I spent a large portion of my youth in an untamed forest on the California coast–it was the 1970s, we lived off-grid, and our wood cabins were built in small clearings amidst bay trees, madrone, manzanita, and coast live oak. A fragrant forest of graceful limbs that rustled in gentle breezes and sang sharply during storms.

I was an avid reader of Greek mythology, of fairy tales, of the Lord of the Rings trilogy – all stories in which forests and trees play a major role, either as protagonists or settings. It was easy to believe in magic in a place like that.

It followed that I was obsessed with stories of wood creatures and trees that could communicate, and much like young readers of more recent generations waited for their letter from Hogwart’s, I waited for the trees to come to life and reveal themselves in a more human form, or at least to speak to me in a language I could understand.

Illustration for The Old Woman In The Wood, from Little brother & little sister and other tales by the Brothers Grimm (1917), by one of my favorite illustrators. Artist: Arthur Rackham

Illustration for The Old Woman In The Wood, from Little brother & little sister and other tales by the Brothers Grimm (1917), by one of my favorite illustrators. This tale is about a forest that saves a young woman from certain death–she in turn saves the trees by releasing them from long enchantment.
Artist: Arthur Rackham

That they never did start talking to me is probably for the best, and it didn’t diminish my affection. It’s long been accepted that they have their own way of communicating, even if it’s not in ways we can always interpret into human terms. I haven’t always been able to explain my deep affinity for forests, and even for specific trees, in a way that doesn’t sound a bit unbalanced, so it’s a joy to see a book like the one Peter Wohlleben wrote become so popular.

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries From a Secret World has been on the bestseller lists for months in a variety of countries, including its native highly urbanized and industrialized Germany.

From a review in the New York Times: “Presenting scientific research and his own observations in highly anthropomorphic terms, the matter-of-fact Mr. Wohlleben has delighted readers and talk-show audiences alike with the news — long known to biologists — that trees in the forest are social beings. They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the “Wood Wide Web”; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.”

With a training in forestry, which taught Mr. Wohlleben how to think of trees as machines and natural resources, years of close observation taught him something else: How to see trees as fellow travelers.

Maybe his ideas make sense to me because he and I are of the same age, or because we both grew up in forests and in a similar era of environmental thought. Whatever the reason, it does me good to see someone articulate what I suspected all along, back when I was just a sapling of a treehugger: There’s more to trees than meets the eye.

The Hand Tree

I like gadgets as much as the next person, and I certainly understand the appeal of turning to nifty electronics for green objectives. Not only do some of the gadgets look cool and do cool things, they also monetize green goals by making products that can help drive employment and the economy. All good things. Okay, so they also use resources and generate waste, but maybe there are work-arounds for those drawbacks.

The hand tree, for example, is a cool device on the drawing board that would act as a personal air purifier as well as a technological fashion statement.

The Hand Tree, a battery-powered purifier made from recyclable materials. Design: Alexandr Kostin/Electrolux Design Lab

The Hand Tree, a battery-powered purifier made from recyclable materials.
Design: Alexandr Kostin/Electrolux Design Lab

Conceived by students at the Electrolux Design Lab, the hand tree is a largish bangle (or other accessory form, such as a pendant or belt buckle) that filters air.

“Combining millions of personal air purifiers we can achieve the image of living in a forest,” says the web page for the project. “If every inhabitant in a big city would wear such a device, we would be all to breathe easily in smoggy air.”

Okay, this is where the cool factor rapidly diminishes for me. This is the kind of production-oriented, consumer-centered ‘solution’ that is fully in keeping with the mentality that got us into cities full of smoggy air in the first place. And that’s not the fault of the young designer who came up with this neat idea; this is how we think.

Forest pool Artist: Aristide Maillol via Davidson Galleries

Forest pool
Artist: Aristide Maillol via Davidson Galleries

It’s no surprise that these creative futuristic designs for environmental gadgets are part of a 2013 competition sponsored by an appliance company.

Maybe I’m biased because I spend a lot of my time around actual trees, but my thought is this: How about we just plant more trees, and stop cutting down the ones we’ve already got?

They do a remarkably efficient job of purifying air with almost no production cost, when they reach the end of their life span they leave behind useful biomass, they maintain ecosystems and water tables, hold soil in place and provide a natural cooling system.

Practically the only thing they don’t do, unless they are being used for timber or packaging, is generate a profit.

And that might be their biggest weakness.

Civilization Tree Artist: Robobenito

Civilization Tree
Artist: Robobenito

Arboreal Lemonade

Trees bend under the weight of ice in Maine (2013) Photo: AP/Robert F. Bukaty

Trees bend under the weight of ice in Maine (2013)
Photo: AP/Robert F. Bukaty

One of the cornerstones of creating smart, sustainable cities and human landscapes is good tree management. Trees provide structure, color, movement and life to streets and parks – and they provide heat-reducing shade, absorb pollutants, and offer a haven for animals.

The severe storms of the past winter were devastating to trees in parts of the United States. Branches snapped and trunks splintered on trees that had been around for generations.

At Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, a well-established and meticulously documented urban forest was decimated by a December ice storm. Biology professor Frank Telewski took the lemons dealt to the trees and made lemonade, adding the documentation from the trees – some of which dates back to the 19th century – to new, post-storm assessments to determine which trees can best withstand ice storms.

A cooperative project between researchers from a number of U.S. states is under way that will examine which types of trees can be expected to survive extreme weather, including drought, and plan accordingly for the future. I would be interested to see how native trees fare in severe weather when compared to trees introduced over the decades from elsewhere.

Many trees that have been popular for urban planting, such as pleasing ornamentals, or trees that have rapid growth, end up costing more in the long run than slow-growing or less exotic choices, because the fragile trees succumb to extremes. And sometimes, they take power lines, roofs, and lives with them.

