At first I mistook the high-pitched keen for the sound of a distant chainsaw. But the woods stretched for at least a half mile to the nearest house. And it was early February with snow on the ground and the kind of bracing cold that locks your lungs in a vice. The only people hearty enough to be out cutting wood on this kind of winter day are survivalists and serial killers. I stopped along the dirt road, listened, and sent up a short prayer that if there were someone near by, it was the former.
The wind picked up and the sound came again, louder, eerie like a Middle-Eastern string instrument, accompanied by the faintest clacking of board on board. I looked up to see the enormous, slender pines gently swaying in the breeze and that’s when I realized where the sound was coming from. The trees were singing.
This is a thing, science told me months later when I Googled “sound of wind in the pines.” I come up with several articles along with YouTube hits that consist of hours of audio of the sound of wind in the trees. I think briefly that might possibly be the best job in the history of job creation. The young audio tech who thinks she’s going to be a hot shot engineer recording the next Taylor Swift instead finds herself blissed out beneath a massive oak for hours with nothing but her microphone and recording gear. They should make a Grammy category for that kind of album. The articles state that the correct scientific term for the sound wind makes as it moves through trees is psithurism (sither-ism). It’s derived from an Ancient Greek word meaning “whispering.” Several sources mention that the word first came into usage in the English language in the 1800s, but I can’t find any direct references to the term. I expect to find record of it in the journal of some obscure botanist from Devonshire in 1823 named Ellsworth, the sort of lonely chap who can’t wait to bust out his new ten-dollar word sitting around in the parlor after dinner sipping a glass of port. Nothing. It’s as if the term took a cue from its own etymology, presenting itself softly, slyly, appearing seemingly out of nowhere to settle anywhere.
Tree sounds aren’t new to me; I grew up spending a lot of time on wooded trails, in fields and yards ringed with trees, on lakes feeding the thirsty roots of willows and birches. I still do. I’ve heard the wind whistle and rip through the trees on rainy and sunny days alike. I’ve listened to branches pop and splinter under the weight of snow and ice shaken free in the gale of winter nor’easters. I’ve spent many sleepless nights curled tightly against the primal roar of winds battling with the gigantic copper beech tree looming over our house. The sounds of what can feel like an epic struggle of wills is terrifying and awesome in that true sense of the word. Is it a feud or maybe it’s a wild dance, a whirling dervish between brethren expressing a kind of ecstatic joy that lives beyond the scope of our human consciousness. Even so, I flinch, hunker down beneath the covers and root for the trees.
Tree song is something completely different. Not long ago I read Peter Wohlleban’s The Hidden Life of Trees, about the sophisticated and beautiful ways that trees communicate with one another. Wohlleban’s research garnered its share of detractors and eye-rollers, those who are very willing to die on the “never anthropomorphize nature” hill and generally think it’s all a bit too conveniently eco-woo-wooish to get behind. I am not one of them. I guzzled Wohlleban’s Kool Aid, ordered a second pitcher, and signed the lease on a whole damn factory of the stuff. I regret nothing. I’m more than happy to entertain ideas about the impossible, the far fetched, and those belonging to a cosmic plain outside of our own. It warmed my heart to think of trees warning each other in times of danger or sharing resources in a kind of elementary school buddy system: “Here, you take half of my peanut butter sandwich.” Adorable. Recently, we’ve been going Thunderdome on one another for toilet paper and flour. I think the trees have a few more things figured out than we do. They sing, too. Why not?
John Muir agreed with me. He was the early-twentieth century naturalist and environmental activist. Muir’s tireless efforts were responsible for helping to establish and preserve many of America’s national parks that are currently under siege by the dolphin and tree-hating soulless rock snot of the Trump administration. An accurate aside. John Muir: environmental super human and tree defender.
Muir believed trees expressed themselves uniquely, “singing [their] own song, making [their] peculiar gestures.” He went on to write that pines were particularly resplendent as musical orators: “They are mighty waving golden-rods, ever in tune, singing and writing wind music all their long century lives.” Muir devoted himself passionately and effusively to not just preserving the wilderness, but being in relationship with it. I know. Eye-roll. Hippie. Judge if you must, but it doesn’t change the fact that Muir had the cojones and conviction to pull on his Lorax pants and fight for what he held sacred. He took action on behalf of organisms that were speaking for themselves, they just weren’t being heard.
There’s so much we’re ignorant about regarding the beings that allow us too much of their precious breathing room on this planet. There are many paths to knowledge, some are the least conventional and the most rewarding.
You can go your whole life never hearing tree song, and that would be okay. Or you can go for a walk on a brutally cold winter’s afternoon and stand perfectly still right where you are when you do hear it. You can let your eyes strain as hard as they can to see the dizzying tops of the trees, so far from where you are, their crowns rocking to a sweet harmony passed along from epoch to epoch, telling a story for each other and an unexpected audience, which, if you’re lucky and open enough, might be you.