August 14, 2022

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The Music of Trees: Improvisation, Iteration, and the Science of Immortality


Hermann Hesse believed that if we may study to take heed to the bushes, we’d obtain profound perspective on our human lives by greedy the deepest that means of aliveness. He used listening within the metaphorical sense. But the good existential reward of bushes — to us within the metaphors they furnish, and to themselves within the materiality of survival — may certainly be a type of musicality, accounting for his or her virtuosity at resilience: past “the blind optimism” of a tree’s poetic enchantment lies a supersense for listening to the world and responding with impressed ingenuity, encoded with singular knowledge on how you can dwell and how you can die.

So suggests arborist William Bryant Logan in his contribution to Old Growth — a wondrous anthology of essays and poems about bushes, culled from the decades-deep archive of Orion Magazine, with contributions as various as Ursula Ok. Le Guin and Michael Pollan, and a foreword by the poetic bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer.

Perspective by Maria Popova. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

In an essay titled “The Things Trees Know,” Bryant writes:

To research how bushes develop is to admire not solely their persistence but in addition their creativeness. Live wooden simply gained’t give up. Every time you knock it down, it comes again once more, however when a plant sprouts again, it’s not a random shot, like some finger merely raised to make some extent. Rather, the rising tip of any stem — what botanists name the meristem — solutions with an inborn, advanced sample, like a musical tune.

He attracts out the musical analogy, reflecting on Charlie Parker’s well-known recommendation to younger musicians on the steps to changing into a real jazz artist: study the instrument, study the tunes, and solely then soar with the expert freedom of improvisation that makes jazz. Pointing to Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” as an ideal embodiment of that three-step triumph, Bryant writes:

It begins with a wonderfully clear assertion of the tune, lovely in itself for the richness of its tone, notes which might be nearly strong, so you would construct a home out of them. Within three minutes, the tune has modulated into utterly sudden shapes, sizes, rising and falling glissades, stops and begins, pianissimos to fortes, nevertheless it by no means loses the thread of that authentic tune. Every tree is a jazz participant, in simply this manner, though the place an extended Coltrane piece may final 1 / 4 hour, a tree’s efficiency might go on for half a millennium or extra.

Understanding a selected tree, Bryant argues, is a matter of discerning “its notes, its scales, its sharps, its flats, and its time signatures.” In the Nineteen Seventies, the botanists Francis Hallé, Roelof Oldeman, and P. B. Tomlinson recognized six units of selections, which function the chords that each tree combines to compose its specific tune: to department (most bushes) or to not department (palms); if branching, to department solely on the base of the stem or all alongside it; to develop new branches solely upward (staghorn sumac), solely outward (pagoda dogwood), or in some mixture of the 2; to develop every department in a steady upward or downward path decided at its outset, or to vary path because it grows; to flower on the suggestions of branches (staghorn sumac) or alongside their sides (maple); to develop the trunk and branches repeatedly with out relaxation or to have a dormant season.

Winter Moon at Toyamagahara by Hasui Kawase, 1931. (Available as a print.)

Bryant writes:

Out of those six selections, every plant performs its tune, the phrase that has characterised its variety for thousands and thousands of years. No matter the place its seed sprouts, every will attempt to play its melody.

The tree does this by a means of deft improvisation attuned to the myriad chance-conditions and occasions of its surroundings, altering the dimensions of its melody as wanted. (This jogs my memory of Coltrane’s personal commentary that jazz musicians are born with a sure feeling “that just comes out no matter what conditions exist.”) Botanists name the tree’s responsive improvisation reiteration. Bryant writes:

It is jazz: take the tune, stretch it, reduce it into items, put them again collectively, transpose it up or down, flatten it out, or shoot it on the sky. Each tree will get its chops, will get its charts, after which throws them away. It is aware of the chart by coronary heart, and so can repeat it with a thousand variations for a whole lot of years, because it grows to its full stature, lives amongst its friends, and grows again all the way down to the bottom. Positive and damaging morphogenesis, they dubbed the cycle: rising up and rising down.

