The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors, by David G. Haskell

Reviewed by Ann DiFiore

“To listen to the songs of trees is to know their communities, their network of family of which we and our voices are members”

David Haskell’s most recent book, The Songs of Trees (2017, 252 pp) continues his examination of forests and the interconnectedness of organisms. This book, however, is marked by a feeling of particular urgency as he explores not only the natural history of trees, living and dead, wild and cultivated, but the impact of climate change, deforestation, and political pressures on trees, the populations that depend on them, and the planet as a whole.

Haskell divides his work into three parts. Part I profiles individual trees and their environments, from the rainforest to the boreal forest; part 2 covers living and fossilized trees; and part 3 introduces cultivated, or urbanized, trees, ranging from cottonwoods to bonsai.

By tree songs, Haskell means the music of water, sunlight, insects, rock, machinery, fungi—every living and non-living thing with which trees interact. For example, the rainforest’s Ceiba pentandra tree’s song incorporates the rush and patter of rain flowing from canopy to roots, across the myriad bromeliads, ferns, and philodendrons that make this tree ecosystem a “sky lake.”

Sensors on the trunk of a Bradford pear growing at 86th and Broadway records the rumbles of the subway beneath its roots and the screech and blare of taxis hurdling down neighboring thoroughfares. A ponderosa pine’s melody combines the whine of windswept needles, the grating of a sapsucker probing for ants, the pop of wood cells thirsty for water, the grinding of beetles under its bark.

For Virginia Master Naturalists Haskell’s book serves as both inspiration and guide to ways in which we can enlighten and engage the public. By helping people interact with trees and experience them—seeing, listening, touching, smelling, tasting– the trees become animate. When we educate the public on their role as living community centers, we communicate their value and the interconnectedness of all lives.

As in The Forest Unseen, Haskell provides fascinating insights into the ecology and evolution of the forest. In this book, human attitudes and ethics vis a vis their environment play prominent and compelling roles. To the Waori people of Ecuador, ”the Ceiba is the tree of life in their creation story “ (p. 16). They view the forest as a whole organism, made up of living things, “spirits and dreams:” that can only exist cooperatively (p. 18).

While Haskell believes that few Westerners can match the Waori’s connectedness to their environment, he implores humankind to try harder to interact, learn, and care for the trees and ecosystems vital to our survival. The abandonment of centuries-old olive groves on the West Bank epitomizes the upheaval and loss that occurs when populations are uprooted, due to environmental or political change.  A loss, he laments, of both their knowledge and identification with the land. While he addresses the exploitation of both rainforests and boreal forest, which he describes as our last and greatest terrestrial carbon store, Haskell looks for signs of redemption among the devastation. The fossilized redwood in Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument that mesmerizes a young girl and her family is a promise of engagement. Street trees in New York championed by the people who value their shade and flowers give him hope.

Like the Yamaki Japanese white pine, a bonsai tended by the Yamaki family for four hundred years and gifted to the US National Arboretum by the government of Japan, trees are “living strands of relationship.” The tree survived the bombing of Hiroshima and is now a symbol of friendship between the two nations. While carefully cultivated and often non-native, bonsai’s miniaturized forms let viewers access trees in a way that is more personal, more intimate.  “Trees are masters of integration, connecting their cells into the soil, the sky, and thousands of other species.“(p. 153).  Haskell’s book will strengthen FMNs’ resolve to help  their communities renew those strands of relationship.

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Working to reduce plastics in our environment

The Fairfax County Federation invites the public to interact with three speakers:

Kris Unger, primary conservator of the Friends of Accotink Creek will talk about what happens to plastic as it traverses the environment.

Erica Carter, recycling coordinator for the Fairfax Solid Waste Management Program, will discuss recycling and the market for recycled plastic.

Don Cammerata, business manager for Virginia Facilities for Covanta, and Frank Capoblanco and Joe Walsh, will discuss how plastics are dealt with at the Lorton Waste to Energy Facility.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

7.30 pm

Main Community Room, Mason Government Center

6507 Columbia Pike, Annandale, VA 22003

RSVP Flint Webb

Edge of Extinction, by Two Sisters in the Wild  

Reviewed by Kristina Watts

Looking for a fun and low-maintenance game to play with young naturalists or to get kids excited about nature? On a whim, I picked up Edge of Extinction (2017, 15-30 minutes playing time) for my kids, because visiting national parks is one of our family’s big things and anything that teaches about ecosystems is fun to us. I was afraid that it would be one of those educational tools that the kids can see right through and refuse to play. I was wrong. My three sons, nature lovers all, immediately opened their packs and started to play. And LOVED it.

At first, the rules seemed complicated, but in this age of Pokémon and Magic the Gathering, the 10-year olds had no trouble. The object is to earn the most points by building the most complicated ecosystem within 10 rounds. Each player must have their own deck of cards, which represent a park or regional area. The cards depict ecological regions (e.g., forest, running water, grassland) plants, animals, fungi, and humans (e.g., botanist, woodsman) that are likely to be found in that area. Each card represents something that affects the ecosystem, either positively or negatively. Each turn, players draw a card and play as many from their hand that they can.

