the earth is round, we’re all going to die, and it seems as wise to stay in bed as budge.”
By Maria Popova
“We, this people, on this small and drifting planet,” Maya Angelou wrote in her cosmic clarion call to humanity, “Whose hands can strike with such abandon / That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living / Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness.” How is it that, adrift amid a vast and unfeeling universe, we live with our sundering contradictions and still manage to constellate our lives with meaning, with beauty, with the transcendent possibility of belonging with each other and of homecoming to ourselves?
A century after Walt Whitman contemplated the wisdom of trees, Dillard turns to one particular, unusual tree as a teacher of life:
If survival is an art, then mangroves are artists of the beautiful: not only that they exist at all — smooth-barked, glossy-leaved, thickets of lapped mystery — but that they can and do exist as floating islands, as trees upright and loose, alive and homeless on the water.
She marvels at the improbable existence of these arboreal wonders — how hurricanes rip them from the shore and carry them into the ocean; how they defy the deadliness of salinity by exuding salt from their leaves, which even taste salty when licked; how they make their own soil in open water by trapping debris in their aerial roots, attracting bacteria and pooling fresh rainwater; how the mangrove plants its seeds onto this growing self-generated island, until it becomes a floating forest. A century and a half after the pioneering polymathic naturalist Alexander von Humboldt awakened humanity to the cosmos of connections by asserting that “in this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation,” Dillard writes:
A society grows, interlocked in a tangle of dependencies.
The mangrove island wanders on, afloat and adrift. It walks teetering and wanton before the wind. Its fate and direction are random. It may bob across an ocean and catch on another mainland’s shores. It may starve or dry while it is still a sapling. It may topple in a storm, or pitchpole. By the rarest of chances, it may stave into another mangrove island in a crash of clacking roots, and mesh. What it is most likely to do is drift anywhere in the alien ocean, feeding on death and growing, netting a makeshift soil as it goes, shrimp in its toes and terns in its hair.
I alternate between thinking of the planet as home — dear and familiar stone hearth and garden — and as a hard land of exile in which we are all sojourners. Today I favor the latter view. The word “sojourner” occurs often in the English Old Testament. It invokes a nomadic people’s sense of vagrancy, a praying people’s knowledge of estrangement, a thinking people’s intuition of sharp loss: “For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers: our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding.”
We don’t know where we belong, but in times of sorrow it doesn’t seem to be here, here with these silly pansies and witless mountains, here with sponges and hard-eyed birds. In times of sorrow the innocence of the other creatures — from whom and with whom we evolved — seems a mockery. Their ways are not our ways. We seem set among them as among lifelike props for a tragedy — or a broad lampoon — on a thrust rock stage. It doesn’t seem to be here that we belong, here where space is curved, the earth is round, we’re all going to die, and it seems as wise to stay in bed as budge. It is strange here, not quite warm enough, or too warm, too leafy, or inedible, or windy, or dead. It is not, frankly, the sort of home for people one would have thought of — although I lack the fancy to imagine another.
The planet itself is a sojourner in airless space, a wet ball flung across nowhere. The few objects in the universe scatter. The coherence of matter dwindles and crumbles toward stillness. I have read, and repeated, that our solar system as a whole is careering through space toward a point east of Hercules. Now I wonder: what could that possibly mean, east of Hercules? Isn’t space curved? When we get “there,” how will our course change, and why? Will we slide down the universe’s inside arc like mud slung at a wall? Or what sort of welcoming shore is this east of Hercules? Surely we don’t anchor there, and disembark, and sweep into dinner with our host. Does someone cry, “Last stop, last stop”? At any rate, east of Hercules, like east of Eden, isn’t a place to call home. It is a course without direction; it is “out.” And we are cast.
These are enervating thoughts, the thoughts of despair. They crowd back, unbidden, when human life as it unrolls goes ill, when we lose control of our lives or the illusion of control, and it seems that we are not moving toward any end but merely blown. Our life seems cursed to be a wiggle merely, and a wandering without end…
And yet these selfsame facts of the physical universe contain their own antidote to this hollowing sense of alienation — an antidote Virginia Woolf articulated exquisitely in recounting her existential epiphany about the beauty of life. Sixty-some drifting orbits after Woolf, Dillard writes:
Whether these thoughts are true or not I find less interesting than the possibilities for beauty they may hold. We are down here in time, where beauty grows. Even if things are as bad as they could possibly be, and as meaningless, then matters of truth are themselves indifferent; we may as well please our sensibilities and, with as much spirit as we can muster, go out with a buck and wing.
