I grew up in a ranch-style home on two acres in Yaphank, in Suffolk County, from the late 1960s through the late ’80s, when the hamlet mainly comprised cabbage and horse farms, wildflower fields and forest.
Down the center of our yard was a break point where manicured lawn met woodland. The ground suddenly turned from green to brown when you stepped into the woods, because the forest floor was covered in a thick layer of dried pine needles.
Eastern white pines soared 50 to 80 feet overhead. (I never measured them, being a kid and all.) The trees had probably been there a century, perhaps longer. White pines weren’t native to the area. Billy Dayton, a.k.a. “Uncle Billy,” planted the first ones in Yaphank in 1812, according to “The Early Years in Yaphank,” published by Thomas Bayles in 1973.
When I was a kid in the ’70s, the biggest toy for boys was G.I. Joe. My brother and I and our friends collected the action figures, and we would lie on the forest floor and construct elaborate mini-forts out of pine needles and sticks, and stage mock military battles and rescue missions.
In October, my dad and I engaged in an annual ritual. We would take to the “back woods,” as we called them, and scour the forest for young white pines that were ripe for transplantation. We moved the trees from the backyard to the front to create a new thicket and enclose our yard.
The trees weren’t much to look at when I was a kid — scrawny little things, really. By the time I graduated from college, they were 30 feet tall, with branches that fanned out in all directions. From Bellport Lane out front, our home was no longer visible.
Such memories streamed back as I recently read Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, Discoveries from a Secret World,” an international bestseller published in 2015 by Greystone Books.
Too often, I believe, society perceives trees as mere decorations, in a best-case scenario, and nuisances that need to be chopped down, in a worst case. In Merrick, where I live now with my own family, I once had a neighbor who cut down every tree and bush in his backyard. I can’t say with certainty why; we weren’t exactly on speaking terms. I know this: He worried a great deal about birds. Birds live in trees. One way to get rid of them is to eliminate their homes, or so I believe my now ex-neighbor reasoned.
This guy actually called the Nassau County Health Department on us because we had a bird feeder in our backyard, which, he contended, attracted too many birds. At the time, in the mid-2000s, avian flu had spread rapidly from China to Scotland, but it never reached the U.S. According to my neighbor, I was endangering us all by welcoming birds into my yard. He was particularly aghast that I had written a column about a red-tailed hawk that landed on our deck one fine morning.
Anyway, you get the point: Trees are often seen as foes rather than friends, and rarely are they viewed as vital to the maintenance of all life on Earth — but, as Wohlleben makes clear, they are.
Wohlleben, 53, is an ecologist and professional forester in Germany, where he has studied that nation’s primeval woodlands since the late 1980s. Through him, we see forests through their denizens — not only the mammals, birds and reptiles (as is so often our focus), but mostly the trees.
He asks intriguing questions: Do trees communicate with one another? Do they feel pain? Do they learn? In this way, we begin to see trees not as mere plants, there for us to cut down and use (or abuse) as we please, but rather as living organisms with an inherent right to exist.
Particularly fascinating is his examination of the soil from which trees spring. “Where it is generally accepted that we know less about the ocean floor than we know about the surface of the moon, we know even less about life in the soil,” he writes.
Wohlleben points out that trees appeared on Earth hundreds of millions of years ago. By comparison, homo sapiens, as in people, began walking the planet only about 200,000 years ago. And if our early ancestors were to magically reappear, we would not recognize them as fully human. They were more, as we might say, animal, wholly dependent on the jungles and forests that they left behind en masse only 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, with the advent of farming.
Agriculture released us from our dependence on the forests. Early humans were hunter-gatherers who survived, at least in part, on the fruits and nuts that trees provided. We have largely lost sight of our need for trees.
Now, though, we likely need them more than ever to cleanse our polluted air and stabilize our warming climate. Read “The Hidden Life of Trees” and you’ll understand why.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.