As quickly because the tune is performed, the preliminary reiteration is the primary main department. As a leafy tree grows, it can generate what arborists name scaffold branches. These are the few — perhaps 5 to eight — very giant stems upon which the tree will hold most of its crown — that’s, most of its smaller branches and their thousands and thousands of leaves… The talent of the tree as an organism is like Coltrane in his vamping: it brings the variations again to the persisting theme.

In his classic love letter to trees, penned lengthy earlier than the science of reiteration was understood, Hesse noticed that bushes “struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws” — that’s, to play their tune. But as a lot as they could be, in Hesse’s phrases, “the most penetrating preachers” within the artwork of residing, they’ve at the very least as a lot to show us concerning the artwork of dying. Beyond the already disorienting science of why a tree, like a human being, is partly dead throughout life, bushes reside testaments to Richard Dawkins’s great perspective on the luckiness of dying, virtuosos on the artwork of letting life go together with the identical purposeful poise with which it’s lived.

Possible Certainties by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

Citing a standard saying about oaks — “Three hundred years growing, three hundred years living, three hundred years dying.” — Bryant considers the third stage of a tree’s life, often known as damaging morphogenesis, or “growing down”:

Growing down isn’t just decay. It is as lively and improvisational as was the build up. Roots are broken or die. Branches are misplaced to storms. Hollows open up on the trunk and are colonized by fungi just like the great and aptly named dryad’s saddle. The tree’s strong circulation system resolves itself again into discrete pathways, some residing and a few useless. It turns into apparent that scaffold branches have been as soon as separate bushes, as they grow to be so once more, some sustaining their root techniques and others dropping them. Now the guidelines of the upper branches start to die again. Instead of rising new reiteration branchlets on their undersides, as they did of their youth, they now sprout good little bushes of their species on the tops of the branches, between the trunk and the useless suggestions. It is an entire restatement of the thematic tune, occurring dozens of instances among the many still-living branches.

What unfolds on this dying stage is a course of often known as Phoenix regeneration:

Little by little, a tree loses its crown, first small branches, then bigger ones. Roots decay. The circulation system that carries water aloft to the leaves begins to interrupt down. When no leaves emerge on a department, it will probably now not feed itself. It dies and falls to the bottom, however the tree doesn’t quit. When a large that was as soon as ninety ft tall has shrunk to a peak of twenty ft, little pictures of itself might sprout from the decrease trunk and even from the foundation flare, wherever a residing connection between root and department survives… It shouldn’t be not possible that one or the opposite of these final sprouts — if solely they will generate their very own steady root techniques — might develop as soon as once more to ninety ft tall… Potentially, each tree is immortal.

The Leaf Tree of indigenous Gond mythology, from The Night Life of Trees.

Recounting his encounter with a colossal long-fallen Osage orange tree, from the useless trunk of which two miraculous former branches had risen vertically as new trunks lush with life, Bryant returns to his musical improvisation analogy:

It is as if an individual rested her arm on the filth, unfold out her palm, and two good new arms emerged from her lifeline, full with all of the muscle mass and tendons and circulation, the fingers, palms, fingers, and fingernails. Or maybe extra correct, as if an individual lay down at evening and had two new individuals in a single day sprout from his torso, full from toenails to cowlicks. I feel John Coltrane would have beloved phoenix regeneration. It is like these moments in “My Favorite Things” the place the entire piece appears about to leap off the highest finish of the soprano sax register, however immediately the tune takes up once more.

Old Growth is a trove of surprise and knowledge in its entirety. Complement this fragment with Dylan Thomas’s brief, splendid poem about trees and the wonder of being human, Thoreau on the true value of a tree, and forester and biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus on how the astonishing science of “tree islands” illuminates the key to resilience.





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