I startled the Nankeen night heron on my morning walk. I recognised it by its cinnamon wings. It flew away into the mangroves on the other side of the river. It was too quick for a photo, but a day or two later I saw it again at dusk.
The night heron is elusive. As it’s name suggests, it’s usually only seen at dusk and dawn. It hides among the mangroves during the day. Spotting it again so soon was a highlight of my evening walk along the Cooks River.
Although the River is very polluted, I love my walks beside it. There’s always something new to see. A little detour off the path in search of birds brought this reward — amber-like sap exuding from a wattle branch.
My walks restore me. The sound of birds, the feel of cool air on my skin, even the muddy vista of the river make me happy. I feel at home in nature.
Nature is the subject of this week’s lens-artists challenge from Patti, who creates the Pilotfish blog. It’s also the subject of The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors by David George Haskell.
David Haskell’s book tells of his many visits to 12 trees over the course of several years. He settles down beside them, sometimes with audio equipment, sometimes just with attentive eyes and ears, and listens to the sounds around and within them: birdsong, insect scratchings, raindrops on leaves, the pulse of water through stems and branches, the hum of roadways built to transport forest products such as logs, fruit and fur.
The trees Haskell visits range from an Amazon rainforest tree (the Ceibo) to a 600-year old bonsai. There is even a fallen dead tree, which arguably is host to so much life for so long after it falls, that it’s not really dead. I’m not sure which was my favourite — perhaps the sabal palm, a species that retreats from island to island in the face of ever-changing seas. Or was it the olive, whose history has been intertwined with humans to the extent that it can barely survive without our care?
Haskell shows how trees are so much more than objects in a landscape. They are webs of connectivity, from the bacteria and fungus in their root systems, to the birds and animals that depend on them, to the network of human relationships that form around trees as resources, anchors of ecosystems, places of recreation or spiritual sustenance. Trees connect human issues as diverse as racism, world war two, climate change, homelessness and the occupation of Palestine.
Haskell encourages his readers to listen to trees as well. To pay attention to them. To remember that we are connected to them, and that like them, we are part of nature. Trees tell us that everything is connected. Humans are not separate from nature, but we need to learn better, how to live within it.
It’s a fascinating and thought-provoking book. But I do have one complaint — there is only one southern hemisphere tree. Most of the trees Haskell writes about are not familiar to me. Fortunately his blog has pictures and audio for each of the trees. I guess that as a US writer, time & budget limited his ability to go on repeat visits to the antipodes but as an Aussie I would love to read his thoughts on trees in Australia, Africa and New Zealand.
Anyway, this book has got me thinking about the songs and stories of these other trees. Like the Turpentine ironbark, that has gum nuts shaped like tiny space ships. It’s native to the area I live, and its human story is one of colonisation, deforestation and urbanisation. Forests have dwindled to remnants classified as endangered ecological communities. Turpentines have been replanted around the Cooks River, and even though they’re no longer really part of a plant community, it gives me a thrill each time I find another one.
Then there’s the much-loved jacaranda, an import from southern Africa that is ubiquitous in Sydney. Its purple flowers carpet our pavements every spring. The death of the famous jacaranda in the Sydney Uni Quadrangle was mourned by generations of students and alumni. When the jacaranda flowers, it’s too late to start studying for exams. The jacaranda was so important to the university community that it will be replaced by a new sapling cloned from the tree before it died.
And what about the ocean-like soughing of casuarinas, whose bark is indistinguishable from the plumage of the tawny frogmouth owls that roost in them? I have a sore neck from trying to spot them each time I walk along the river. But casuarinas, although native, are also a sign of disturbance. Like mangroves, they have replaced the salt marsh that was typical of the river before European colonisation, but has been all but eradicated by development along the river banks and the taming of its natural flow.
Or magnificent beeches in New Zealand whose colourful mistletoe is disappearing thanks to voracious feral possums introduced for their fur; or the bulbous baobabs in Africa that provide food and shade for villagers … I could go on.
So many trees, so many stories. Can we have a sequel please David? Or maybe not — after all, one of his key messages is that we need to listen to the trees ourselves and understand their stories. Well, I’m in.