The planet is less like an enclosed spaceship — spaceship earth — than it is like an exposed mangrove island beautiful and loose. We the people started small and have since accumulated a great and solacing muck of soil, of human culture. We are rooted in it; we are bearing it with us across nowhere. The word “nowhere” is our cue: the consort of musicians strikes up, and we in the chorus stir and move and start twirling our hats. A mangrove island turns drift to dance. It creates its own soil as it goes, rocking over the salt sea at random, rocking day and night and round the sun, rocking round the sun and out toward east of Hercules.
“We cannot step outside life’s songs. This music made us; it is our nature.”
By Maria Popova
“Trees speak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons,” an English gardener wrote in the seventeenth century. “When we have learned how to listen to trees,” Hermann Hesse rhapsodized two centuries later in his lyrical love letter to our arboreal companions, “then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.”
For biologist David George Haskell, the notion of listening to trees is neither metaphysical abstraction nor mere metaphor.
It is in such lyrical prose and with an almost spiritual reverence for trees that Haskell illuminates his subject — the masterful, magical way in which nature weaves the warp thread of individual organisms and the weft thread of relationships into the fabric of life.
For the Homeric Greeks, kleos, fame, was made of song. Vibrations in air contained the measure and memory of a person’s life.
To listen was therefore to learn what endures.
I turned my ear to trees, seeking ecological kleos. I found no heroes, no individuals around whom history pivots. Instead, living memories of trees, manifest in their songs, tell of life’s community, a net of relations. We humans belong within this conversation, as blood kin and incarnate members. To listen is therefore to hear our voices and those of our family.
To listen is therefore to touch a stethoscope to the skin of a landscape, to hear what stirs below.
Haskell visits a dozen gloriously different trees from around the world — from the hazel of Scotland to the maples of Tennessee to the white pines of Japan’s Miyajima Island — to wrest from them wisdom on what he calls “ecological aesthetics,” a view of beauty not as an individual property but as a relational feature of the web of life, belonging to us as we to it. (Little wonder that trees are our mightiest metaphor for the cycle of life.) From this recognition of delicate mutuality arises a larger belonging, which cannot but inspire a profound sense of ecological responsibility.
We’re all — trees, humans, insects, birds, bacteria — pluralities. Life is embodied network. These living networks are not places of omnibenevolent Oneness. Instead, they are where 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.
Because life is network, there is no “nature” or “environment,” separate and apart from humans. We are part of the community of life, composed of relationships with “others,” so the human/nature duality that lives near the heart of many philosophies is, from a biological perspective, illusory. We are not, in the words of the folk hymn, wayfaring strangers traveling through this world. Nor are we the estranged creatures of Wordsworth’s lyrical ballads, fallen out of Nature into a “stagnant pool” of artifice where we misshape “the beauteous forms of things.” Our bodies and minds, our “Science and Art,” are as natural and wild as they ever were.
We cannot step outside life’s songs. This music made us; it is our nature.
Our ethic must therefore be one of belonging, an imperative made all the more urgent by the many ways that human actions are fraying, rewiring, and severing biological networks worldwide. To listen to trees, nature’s great connectors, is therefore to learn how to inhabit the relationships that give life its source, substance, and beauty.
Haskell follows the thread of relationship to the lushest arboreal habitat in the world — a symphonic sixteen-thousand-square-kilometer expanse of Amazonian rainforest in a wildlife and ethnic reserve in Ecuador, where a single hectare contains more tree species than the whole of North America. He limns this otherworldly wonderland, transliterating its peculiar language:
Amazonian rain differs not just in the volume of what it has to tell — three and a half meters dropped every year, six times gray London’s count — but in its vocabulary and syntax. Invisible spores and plant chemicals mist the air above the forest canopy. These aerosols are the seeds onto which water vapor coalesces, then swells. Every teaspoon of air here has a thousand or more of these particles, a haze ten times less dense than air away from the Amazon. Wherever people aggregate in significant numbers, we loose to the sky billions of particles from engines and chimneys. Like birds in a dust bath, the vigorous flapping of our industrial lives raises a fog. Each fleck of pollution, dusty mote of soil, or spore from a woodland is a potential raindrop. The Amazon forest is vast, and over much of its extent the air is mostly a product of the forest, not the activities of industrious birds. Winds sometimes bring pulses of dust from Africa or smog from a city, but mostly the Amazon speaks its own tongue. With fewer seeds and abundant water vapor, raindrops bloat to exceptional sizes. The rain falls in big syllables, phonemes unlike the clipped rain speech of most other landmasses.
We hear the rain not through silent falling water but in the many translations delivered by objects that the rain encounters. Like any language, especially one with so much to pour out and so many waiting interpreters, the sky’s linguistic foundations are expressed in an exuberance of form: downpours turn tin roofs into sheets of screaming vibration; rain smatters onto the wings of hundreds of bats, each drop shattering, then falling into the river below the bats’ skimming flight; heavy-misted clouds sag into treetops and dampen leaves without a drop falling, their touch producing the sound of an inked brush on a page.
