Reading the Trees


Dominick Leskiw hears the stories only an aspen can tell

By Dominick Leskiw ’21
November 18, 2020

From a moss-covered stone on the forest floor, I stare down at the bigtooth aspen tree. Yes, I stare down at it, for here among the leaf litter, the tree has transformed itself into piles and piles of bright yellow confetti.

Thousands of round serrated leaves—most the size of a palm, some smaller, and some the size of a whole hand—lay still over the beech, oak, and maple leaves below them. Their curling edges look as if carved by hand. A few of these edges catch the wind so that the leaves tumble, then lift. The confetti spreads even farther.

I pick up one leaf, one of nearly 30,000, to smell it. On the surface, my nose finds nothing. Upon tearing the leaf, however, a faint, earthy smell emerges, damp in contrast to the crumpling dryness of the leaf itself and slightly bitter, like steeping green tea. I tear another leaf, this one darker than the first. It’s probably been apart from the treetop for a few weeks longer; it smells muskier, heftier, like the deep, familiar scent of autumnal decay. There must be a word for this aroma, though I am not sure my language has found it yet.

I’ve come here, to the Perkins Arboretum in Waterville, Maine, to learn about the connections between literature and trees. By extension, I’ve come to learn about language, the words and stories people tell about trees, and the understandings we gather through them. 1

Trees are entwined in the oldest of human storytelling—think of the apple in Adam and Eve or the Yggdrasil ash of ancient Norse tales—and continue to branch through books, plays, and poems to this day. In some cases, communication itself is influenced by the forking growth of forests; the Ogham alphabet of Early and Old Irish, for example, was thought to have derived its letters from the names and figures of certain trees.

Trees, too, often stand for much more than themselves in writing—indeed, humans rely on trees as signifiers of memory and healing, of transgression, of political and racial unrest. Tracking the ways trees have been represented in literature can tell us how people relate to the more-than-human world across vast swaths of time and distance. In turn, investigating how these relationships persist may afford us a better idea of the future in this beautiful and damaged world.

Leskiw's leaf drawing
Leskiw’s artwork showing the leaves fallen from and left on the aspen tree.

A leaf falls; I track its fluttering backward up the air. Before my eyes make it a meter from the ground, however, my gaze stops at the aspen’s trunk. I stand and approach it, admittedly not for the first time.

I’ve walked this path before, in August, when the forest was green and thrumming with cicada buzz and cricket whirr; in September, on the first cool autumn nights when the black silhouettes of traveling birds unseparated from the sky; and now, in October, as the yellow leaves fall and crunch while I walk toward the trunk. I press my nose to it. No smell. I scratch it; still no smell, but my fingertip meets a reticulum of lichen lacing over the bark. This lichen feels soft, almost spongy, as it spreads like an aquamarine patina across the folds and furrows of lavender-grey wood.

I’ve learned that smell is one way to become acquainted with trees. One way of many; to truly read trees requires most, if not all the senses. It also requires attention to details. Form, structure, movement, and voice all contribute to our understanding of the forest. Reading trees, in fact, is not unlike reading books. Both can be sensuous; both demand notice of scene and dialogue, of quirks and particulars and even intentions.

At this point, my cheek and chin are against the trunk, trying to hear or feel the tree speak. In between trunk and crown, minuscule cells hum and carry the tiniest hisses of water up 70 feet of tree.

And below me?

Fungi stretch and connect root to root in a nutrient-gathering network of purpose. As I strain to hear these sounds at the edge of perception, perhaps in vain, something vibrates and whispers through a crack in the bark.

Following the sound, I tilt my head upward, stretching my vision some 70 feet into the sky to where the last leafy rustles trickle down with the morning light. At the lowest registers of wind, the forest here sounds the way a shiver feels.

When the breeze picks up, I hear a thousand fishtails all paddling, ruddering, and trembling at the surface of a treacherous sea. The bark at the tree’s crown, visible through the paucity of attached leaves, is cream-colored. To the touch, it must recall the smooth resistance of wax paper.

The very top of the tree is an explosion of branches. This complex of twigs and shoots reminds me of so-called knowledge trees—arboreal diagrams that attempt to show links between languages, families, or categories of living beings.

Aspen leaves illustration by Leskiw, who frequented the Perkins Arboretum ever since he arrived at Colby. (Animation by Jasper Lowe)

I sit back down on the stone. It occurs to me that, were I to exchange this stone for my chair, the forest for my desk, and the aspen for a book of poems, I would still be engaging with trees. For chairs and desks and books are all made of wood, and wood was once very much alive. But there is something to being in trees’ presence, in learning to not only read about trees but to also read them for who they are.

In the arboretum, I notice the shapes of trunks, either straight or crooked, tall or pleached into other trees, sometimes of different sizes or even species; another day, I notice light, the color and length of it and what it shines upon; I notice change, how the leaves were heavy with summer, then gone; and I notice yellow, so much yellow, “yellow sadness,” as the poet Mary Ruefle writes,

“the sadness of…all things round and whole and dying like the sun…the confusing sadness of the neverending and evanescent…”

There is such yellow sadness in the light, on the trunks, in the aspen leaves on the ground.

Walking home, I find myself drawn to a preponderance of leaves with holes in them. I realize I could follow them like memories in hopes of finding the tree they belonged to, the tree I leaned my head against and tried to listen to, the tree I read like an old book and spent time with like an old friend. The tree that now is the leaves, the leaves with holes, the memories with holes I can see the sky through.

On my arboretum ambles, I am perhaps moved most by this, the forest’s capacity to store, stir, and compose memories. That is why I engage with the trees first by smell, to work my amygdala and hippocampus into dislodging recollections that had once been lost to me like leaves from the bigtooth aspen.

Then the memories, of seasons past, of yellow sadness, of friends and home and hope begin to flow, while the trees slowly grow their rings and the leaf layer forms the latest sentence in the story of the forest floor.

The trees are always writing. I invite you, too, to read along.

1 I am an environmental science and English double major from Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J. The Perkins Arboretum has been important to me since my first year at Colby; it is a place to contemple and find gratitude, a place to embody movement after the stillness of much schoolwork, and a place to take refuge from strife, exhaustion, or heartache. Only recently have I approached the arboretum as a site of linguistic and literary significance. For this piece—a reflection on my time doing fieldwork for an independent study called The Literature of Trees, advised by Associate Professor of English Elizabeth Sagaser—I wanted to get to know a tree I’d never paid much attention to, despite the fact that I’ve walked past it dozens of times and in multiple seasons. I wanted to understand the tree, its biology, ecology, and agency, as far as my understanding could go and then still, I wanted to hear its stories. Doing so meant many hours of listening in the forest—to the trunk, the leaves, the soil, the air. It also meant delving into the history of connections between people and trees, to learn about the roots of our linkage.