The Hidden Life of Trees

secret life
A book in its natural habitat

The serious tree scientists I know warned me off from reading this. “It’s unscientific,” they said. “He talks about trees wanting things and thinking. He has no way of knowing what they want or if they think.”

And, for a while, I didn’t read it.

Instead, I enjoyed the brief section on ‘how trees work’ in Hugh Johnson’s “Trees.” But it wasn’t enough and, eventually, I picked up a copy of The Hidden Life of Trees.

Is it unscientific?

I don’t rightly know. There is talk of trees smelling and tasting, but then he explains exactly what he means and it’s clear that he’s using human-centered language to communicate with humans. I never felt he passed anything off as fact that wasn’t, and always clearly labeled speculation.

His level of anthropomorphizing trees can be seen in the way he talks about beech and oak trees ‘competing.’ That’s not a shocking use of the word in biology. (At least, not for us armchair biologists.)

Is it good?

Yes. An unqualified yes.

So much so that I thought it presented enough information, easily absorbed, for me to have the framework for my A Year in the Woods project. So, that’s great.

Now, though, a week or two after I’ve finished reading it, I have to say that I didn’t retain a ton of the information. Sure, there are things I learned: the younger trees leaf out first, because the ground warms up before the air, and spring ephemerals are dormant for ten months of the year and are a sign that a forest is at least 150 years old.

But, there’s a lot that I read and it blew my mind… and then I didn’t have any other information to connect it to in my head and it’s gone again.

So, it’s a great book and heartily recommended to anyone who likes trees or the forest, but it may be hard to absorb everything in one go. (If you’re like me.)

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“Did you bring the next story?”

Something really positive happened last Tuesday. A student was frustrated that I had forgotten to bring the reading assignment, and I had to pass a sheet of paper around so that students could write down their email addresses to get it sent to them.

That hasn’t happened before.

New Spork City

Did you know that I wrote a series of stories set in the fictional “New Spork City” (the stories are available here, or will be as they get revised and edited.) I’ve been handing out one story every week since classes re-started for me at the beginning of this month.

My goal with the stories were pretty simple:

  • I wanted students to have a positive English encounter. Sometimes I get too deep into the ‘English Workout’ metaphor and everything is just work, work, work. Some students already have ‘fun English’ built into their lives, but for those that don’t have a chance to relax with English, they needed something that wasn’t homework.
  • There is an advantage to having a cast of likable characters that we can eventually revisit. If I could get a few people who the groups seemed to like hearing about, we could use them in other contexts, the way you can use “Jack Sparrow” with people who all love the Pirates of the Carribean movies.
  • Obviously, I am in favor of people reading. If this is a stepping-stone to students reading ‘real’ English, I’m in favor of it. (Or even reading more in their native language. Reading is good for everyone.)
  • The more ‘good English’ my students are exposed to, the sooner they’ll (hopefully) develop an ‘ear’ for English. I want people to be able to hear their own mistakes, and if they only ever hear their classmates speaking, that will take longer.

So, I wrote up a collection of stories, setting some constraints for myself:

  • Each story was no longer than a single A4 page, on one side.
  • Each story describes an entire situation or interaction. They all end with “to be continued” but only because the drama is never over. So far, stories cover a father and daughter in a restaurant, a few first encouters, a family planning dinner. But they cover it all the way to the end (though, obviously, not is much depth, see the first bullet point).
  • The characters speak ‘native’ English… but a little better. That is to say, they say things like “lend a hand” and “help yourself” which needs to be explained (more on that in the next bullet point) but they always do it using good grammar. Nobody says “you got a minute?” They would all say “do you have a minute?” I get that it’s not ‘native’ English, but have a look at the point above about these being a stepping stone.
  • I want my students to, in the best case, read the story in one sitting without the assistance of a dictionary. To that end, I imagine them getting a lot out of context (they are all fairly universal situations, adults know what happens in these situations) and I provide footnotes for words or phrases where I imagine them stumbling. There is one group that I have in mind when I write them, and I think “if they can read this, things will be fine.”

The reception

I pass the stories out in six lesson. On the first day, I explained that they don’t have to read them, but that I’m going to pass out the eleven that are already written and we’ll talk about whether they were helpful or not afterwards. Since then, I’ve asked once or twice “are you reading these” as I pass them out, and the answers are generally positive.

People like to ask about the funny names (see me and my love of absurdity). The landlady in the story is named Mrs. Geldsack (German for ‘Moneybags,’ basically.) and they love that.

And, more than one person has said they look forward to knowing what happens next. “I don’t think they’re super exciting stories,” I tell them. “I’m not Dan Brown.”

“That’s because you know what will happen.” Was the answer from one student.

And then, on Tuesday this week, I didn’t print out the next story because, well, it’s not automatic for me, yet. And, I got to class, had a good lesson, and, in the end, a student asked: “do you have the next story?”

“I forgot to print it.” I said. “That’s my bad organization again.”

“I have to wait a week?” She seemed genuinely frustrated.

“You can give me your email address and I’ll mail them tonight or tomorrow.”

“Please.” And everyone signed up for the voluntary reading worksheet.

I’m satisfied.