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Tristan Gooley on How to Read a Tree

Posted on 31st May 2024 by Mark Skinner

In his fascinating How to Read a Tree – our Non-Fiction Book of the Month for June – Tristan Gooley takes the reader on a wondrous journey of discovery, highlighting the phenomena worth looking for that can reveal myriad secrets about trees and the landscape of which they are part. In this exclusive piece, Gooley introduces the unexpected joys we can encounter if we put our phones down and instead paying attention to what grows around us.

Imagine a tree, any tree. Now step outside and look at one. There will be a hundred small differences between the tree of your imagination and the one you meet. Every one of those differences holds a clue and tells a tale, but how can we learn to read those stories?

The trick is to remind ourselves that nothing we see in any part of any tree is random. There is a reason for each of the colours, shapes and patterns we find and this is true in every tree and on every scale. A leaf that is smaller and paler than you thought it would be might be telling you that it is a ‘sun leaf’. Trees have different leaves on their sunny southern side than their shadier north side. Sun leaves are smaller, lighter in colour and thicker than the shade leaves. The tree sends signals that makes shaded leaves spread out – hence wider and thinner – and then packs them full of extra chlorophyll – hence darker green - both good tactics if you’re trying to harvest more light. Once we know how to read that simple story, leaves become a compass.

Trees also make maps for us. Indigenous tribespeople would find the idea that we might look for a river by looking for water itself hilariously incompetent. They would look for the way the animals and plants, especially the trees, change near water. This allows them to spot rivers from many miles away and it is a skill that it is very easy for us to refresh. Each time we see a body of water - a lake, pond, river or the sea - we just make a mental note of the trees we see near it. We expect to see palms on beaches and willows weeping down towards the river, but there are quite a few other water-lovers to add to the collection, including alders and poplars. 

If you practice pairing certain trees with seeing water a few times, something magical happens. Your brain will take a shortcut and tell you that you are about to stumble across an invisible river. The trees have granted you X-ray vision. 

This is what our brain was born to do (not scrolling on phones) and it is brilliant at it. We wouldn’t exist as a species if we hadn’t evolved to excel at this and it is one of the few areas where humans outcompete animals. Let’s face it, compared to the animal kingdom, we’re not very fast or strong and our senses are a little pathetic. Our trump card is our brain and it loves finding clues and solving puzzles. The fact you are alive means you can be very good at reading signs in trees, because your ancestors were experts and you have their genes. 

We don’t need to remember the names of any trees to practice these ancient skills. (There are lots of common names for each tree, so there can be no such thing as a ‘correct name’. Some people argue that Latin names are the solution, but I’ve studied trees with the Penan Dayak in Borneo and they were deeply unimpressed by Latin.) Names can be fun and satisfying, but the key to reading tree signs is recognising certain patterns and knowing the secrets that they unlock. Trees get smaller at the edge of woods, for example, because they grow shorter in windy places and it always windier at the edge of the woods than the heart. The tallest trees in any region will be inland and in sheltered places. That is also why trees get smaller as we climb hills – winds grow stronger with altitude - and knowing this turns trees into an altimeter. 

As we travel from the bottom of a valley up a mountain, we go from tall pale broadleaf trees to shorter ones, then we notice a change to dark, tall conifers. As we get higher still the conifers grow shorter and shorter, before they disappear altogether at the treeline. Look at any big hill from a distance and you can spot this tree altimeter. 

Smooth bark is a sign that a tree is not expecting to have to defend itself against animals or the elements. This means it is a tree that has evolved to grow up in the shelter of other trees, it is gregarious and happiest in company. Beech is a good example of a smooth-barked socialiser – there are very few beeches on their own in natural settings. Rough bark is a defence against sun, wind and hungry animals and a sign that a tree has evolved to cope with life on its own or at the edge of woods. Birches are classic rough-bark trees and tough survivors. If we are trying to find our way out of the woods, we can expect to pass lots of smooth bark on tall trees until we meet rough bark on shorter trees at the edge. 

There are dozens of clues in each tree we meet. We don’t need to spot and interpret them all, but I do recommend looking for a couple each day, for no other reason than it feels good. These skills saved our ancestors’ lives, now they put a smile on our face. 

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