The Man Whom The Trees Loved

People might as well be trees. The only difference, sometimes, between the swathe of humans plodding across this earth and the equal amount of botanical life foliaging its way across it is a question of time.

crystal tree.jpg

It seems to me that we often forget — or never knew — that plants, like ourselves, live linear lives. Trees are born, become saplings, experience puberty and growth, mature, and then die standing. They just do it in a much longer and much less mobile time frame than we do — so much so that I recently found myself legitimately wondering if trees die, at all. Before you scoff, consider: aside from environmental factors, fire, erosion, lightning, lumberjackism, what would kill a mighty oak? If left alone, could a tree keep on growing forever? The answer is, I always assumed, “HYPOTHETICALLY, YES.” I always assumed, “Trees are scary and silent and will keep growing forever unless we or Nature kill them.”

This absurd notion was probably borne in me by the late Algernon Blackwood, who, like H.P. Lovecraft and Poe, was one of the rare masters of supernatural story-writing. Blackwood I’ve always found to be sexier than the rest because his stories have no skullfaced tentacle monsters to ruin their mystique (a la Lovecraft). He pretty much reinvented botany with The Man Whom The Trees Loved, a story which chillingly articulates the (I think) latent feeling most people have that trees are inherently scary.

In this story, a man begins to “listen” to the forest and ends up overtaken by the dark winds which blow across the thick silence of branches. It’s never clear what happens to him, but it has the warm muffle of wet leaves and it is terrifying. The forest in the story, a crowded mass of rooted life, begins to seem like a mob. Blackwood gives the trees a hint of malice and all of a sudden you have to look twice at the elm in the backyard: is it closer than it was yesterday?

“And in the distance,” writes Blackwood, “the roaring of the Forest.”

Blackwood realized that trees were scary, because he understood that trees have both permanence and transparency. They are so immobile and quiet that they never remind us that they are alive at all, and we, of course, take them for granted. We see through them. They are so ubiquitous and anonymous that we treat them like strangers, passerby. On some level, this constant and seemingly endless presence is frightening; it lulls us into a false feeling of security, makes us smug in our imaginary knowledge of our coniferous colleagues. Of course, we have no such knowledge: we ignore trees completely, even if we claim to love them. They are our constant counterparts, but they are on a completely different trip than us, existing on an almost evolutionary time scale. What’s more frightening than something you always considered to be reliably benign, wrapping a slowly tightening branch around your neck?

If it’s any comfort, trees do not live forever, and, as far as I know, do not spend their time plotting our demise. Trees are just woody plants which continue growing until they die (the study of tree age is called Dendrochronology and it is practiced by Dendrologists.) Trees have different lifespans from one another — some a measly 40 years*. There is a Huon pine in Tasmania that is allegedly 40,000 years old. No matter the lifespan, however, there comes a time in each tree’s life, after it passes maturity, when decay begins to set in. The tree overmatures. It dies, but since it is so rooted, it remains standing (a “snag,” foresters call this). Snags are considered valuable parts of a forest’s health and it is generally recommended that foresters preserve at least three snags per acre, as insects and birds tend to burrow in their cavities. Snags totter around until erosion or the weather knocks them down to “log” status, technically the last stage of a tree’s life.

And logs can’t hurt us.

*I heard that all the palm trees in LA, having been planted around the same time in the 1950’s, are all going to die soon. Does anyone know if this is true?


  1. #1 corey
    December 24, 2005

    As far as I know, palms are more closely related to grasses than they are to trees. No growth rings. Regarding their life span in LA, I don’t know.

  2. #2 corey
    December 24, 2005

    Actually, the more I think about this the more I wonder about its
    truth. This was told to me by my very proud wood shop teacher.
    A student brought in a hunk of palm that he wanted to turn on the lathe. Our professor might have been masking his unfamiliarity with he material by saying that it was not wood.
    I do remember the “wood” though. No growth rings. Still have no idea about the palms in LA.

  3. #3 rita
    December 24, 2005

    in an unrelated note, the japanese maples in D>C are amazing. and they were a gift, making them more amazing.

    hope you found a good toy.

  4. #4 evan
    December 25, 2005


    It is apparently true. I wonder how long they will last!

  5. #5 Raf
    December 29, 2005

    “And logs can’t hurt us.”
    Have you seen the Jan Svankmayer movie Little Otik? It’s not very good but the uncanny weirdness of it is best when the log is just a strange looking little log, all ominous and evil-vibed.

    Also, there’s all this post-modernist mumbo-jumbo about how the “other” of modern western society has moved to outer space with aliens and cyborgs and that whole deal. I think it’s about time we realized that it’s us v. the plants.

  6. #6 carol
    January 13, 2006

    As a recently hatched Portland Tree Liaison I felt compelled to investigate palm death. I scanned reports of dying palms in Santa Monica and many other places in the US– many types of palms and pollution, pests and diseases to kill them, probably not all at once. In Florida “ganoderma butt rot” is a new and lethal disease caused by a fungus that invades the base or butt of palm trees. God I hope it doesn’t morph and cross species. We don’t have that many palms in portland but we have plenty of our own dying trees. Our settlers called the forest “green hell” and set about creating “Stumptown.” People have many complaints against trees, besides being scary they are most often said to be “messy.” But possessed of trunks, limbs, hearts, butts, are we not comrades? I like to remember this “Trees could save us if we could save the trees.” For a trip in the tree tops check out Italio Calvino’s “Baron in the Tree”.

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