Humanising trees: how much is too much?

[~ 10 minutes]

Listening to: One Republic, Wherever I go

“We are tree-herds, we old Ents. (…) Some of my kin look just like trees now, and need something great to rouse them; and they speak only in whispers. But some of my trees are limb-lithe and many can talk to me. Elves began it, of course, waking trees up and teaching them to speak and learning their tree-talk. They always wished to talk to everything, the old Elves did.”

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

To the best of my knowledge, there are no ents in New Zealand. There is, however, a tree steeped in Maori myth called Tāne Mahuta. The actual tree is a kauri (Agathis australis); the mythic Tāne Mahuta was a son of the gods of earth and sky, and the only one who managed to break his parents’ stifling embrace by pushing them apart, so the world could exist between them. Considered the Lord of the Forest and creator of humankind, he is commonly pictured as a tall man bridging —and indeed sustaining— the gap between the sky vault and the earth, legs firmly planted on the ground (or rooted in the sky).

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about trees. Paradoxically enough, it all began because of a book I have not read (yet): Peter Wohlleben’s bestselling title The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel, how they communicate — Discoveries from a Secret World.

A science-oriented book by a German forest ranger might strike you as entirely unrelated to ents, talking trees or primeval Maori forest deities, and two weeks ago I would’ve agreed with you. Then I read this review on the NYT, and I changed my mind…

Apart from talking about the book itself (which sounds intriguing and worth reading), the article mentioned that some biologists are concerned about the language Wohlleben uses, because he blatantly humanises trees— and does so on purpose, using a “very human language” (in contrast to an emotion-less, scientific language) so as to let the reader imagine what a tree might feel.

From those two paragraphs in the review I glimpsed two opposing world-views, that one might jokingly describe as: the stuffy scientists with their jargon and insistence on linguistic hair-splitting and accuracy, versus the dirt-under-my-fingernails forest ranger that believes in telling people that trees inwardly yelp Ouch when their bark tears, or that they talk among them, because such concepts are easier for readers to grasp.

The clash between these two perspectives goes well beyond Wohlleben’s book, and may be condensed into a single question:

should we or should we not humanise trees? Continue reading