Americans first celebrated Arbor Day in 1872. Secretary of the Nebraska Territory J. Sterling Morton persuaded his fellow settlers, many of whom had migrated from thickly forested eastern states, to plant trees for windbreaks, building materials, and comfort. On that first Arbor Day, Nebraskans are reputed to have planted over a million trees.
It’s an impressive number, but only a fraction of the number of trees in the forests razed for farmland during the colonial era, actions that further displaced Indigenous people and severed their relationships with the landscapes they had tended for centuries.
Americans’ relationship with trees is still conflicted. Many unwittingly buy toilet paper made by mills that clear-cut old-growth forests even as they revel in popular tree tales like “Finding the Mother Tree” and “Overstory.”
This relationship is further complicated by climate change. Even the forests we choose to spare may not survive anticipated changes in temperature and water cycles.
So with this special Arbor Day bookshelf, Yale Climate Connections offers some helpful perspectives on our troubled relationships with trees.
The collection begins with three titles designed to reawaken our wonder for trees.
The next six titles recount the history of humanity’s long and fraught relationship with trees. Three look back in time, especially in the United States. The other three consider the past in order to envision a possible future in which humans and trees work together to halt runaway global warming.
Included in this group is the rereleased and reimagined classic “A Forest Journey.” With Patagonia’s trademark care, this account of the role of trees in the fate of civilization has been enriched with new illustrations and artful production.
Three novels round out this Arbor Day list. Two are set in the thick forests of the Northwest. The third focuses on a single tree in Cyprus and one of its descendants, an offshoot carried to London. The humans in this story are bound to these trees as much as to each other; thus, this last title prompts us to remember the significant trees in our own lives.
As always, the short descriptions of the titles are adapted from copy provided by their publishers.
Trees: From Root to Leaf by Paul Smith (University of Chicago Press 2022, 320 pages, $49.95)
Trees provoke deep affection, spirituality, and creativity. They cover about a third of the world’s land and play a crucial role in our environmental systems — influencing the water, carbon, and nutrient cycles and the global climate. This puts trees at the forefront of research into mitigating our climate emergency; we cannot understate their importance in shaping our daily lives and our planet’s future. Generously illustrated with over 450 images and organized according to tree life cycle — from seeds and leaves to wood, flowers, and fruit — ecologist Paul Smith’s new book celebrates the great diversity and beauty of the 60,000 tree species that inhabit our planet. As Smith presents the science, art, and culture of trees, we discover their fragile nature — and their interdependence. We understand the forest without losing sight of the magnificent trees.
The Tree Book: The Stories, Science, and History of Trees by DK Editors (DK/Smithsonian 2022, 352 pages, $50.00)
Trees occur naturally throughout the world and have been a part of human history almost as long as humans have existed. Now the intricate world of leafy woodlands and abundant rainforests is revealed in this extensive visual guide to trees, exploring their key scientific traits and their ecological importance, as well as their enduring significance in human history and culture. From ancient oaks and great redwoods to lush banyans and imposing kapoks, The Tree Book reveals the anatomy, behaviors, and beauty of these incredible plants in detail. Combining natural history and a scientific overview with a wider look at the history, uses, symbolism, and mythology of trees, this book is a new kind of guide to these fascinating organisms.
Trees: An Illustrated Celebration by Kelsey Oseid (Ten Speed Press 2023, 160 pages, $17.99)
Trees are fascinating: The oldest living organism on Earth is a tree, and forest biomes cover one-third of the Earth’s surface. Trees provide fruit, spices, nuts, timber, shade, habitats, and oxygen, as well as absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They can tap into fungal networks in the soil to care for each other by trading water and nutrients and to warn one another of drought and disease. In Trees: An Illustrated Celebration, celebrated artist and author Kelsey Oseid shows us just how vital trees are to the health and beauty of our planet. The world’s most noteworthy trees — from mangroves and redwoods to baobabs and dragon trees — come to life in her elegant and playful style. Filled with captivating information and vivid illustrations, Trees: An Illustrated Celebration will delight and inspire nature lovers of all ages.
A Forest Journey: The Role of Trees in the Fate of Civilization by John Perlin (Patagonia, 2023, 520 pages, $36.00)
Ancient writers observed that forests always recede as civilizations develop and grow. This happened for a simple reason: from the dawn of civilization until the ascendancy of fossil fuels, wood was the principal fuel and building material. Its abundance or scarcity greatly shaped, as A Forest Journey ably relates, the culture, demographics, economy, internal and external politics, and technology of successive societies over the millennia. Originally published in 1989 and updated in 2005, A Forest Journey’s comprehensive review of the role forests have played in human life gained it recognition as a Harvard Classic in Science and World History. This new, updated, and revised edition emphasizes the importance of forests in the fight against global warming and the urgency to protect what remains of the great trees and forests of the world.
The Forest: A Fable of America in the 1830s by Alexander Nemerov (Princeton University Press 2023, 336 pages, $35.00)
Set amid the glimmering lakes and disappearing forests of the early United States, The Forest imagines how a wide variety of Americans experienced their lives. Part truth, part fiction, and featuring both real and invented characters, the book follows painters, poets, enslaved people, farmers, and artisans living and working in a world still made largely of wood. The Forest unfolds in brief stories. Each episode reveals an intricate lost world. For Alexander Nemerov, the forest is a description of American society, the foliating thoughts of different people, each with their separate shade and sun. Illustrated with paintings, prints, and photographs from the National Gallery of Art, The Forest brings Jacksonian America to life on a human scale.