Players start with a region, the foundation of the ecosystem. The plants are the next easiest to play, as they may simply require a region. It gets more complicated as animals require certain combinations of regions, plants, and other conditions. The human cards have powers of protection (e.g., the botanist protects ecosystems from invasive plant species.) Within several rounds, the ecosystems grow robustly. (Competitive players can always throw out a multi-player card like Early Frost to slow down their opponent.) Players learn about relationships and dependencies within their ecosystem as they play. Different decks introduce players to different species and conditions of that area. My son Logan particularly enjoys the “Did You Know” questions on the Region cards with fun facts that he can share.

This game is recommended for ages 10 and up, with each game taking 15-30 minutes. The fact that the game was invented by two young nature-loving girls  just makes it more appealing. My 10-year olds had so much fun with it that I ordered two more decks so my husband and I could join in.

I would recommend this game as a tool for teachers to have in their classrooms as well as for young master naturalist-in-training family fun night.

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Review of Climate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses, and Citizens Can Save the Planet, by Carl Pope and Michael Bloomberg

Reviewed by Wendy Cohen

Climate of Hope (2017, 277 pp) avoids the usual gloom-and-doom discussion around climate change by offering up two premises: First, if we shift the focus from international treaties to projects in local municipalities, much work can be done to mitigate climate change. Second, rather than view the multiple causes of climate change as problematic, seeing them as numerous opportunities for solving the problem of rising earth temperatures can help us make headway with the problem. Every sector of society can help with climate protection. In other words, “think globally, act locally,” and above all, act. These two tenets are also at the core of the work of master naturalists.

Citing example after example of actions that have had a proven positive impact, Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City and current head of Bloomberg Philanthropies, and Carl Pope, longtime environmental activist and former executive director of the Sierra Club, give the reader cause for hope in the fight against environmental threats causing rising temperatures. In addition to showing how innovative public/private partnerships have helped fund greener technologies, Climate of Hope points to the natural world as “an enormous, largely unread library of solutions.”

Bloomberg and Pope show examples of something naturalists have long known: investing in more sustainable agriculture and forestry practices is key to combating climate change. In their words, maintaining healthy ecosystems allows them to “do what they are equipped to do–suck carbon out of the atmosphere and turn it into soil and vegetation”(p. 178). One example they give is mangroves: According to their research, if half of what has been lost of the mangroves found mostly in Asia were restored, 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide could be stored, a number that matches total U.S. emissions each year! An additional advantage would be greater protection of the tropical coastline from typhoons.

Climate of Hope demonstrates how local efforts to protect our ecosystem can have a ripple effect. Promoting environmental stewardship goes a long way in helping to counter rising global temperatures. This book validates the work of master naturalists.

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Review of The Forest Unseen, by David George Haskell

Reviewed by Ann DiFiore

A square meter of Tennessee forest can give us insights into all forests.

This is the premise of The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature (2012, 288 pp). Haskell, Professor of Biology at Sewanee, the University of the South, visits a corner of old growth forest every few days over the course of a year to record his observations. Inspired by the intricate sand paintings, or mandalas, created by Tibetan monks to represent the cosmos, Haskell lays down a hula hoop to mark the boundaries of his mandala. Armed with a hand lens, he uncovers within this microcosm stories of creation, evolution, adaptation, life unexplored, and man’s relationship to the natural world.

For Master Naturalists, this book deserves a place of honor on our bookshelves, alongside A Sand County Almanac and other classics of ecology/natural science. Through Haskell’s penetrating lens, readers are able to see and appreciate the often unseen organisms that populate the forest’s soil and upper layers. He then switches to a wide-angle lens, educating the reader on larger ecological issues and emphasizing always the interconnectedness of life on our planet.

In his January 1 entry, “Partnerships,” Haskell discusses the amazingly successful union of fungi and algae—the “world-conquering” lichens and the first living thing he encounters in the mandala. Lichens cover 10% of the earth’s surface. How symbiotic relationships push evolution forward–microbes living in digestive tracts, the interdependence of fungi and plants—is a recurring theme in the book.Humans, he notes wryly, “… are lichens on a grand scale” (p. 5).

A sense of humor infuses his writing. In “Faces,” he reluctantly confesses to finding a trio of young raccoons adorable (naturalists aren’t supposed to make such judgments)—and then analyzes human responses to animals. In “Earthstar” he debates removing golf balls from the mandala and decides to allow geological forces to return them to their elements, reminding us that humans are part of nature and “our biggest failing is a lack of compassion for the world, including ourselves” (p. 158).

Haskell’s sense of wonder at nature’s ingenuity and variety is evident in each entry. The firefly’s incandescence, the turkey vulture’s ability to destroy anthrax bacteria and cholera viruses through digestion, the snail’s reproductive strategies—fascinate him, and his enthusiasm is infectious.

