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May 11, 2021

David Haskell listens to the songs of trees

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American biologist David George Haskell. Photo Katherine Lehman
American biologist David George Haskell. Photo Katherine Lehman

We cannot step outside life’s songs. This music made us; it is our nature.


American biologist David George Haskell won acclaim for his eloquent writing and deep engagement with the natural world with his book The Forest Unseen.

With his new book Haskell puts a stethoscope to nature’s great connectors and encourages us to listen to The Songs of Trees. Haskell repeatedly visits a dozen trees around the world, exploring the trees’ connections with webs of fungi, bacterial communities, cooperative and destructive animals and other plants.

An Amazonian ceibo tree reveals the rich ecological turmoil of the tropical forest, along with threats from expanding oil fields.

Thousands of miles away, the roots of a balsam fir in Canada survive in poor soil only with the help of fungal partners – in links that are nearly two billion years old.

Haskell chatted to The Echo ahead of his appearance at Byron Writers Festival


Describe where you write.

At whatever desk I can find, preferably near a window. For research phase: clutter, papers, notes in disordered stacks. For writing: neat piles of notes around a laptop, formerly a writing pad. Editing: me and a screen. No clutter. The form of the space in which we write flows into us and out of our hands into the page.

Tell us something about you that people may not know.

I sniff books. Literally: ink, paper, glue – a gorgeous world of possibility. The nose-nip of books has changed over the decades. Now, it’s more chemically acrid. Books of my childhood smelled of warm cellulose and resinous glue, reminders of the forest.

What book made the greatest impact on you as a child?

Reading Shakespeare and seeing his works on the stage. Musicality of language embodied.

What author living or dead would you most like to meet, and what would you like to know?

Rachel Carson. I’d like to experience a walk on the seashore with her. But she left a legacy allowing exactly that: her words live on.

Who should we be reading?

Kathleen Jamie, Ed Yong, David Hinton, Rebecca Solnit.

What are you working on now?

Listening to trees, smelling the soil, puzzling over sexuality in nature.

Where do stories take you?

Across time and space, into someone else’s consciousness. This is a marvel of reading: transportation into another mind, then a return, changed.

What are you looking forward to at Byron Writers Festival?

Listening to writers, readers, soaking up thought and experience from outside my usual circle of travels and ideas.


• David George Haskell will be appearing in numerous sessions at the Festival as well as a special Feature Event in conversation with Richard Fidler at Byron Theatre on Friday August 4, 6.30pm. Cost $30, bookings essential.

• For more on Byron Writers Festival visit byronwritersfestival.com

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