These Trees Tell a Story: The Art of Reading Landscapes by Noah Charney (Yale University Press 2023, 432 pages, $30.00 paperback)
Structured as a series of interactive field walks through 10 New England ecosystems, this book challenges readers to see the world through the eyes of a trained naturalist. With immersive photography and a narrative approach, each chapter adds layers of complexity to a single scene, revealing the millions of years of forces at play. Tying together geology, forest ecology, wildlife biology, soil processes, evolution, conservation, and more, Noah Charney’s stories and lessons provide the necessary skills to look at a landscape, interpret it, and tell its story — from its start as rock or soil to the plants and animals that live on it. By engaging with landscapes critically, Charney argues, we become better at connecting with nature and ourselves.
The Language of Trees: A Rewilding of Literature and Landscape by Katie Holten (Tin House 2023, 320 pages, $29.95)
Inspired by forests, trees, leaves, roots, and seeds, The Language of Trees: A Rewilding of Literature and Landscape invites readers to (re)discover an imaginative language to read, write, and reclaim our relationship with the natural world. In this gorgeously illustrated and deeply thoughtful collection, Katie Holten gifts readers her tree alphabet and uses it to masterfully translate and illuminate beloved and original writing — from over fifty contributors — in praise of the natural world. Holten illustrates each selection with an abiding love and reverence for the magic of trees. Journeying from tree clocks in Mongolia and forest fragments in the Amazon to the language of fossil poetry, Holten unearths new ways to see the natural beauty all around us and delivers an urgent reminder of what could happen if we allow it to slip away.
Elderflora: A Modern History of Ancient Trees by Jared Farmer (Basic Books 2022, 448 pages, $35.00)
Humans have always revered long-lived trees. But as historian Jared Farmer reveals in Elderflora, our veneration took a modern turn in the eighteenth century, when naturalists embarked on a quest to locate and precisely date the oldest living things on earth. The new science of tree time prompted travelers to visit ancient specimens and conservationists to protect sacred groves. Taking us from Lebanon to New Zealand to California, Farmer surveys the complex history of the world’s oldest trees, including voices of Indigenous peoples, religious figures, and contemporary scientists who study elderflora. In a changing climate, a long future is still possible, Farmer shows, but only if we give care to young things that might grow old.
The Power of Trees: How Ancient Forests Can Save Us If We Let Them by Peter Wohlleben (Greystone Books 2023, 280 pages, $28.95)
In The Hidden Life of Trees (2016), Peter Wohlleben revealed astonishing discoveries about the social networks of trees and how they communicate. Now, in The Power of Trees, he turns to their future. While politicians and business leaders would have us believe that cutting down forests can be offset by mass plantings, Wohlleben warns that many tree-planting campaigns lead to ecological disaster. Not only are these trees more susceptible to disease, flooding, fires, and landslides, we need to understand that forests are more than collections of trees. The way to save trees, and ourselves? Step aside and let forests — which are naturally better equipped to face environmental challenges — heal themselves. This is the passionate conclusion of The Power of Trees: our survival is dependent on trusting ancient forests, and allowing them to thrive.
Against the Grain: A Novel by Lale Davidson (Emperor Books 2022, 298 pages, $14.95 paperback)
Two-thousand-year-old redwoods once cloaked the northern California coast like bear fur, mesmerizing in their enormity. As a boy, Logan Blackburn spent many nights on a platform twenty stories off the ground in his favorite giant, Uuma, lulled to sleep by the strange murmuring and thrumming of the ancient redwood. As an adult, he joins his father and other activists to fight Pacific Lumber and save the three percent that remains. After Logan’s father dies in the attempt, Pacific Lumber triples the felling rate. The largest and most ancient trees are being reduced to lawn furniture with heart-stopping speed. Based on the true story of violent clashes in California during Redwood Summer 1990, Against the Grain is action-packed and yet transcendent. What will it take, it asks, to wake humans up? Violence, love, or loss?
Damnation Spring: A Novel by Ash Davidson (Scribner Books 2021/2022, 464 pages, $17.99 paperback)
Colleen is an amateur midwife. Rich is a tree-topper, a dangerous job that requires him to scale trees hundreds of feet tall. Colleen and Rich want a better life for their son and take steps to assure his future. Rich spends their savings on a swath of ancient redwoods. But when Colleen, grieving the loss of a recent pregnancy, challenges the logging company’s use of herbicides she believes responsible for the miscarriages in the community, Colleen and Rich find themselves on opposite sides of a spreading conflict. Told in prose as clear as a spring-fed creek, Damnation Spring is a compassionate portrait of a family whose bonds are tested and of a community clinging to a vanishing way of life. It is an essential story of the power of enduring love.
The Island of Missing Trees: A Novel by Elif Shafak (Bloomsbury Publishing 2021/2023, 368 pages, $18.99 paperback)
Two teenagers, a Greek Cypriot and a Turkish Cypriot, meet at a taverna on the island they both call home. In the taverna, hidden beneath garlands of garlic and creeping honeysuckle, Kostas and Defne grow in their forbidden love for each other. A fig tree, stretching through a cavity in the roof, bears witness to their meetings and, eventually, to their surreptitious departures. The tree is there when war breaks out, when the capital is reduced to rubble, and when the teenagers vanish. Decades later, Kostas returns as a botanist looking for native species, but really he’s searching for lost love. In London, in the back garden of a house where a young Cypriot girl lives, a Ficus carica grows. This tree is her only connection to an island she has never visited — and to her family’s troubled history. This is a delicate story of love and eco-consciousness.