The tree itself stands as an acoustic microcosm of the rainforest:
In the ceibo’s crown, botanical acoustic diversity is present, but it is more subtle. Drops are smaller and create a sound like river rapids in the leaves of the many surrounding trees, obscuring variations in the sounds of individual leaves. Because I’m standing high up in the branches of an emergent tree, a tree that arches over all others, the sound of the river rapids comes from beneath my feet. I feel inverted, like an image in a teardrop, disoriented by hearing forest rain under my soles. My ascent, up a forty-meter series of metal ladders, has carried me through the rain layers: The sounds of rain on litter and understory plants fade a meter or two above the ground, replaced by the spare, irregular spat of drops on sparse leaves, stems reaching up to the light, and roots drilling down. At twenty meters up, the foliage thickens and the rapids begin. As I climb higher, the sounds of individual trees push forward, then recede, first a speed-typist’s clatter from a strangler fig, then rasping drops glancing across hirsute vine leaves. I top the rapids’ surface and the roar moves below me, unveiling patters on fleshy orchid leaves, greasy impacts on bromeliads, and low clacks on the elephant ears of Philodendron. Every tree surface is crowded with greenery; hundreds of plant species inhabit the ceibo’s crown.
This dissolution of individuality into relationship is how the ceibo and all its community survive the rigors of the forest. Where the art of war is so supremely well developed, survival paradoxically involves surrender, giving up the self in a union with allies.
The forest is not a collection of entities… it is a place entirely made from strands of relationship.
A supreme lesson in authenticity from a being “so innocent and harmless, yet so savage.”
By Maria Popova
“When we have learned how to listen to trees,” Hermann Hesse wrote in his lyrical love letter to our arboreal companions, “then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.” Two generations earlier, a different titan of poetic sentiment extolled trees not only as a source of joy but as a source of unheralded moral wisdom and an improbable yet formidable model of what is noblest in the human character.
At fifty-four, a decade after his volunteer service as a nurse in the Civil War awakened him to the connection between the body and the spirit, Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) suffered a severe stroke that left him paralyzed. It took him two years to recover — convalescence aided greatly, he believed, by his immersion in nature and its healing power. “How it all nourishes, lulls me,” he exulted, “in the way most needed; the open air, the rye-fields, the apple orchards.” The transcendent record of Whitman’s communion with the natural world survives in Specimen Days (public library) — a sublime collection of prose fragments and diary entries, restoring the word “specimen” to its Latin origin in specere: “to look at.” What emerges is a jubilant celebration of the art of seeing, so native to us yet so easily unlearned, eulogized with the singular electricity that vibrates in Whitman alone.
In the years following his stroke, Whitman ventured frequently into the woods — “the best places for composition.” One late-summer day in 1876, he finds himself before one of his favorite arboreal wonders — “a fine yellow poplar,” rising ninety feet into the sky. Standing at its mighty four-foot trunk, he contemplates the unassailable authenticity of trees as a counterpoint to what Hannah Arendt would lament a century later as the human propensity for appearing rather than being. In a meditation from the late summer of 1876, Whitman writes:
How strong, vital, enduring! how dumbly eloquent! What suggestions of imperturbability and being, as against the human trait of mere seeming. Then the qualities, almost emotional, palpably artistic, heroic, of a tree; so innocent and harmless, yet so savage. It is, yet says nothing.
Science (or rather half-way science) scoffs at reminiscence of dryad and hamadryad, and of trees speaking. But, if they don’t, they do as well as most speaking, writing, poetry, sermons — or rather they do a great deal better. I should say indeed that those old dryad-reminiscences are quite as true as any, and profounder than most reminiscences we get.
Go and sit in a grove or woods, with one or more of those voiceless companions, and read the foregoing, and think.
One lesson from affiliating a tree — perhaps the greatest moral lesson anyhow from earth, rocks, animals, is that same lesson of inherency, of what is, without the least regard to what the looker on (the critic) supposes or says, or whether he likes or dislikes. What worse — what more general malady pervades each and all of us, our literature, education, attitude toward each other, (even toward ourselves,) than a morbid trouble about seems, (generally temporarily seems too,) and no trouble at all, or hardly any, about the sane, slow-growing, perennial, real parts of character, books, friendship, marriage — humanity’s invisible foundations and hold-together? (As the all-basis, the nerve, the great-sympathetic, the plenum within humanity, giving stamp to everything, is necessarily invisible.)
Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps supportBrain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated