Another Life: In affectionate awe of our solitary, majestic beech tree

Michael Viney: I remember the first time I hugged our tree and the unprecedented, sensual shock of it

Beech tree at Thallabawn: The big boughs fill and lift in a breeze, then sink monumentally, like slow Victorian bellows. Illustration: Michael Viney

Beech tree at Thallabawn: The big boughs fill and lift in a breeze, then sink monumentally, like slow Victorian bellows. Illustration: Michael Viney

 

My new garden chair sits me at the foot of our beech tree, grown huge again as it is every June. Beeches live most happily in great forests; left all on its own, ours has spread branches twice as wide as the tree is tall until the lowest tips arch to the ground for lack of neighbours or friends.

It’s more than 30 years since, wandering through the old demesne forest at Cong, we found a drift of self-sown beech seedlings and pocketed one for the garden. A slow ascent in a sheltered corner brought its head up into the wind and then, with astonishing vigour, it ascended to smother the fuchsia, switch off the roses and darken what’s left of the pond.

This unforgiving shade is what makes the beech an undesirable alien in Ireland’s native woods. Little will grow or regenerate beneath it and birds must wait a century for the chance of a hole to nest in. So, seated at its outermost hem, I am left to indulge in affectionate awe of our solitary Fagus sylvatica.

The chair was new in early spring, a bright but chilly time. The tree’s great tracery of twigs stayed bare into April, barbed with buds rolled tight as umbrellas. They unfolded first on the side that faced the mountain and the sun.

What struck me was the spacing that gave each leaf its space, each twig its breath of air. How many nearly identical leaves, a wave-edged, singing green 50,000? Some uncomputable number.

This month they almost touch the grass. The big boughs fill and lift in a breeze, then sink monumentally, like slow Victorian bellows. Some European scientists, intrigued by the rise and fall of branches even without a wind, have measured this with lasers and entertain the idea of a slow tree heartbeat that helps to pump water up into the leaves.

This comes from The Heartbeat of Trees: Embracing Our Ancient Bond with Forests and Nature, a new book by Peter Wohlleben, the German forester whose The Hidden Life of Trees had such revelatory impact. It described the social network of a forest, linked underground for mutual care and nourishment.

Existence of the “Wood Wide Web”, served by buried threads of mycorrhizal fungi, had been well debated since the 1990s. Wohlleben gave it extra meaning in linked lives, like those of human families, of the beech trees in an old native forest he managed for the German Forestry Commission.

His parallels with human conduct – parental concern and caring, mutual support and sharing of nutrients – were certainly powerful illustrations. They also encouraged lovers of trees who feel their affection might in some way be reciprocated. Thus, as a heading to a recent excerpt from his new book, the Guardian chose “Branching out: is communication possible between trees and people?”

Nothing, perhaps, is more inviting of such fancies than giving a tree a good hug. To try it out again, I ducked beneath the boughs of the beech to reach its trunk, smooth and cool in its pool of darkness. A broad tongue of moss reached up the bark from the ground and the first thick boughs sprang just above my shoulders as I spread my arms to hold.

Sensual shock

I remember the first time I did this and the unprecedented, sensual shock of it. There was the sudden communication of the tree’s massive, muscular strength and weight – its living otherness rooted in the ground. Doing it again rehearsed the memory but lacked the first pulse of discovery.

Among 337 reader responses to the Guardian’s excerpt came some deeply felt witnesses (“That tree sent tingles through my fingertips that travelled up my arm and brought actual tears to my eyes . . .”). There was also predictable impatience with such anthropomorphic carry-on.

The merits of tree-hugging as relief from Covid’s deprivations were unexpectedly reinforced this spring by Iceland’s Forest Service. Its rangers cleared paths through the snow to let people reach its conifers.

“When you hug a tree,” one ranger enthused, “you feel it first in your toes and then up your legs and into your chest and then up into your head. It’s such a wonderful feeling of relaxation.”

Wohlleben, however, is careful to parse what “communication” might mean. He discounts, for example, any contact of electrical fields between plant and person, not least because trees “as we all know are awfully slow” and you’d be waiting forever for a response.

Could it not be, he offers, that people and trees live in completely different worlds?

“For the time being,” he writes,” it should be enough that we feel good around trees – and I hope we can then be content to allow them to live their own wild lives.”

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