Telewski says he’s looking for big companion trees that will stay with us for the long haul.

“We want to plant trees that live a really long time.”

Branched Embrace

I spent a large part of my youth living deep in a forest that was relatively untamed, a temperate rainforest of bay laurel and Coastal live oak on the Inverness Ridge in California, part of the Point Reyes Peninsula north of San Francisco.

Dusk falls on Inverness Ridge

Dusk falls on Inverness Ridge

There are large stands of Bishop pine and Douglas fir on the same peninsula, much of which is a national park. I was spoilt for trees.

On the Point Reyes Peninsula

On the Point Reyes Peninsula

I’m not ashamed to admit that I like some forests better than others, but in the end, any forest is a place of life.

Today is the International Day of Forests. Still under siege, still under threat of deforestation, still the single largest refuge for biodiversity on land.


Bear Valley Park, Pt. Reyes Peninsula

Forests feel like home to those who grew up in them.

We are fortunate to live just a short walk from a forest of pine, oak and walnut trees here in France. There’s nothing quite like the sound of trees being amongst themselves, the creaks of branch against branch, the rustle of wind in the leaves. Between the forest and the sea, these sounds are home for me. They have embraced me for much of my life, a backdrop against which days are lived.


All photos P.K. Read

Following Green

606x341_237086_groenland-sous-les-glaces-un-immensSome scientists are predicting that climate change will make Greenland, legendary for its otherworldly vistas, a place as green and verdant as Sweden or parts of Alaska. As species – both flora and fauna – migrate from their customary habitats, we will likely see the spread of more diversity, rather than less, into areas that were previously inhospitable or ice-covered.

There are very few species of tree  indigenous to Greenland, but commercial tree plantations have already been attempted in southern areas of the country, and I imagine given the value of commercial timber, this activity could increase.

If the ‘greening of Greenland’ process develops as predicted, it could offer a unique opportunity to see how plant and animal life colonize a region.

However, I could also envision a different kind of colonisation, the kind that didn’t take place earlier.

Ilulissat Icefjord, Greenland

Ilulissat Icefjord, Greenland

The ever-growing interest in land and mineral claims by surrounding countries to exploit resources exposed by retreating glaciers is well-known. As land becomes viable and interesting for increased habitation, might this expand to other land claims, coming up against the traditional shared land ownership of the various indigenous groups?


If climate change prompts plant migration away from the middle latitudes and towards the poles (especially the North Pole), might we not see more people wanting to follow the green?

Kuannersuit Glacier, Disko, Greenland Photo: Panoramio

Kuannersuit Glacier, Disko, Greenland
Photo: Panoramio


The Guardian articleClimate change could turn Greenland green by 2100

AFP article (2008) – Stop stealing our land, Inuits say, as Arctic resources race heats up


Retreat and Renewal

Broken pine on Stowe Lake Photo: PK Read

Broken pine on Stowe Lake
Photo: PK Read

I spent some time recently in the vast playground of my youngest childhood, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Founded in 1870 as an urban oasis back when the city was a much smaller place, the park never fails to dazzle with its beauty and design.

This time, though, among the 25,000 trees that grace the park, I noticed numerous onces that were broken, fallen, or otherwise decrepit. Most of them were Monterey pines, eucalyptus, or cypress. And lo, as it turns out, I’m not the only one to have noticed. There is a large-scale project underway to manage Golden Gate Park’s tree population. The main reason? The trees that were planted a century ago are simply reaching the end of their normal lifespans and dying. Because of their size and location, they are a hazard – several people have been injured and one woman was crushed by falling tree limbs over the past few years.

The work will be carried out with respect to the animals living in the trees, seasonal considerations, and so on. Any trees with active nests will be given a reprieve until nesting season is over, and so on.

We think of animal lifespans, but tree lifespans and end-of-life phases tend not to be on human radar quite as much. The large trees seem to be permanent landmarks more than temporary inhabitants. Most of the trees will be replanted, and other children will grow up under new trees, falling in love with the intoxicating scent of cypress or eucalyptus, watching the swaying dance of those graceful limbs against the northern California sky.

View over a dead tree on Strawberry Hill Photo: PK Read

View over a dead tree on Strawberry Hill
Photo: PK Read


San Francisco Chronicle articles here and here



Party in the Plum Tree

There’s a small plum tree outside my office window, on  the opposite side of our garden wall. It’s still lush considering the season, a blaze of bright yellow leaves almost the same hue as the long-gone fruit the tree bears in summer.

Over the past few days, the weather reports for the area have had bright suns happily shining down over Geneva, and I have no doubt that’s accurate once you get above the fog line, located at least 100 feet above our house. It’s misty, quiet, pale autumn weather. No wind.

So it was a shock to find the plum tree quivering and shaking in what seemed to be a highly localized little storm. Even the hedge right next to it was unaffected. It was just the tree, branches bobbing and jerking, leaves falling in a rain.

It took me a moment to register that it was that tree, and only that tree, caught in a vortex. All the other trees were still, their remaining brown leaves hanging quietly, gathering fog.

So I looked more closely. And it turned out that the wind source was a small swarm of birds. Not sparrows, and not all the same. Tiny redbreasted things, a few yellow-breasted, some a sort of grey-brown. I should know their names but I don’t.

There were 20-30 of them, and they were each landing on a branch, then inching up step by step, plucking out leaves as they went along and then dropping them. I thought maybe they were hunting for insects, but no. They were just tweezing the tree of its leaves. When a bird got to the top of a branch, it would flutter and move to another branch. I’ve never seen the birds do that before, and they didn’t do it today.

I went out this morning and raked up the rich circle of gold beneath the tree – if they start up again, I’ll have evidence, even if I miss the tweezing itself.