Haskell takes the scientific community to task for its alarm cry that the recent rise in deer population is ruining our forests. He argues that historical and archaeological records point to deer being plentiful inhabitants until the 1800s, when they had been extirpated. “The deerless forests of the early and mid-1900s were aberrations” (p. 31). For 50 million years, large mammalian browsers—wood bison, oxen, tapirs, peccaries, herbivorous bears, and mastodons—feasted on forests until they were hunted into extinction. Only the deer remain. In “Flowers,” he credits deer for dispersing wild flowers from their post Ice Age home along the Gulf Coast across the continent, arguing that ants who travel little more than a few feet from their nests would not have been able to accomplish the task so quickly.

The author laments that while science informs and educates us, it does not help us “listen” to nature. In “Epilogue,” Haskell urges us to create our own mandalas for ecological exploration. His advice: To leave behind expectations and to be present—see, listen, smell—and return, over and over again.

“The desire to name, understand, and enjoy the rest of the community of life is part of our humanity. Quiet observation of living mandalas offers one way to rediscover and develop this inheritance” (p. 245).

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College Scholarships for Natural Resource/Conservation Students

The Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts annually offers several $1,000 scholarships to graduating high school seniors for college study. The scholarships support studies related to natural resource conservation. Fairfax County students must submit their applications to the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District, which will select one student for consideration by the state committee. Applications can be found online and are due by March 12, 2018.

Apply for the 2018 Youth Conservation Camp

For over 35 years, the Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts has sponsored a week long summer conservation camp in July for Virginia high school students on the campus of Virginia Tech. The camp provides a week of learning about Virginia’s natural resources from conservation professionals and university faculty. Youth Conservation Camp is a selective program. Interested students must send their applications to the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District, whose staff will select which students will attend and be eligible for partial scholarships. The pre-scholarship cost is $550.

Learning Opportunity: Scientific Collections in Conservation Research

A Talk by Dr. Gary Kupnick
Thursday, February 8, 7:30 to 9 pm
Green Spring Gardens
4603 Green Spring Road
Alexandria, VA 22312

Museum collections are remarkable and irreplaceable sources of information about biodiversity and the history of life on Earth. In addition to playing a critical role in scientific studies, they serve an important role in conservation biology, including documenting occurrences of invasive species; providing data on locality change due to habitat destruction and climate change; providing material for DNA analysis and conservation genetics; providing material for pollution documentation; and, serving as a means of locating possibly extinct species  This presentation describes several case studies to illustrate and explore the way scientific collections have and will continue to contribute to conservation research.

Sponsored by the Potowmack Chapter of the  Virginia Native Plant Society, this program is free and open to the public.

Review of The Humane Gardener, by Nancy Lawson

Reviewed by Ann Di Fiore

As a Fairfax Master Naturalist and Audubon at Home Ambassador, I am always on the lookout for books on native plant and wildlife gardening. The Humane Gardener (2017, 224 pp) offers insights on both topics, but what sets Lawson’s book apart from others is her emphasis on creating habitats that nurture all forms of wildlife. Interspersed with chapters on native plantings, creating habitat, and the benefits of decaying plant material are profiles of humane gardeners whose properties range from modest backyards to commercial farms.

Many of the principles Lawson lays out are well known to master naturalists: “Plant for all seasons and sizes” to address “diverse diners”; use “green mulch”—native grasses and groundcovers—rather than bark in between shrubs and trees to improve soil; choose straight species over cultivars; and don’t “love” –overwater and over fertilize—native plants.

Lawson urges us to be attentive to gardening activities that have tragic consequences for wildlife.  In a section entitled “Don’t Mow the Teenagers,”she warns us that mowing, pruning, and raking can cut short the life cycles of ground insects and other animals. Fritillary larvae, for example, crawl onto violet plants in early spring and, as Doug Tallamy puts it, “we murder them with our lawn mowers.”  Baby rabbits in hidden nests and other young animals are vulnerable as well.

When removing invasive plants from our properties, Lawson asks us to “triage” their removal to minimize adverse effects on wildlife that make use of these plants. Early blooming invasives may be the only available nectar sources to bees, fruiting shrubs like Amur honeysuckles may fill a significant part of a bird’s diet.

In The Humane Gardener, Lawson addresses an uncomfortable truth:  the wild creatures most gardeners want to support are songbirds and pollinators. Many other forms of wildlife we consider interlopers—enemies. She enumerates the cruelties inflicted by pest removal services, glue traps, even “humane” deterrents (predator urine, for instance, is captured from caged coyotes and other animals on fur farms). She advocates flexibility and a more generous perspective:  opossums and raccoons eat carrion, ticks, and slugs; rabbits devour dandelions; and moles and chipmunks till the soil, increasing its fertility.

In a world of shrinking natural spaces and biodiversity, Lawson asks us to reconsider our ideas of ownership and make room for all forms of wildlife.  Above all, she asks that we be conscious of the consequences of our routine gardening choices.  She promises that our gardens will be healthier—and more humane—as a result.

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Read-a-thon of A Sand County Almanac is January 14

Come celebrate Aldo Leopold’s 132nd birthday (January 11th) and hear sections of this still-popular book on Sunday, January 14, 5-7 p.m., at the Shirlington Busboys and Poets, 4251 South Campbell Avenue, Arlington VA 22206. Let Northern Virginia Conservation Trust know if you want to be one of the readers by emailing Daniel Saltzberg at Look for more details on the NVCT website as they become available.