We need to preserve what we have left of the natural world. If we are to do so, and preserve ourselves along the way, it seems to me that we must start by learning to enjoy it more.
Conservation should always be an act of celebration; and a celebration that makes use of all our senses.
Take our trees. When we first learn to recognise them, if we learn at all, it is through visual clues — the diverse forms of their leaves, perhaps; round or oblong, blunt or pointed, whole or toothed, deeply divided or lobed like the fingers on a hand.
After that may come an appreciation of the different patterns and textures of their bark, or their winter silhouettes.
What if we could learn to recognise trees not just by their physical characteristics but by the sounds they make; the wind in their leaves or the creaking and groaning of their branches?
But, as the Mail’s Be A Tree Angel campaign to plant thousands of trees goes from strength to strength, what if we could learn to recognise them not just by their physical characteristics but by the sounds they make; the wind in their leaves or the creaking and groaning of their branches?
Could it even be possible to distinguish species of tree on the basis of sound alone?
Thomas Hardy certainly thought so. No other English writer was so intimate with our woodlands as Hardy in his novel Under The Greenwood Tree, in which he describes firs as ‘sobbing and moaning’, the holly as ‘whistling’, the ash as ‘hissing’ and the beech as ‘rustling’.
‘To dwellers in a wood,’ he wrote, ‘almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature.’
The wonderful thing about trees, of course, is that you can encounter them anywhere. You need no equipment other than ears and no resource other than time.
The wonderful thing about trees, of course, is that you can encounter them anywhere. You need no equipment other than ears and no resource other than time (file image)
And you don’t even need much of that, as you can listen while walking to the station or coming back from the shops.
My own journey into tree song began with a plane tree in my back yard. While working on my book Ghost Trees, I spent a year observing it; its furlings and unfurlings, its aspect in every weather, its mood at different times of day.
Such close attention led me to listen to the sounds it made and I found, to my surprise, that they took me back to a childhood memory; of waves breaking on a shingle beach at the south coast resort where we had spent our summers. I could even hear the whoosh of the backwash receding through the pebbles.
It was this experience that gave me an idea of how I might begin to distinguish different trees.
When I was first learning to recognise birdsong, I found the descriptions in books frustrating. How on earth was I to interpret a ‘nasal churring’, a ‘thin tsic’ or a ‘high-pitched tsweee’?
Instead, I found it helpful to apply to each song some personal association. The most common call of the great tit, for example, resembled the squeaking of an old pram that I used to push when my eldest boy was a baby, or the swinging to of an unoiled garden gate. What if the same approach could be applied to tree sounds?
When the poet Julian May and I were making our recent Radio 4 programme The Susurration Of Trees, we collected all sorts of these personalised descriptions.
The sound of aspens, we were told, was like ‘the fizzing of carbonated water in a freshly opened bottle’; that of poplars reminiscent of ‘the running of a young mountain stream’ or ‘the marching of feet in the treetops’. Oaks were ‘papery’, birches were ‘sibilant’ and pines were almost always ‘whispering’.
It is a thoroughly mesmerising hobby — which I why I urge you to listen to trees for yourself.
There will be no handbooks to guide you. You are going to be largely on your own, and all the better for it. There are some suggestions in the box above, but these are just starting points.
I cannot claim to be any great expert on tree sounds myself; just someone who has had a bit of a head start. Should you challenge me to a blind test on the matter, I cannot guarantee the outcomes.
But the idea is just to do it — and enjoy it.
- Bob Gilbert is the author of Ghost Trees: Nature and People in a London Parish (Saraband, £14.99).
So what noise does each make?
One of the easiest tree sounds to recognise, as its leaves are almost perpetually in motion. Their sound is often likened to rainfall; a gentle summer shower, perhaps. Indeed, the Romantic poet John Clare once described a young shepherd running for cover when he mistakes the sound of the aspen for the onset of rain.
Poplars also shake their leaves in the slightest breeze. They are often described as ‘shivering’, while to me they sound like running stream water.
The birch has small, fine leaves on wispy, pendulous branches. The word ‘sibilant’, for a hissing noise, could have been invented to describe their sound.
Thomas Hardy describes them as ‘sobbing and moaning’ but the word usually applied to pines is ‘whispering’, as though they were passing on a secret from tree to tree.
Though soft when they emerge, beech leaves become drier and stiffer through the year and produce a distinctive rustling sound. Hardy described it as ‘almost metallic’ and like ‘sheet-iron foliage’.
This common urban street tree reminds me of breakers on a shingle beach.
Another common street tree, with heart-shaped leaves that gather dirt as the year progresses. Their sound has been likened to someone flicking through a book.
This beautiful Chinese tree is being increasingly planted on our streets. It has leaves shaped like a goose’s foot, or a Chinese fan. The poet Julian May suggests they sound like the fluttering of oriental silk fans.
Mature elm trees are now few and far between, and although young ones still sprout, they reach only 12 or 15ft before being reinfected with Dutch elm disease. If you are lucky enough to come across one, their sound is rather song-like. Thomas Hardy described it as a ‘melancholic Georgian melody’.
The leaf of the ash is deeply divided into two rows of separate leaflets. The sound it makes is like that of an old man running his fingers through his hair.
Holly leaves are stiff and crisp, though the sharply pointed ones often grow only on the lower parts of a tree. They often make a whistling noise.
Yews are associated with a lack of sound, seeming to absorb all the noises around them. Stand beneath a yew and appreciate the silence of this ancient, historic and, sometimes, rather sinister tree.