Conservation biologist Noah Charney begins his new book, “These Trees Tell a Story,” with a story of his own. He lived in Connecticut at the time, where he was teaching a college class on how to be a field naturalist. Each Friday, he’d take his students into the field. On one such adventure, he led them up a small valley to where it nearly disappeared in a fold in the terrain, creating two slight slopes. At first glance, it appeared an ordinary ravine. But to Charney’s trained eye, it was far from ordinary.

“There is a mystery here,” he relates in the book. “It would be easy enough to miss… If you’re not paying attention to the landscape, if you’re not tuned in to the vegetation, if you’re not looking for patterns, if you don’t stop.”

With Charney’s gentle prodding, the students begin to notice the variation between the flora on one side of the ravine and the other. They begin to perceive patterns. Bit by bit, they add clues to their store of knowledge as they learn how to read a landscape. This was the scope of Charney’s course. And it is the focus of his book.

The first thing his students note is that the fold runs north and south. Typically, southern-facing slopes, which catch the full rays of the sun, are warmer and drier, while northern-facing slopes are moister with richer soil. White ash and basswood tend to favor north-facing slopes; American chestnut and chestnut oaks favor the warmer, drier south-facing slopes. Here the opposite holds true. Why?

It takes some digging, even for Charney, now a professor at University of Maine in Orono. But after consulting with colleagues, he returns to dig deeper – literally. He finds that the north slope is richer, with a base of weathering basalt, the outflow of volcanoes. Basalt carries more magnesium and calcium, which feeds these nutrients, which, in turn, feeds the flora. The other slope is more friable, bearing fewer nutrients. The ravine, it turns out, demarks the meeting of two layers of the geologic past. It’s not sunlight, then, but soil that makes the difference.

“Our plants are telling us the story of when Africa left our continent 200 million years ago,” Charney writes.


Charney divides the book into chapters on land, water, context, change, elevation and disturbance, among others, focusing on how each of these provides critical clues to reading a landscape. He returns again and again to the critical importance of asking “why.” “It’s a question that doesn’t get asked enough,” he writes. “Why is it here? People get hung up on ‘what’ and forget about the ‘where.’ ”  That question of “where?” –  essentially “why here?” – lies at the heart of the chapter on context.

Regarding forests, he takes a long view – 20 years, 200 years, 20,000 years, back to the Ice Age. What can a forest tell us about the major evolutionary forces that sculpted what is before our eyes today? Why are certain trees where they are? What was the likely succession of tree species over time that created the forest in front of us? When he takes his students to a salt marsh, he asks them to think about what created the striking visual patterns they can see.

Throughout, Charney tells stories about his own travels and adventures in the world. These anecdotes help enliven the text, and the many color site photographs and illustrations are illuminating. Still, I found myself wishing the book were shorter and more sharply focused. Charney’s meandering style – like his ambles through the landscape – can make it harder to follow along and to retain the wealth of information and sharp insights within.

“These Trees Tell a Story” is meant for the average person, not the biologist. Though I think of myself as observant, the book opened my eyes to much I hadn’t noticed before. To begin to learn what a natural environment reveals, Charney has some overarching advise for his students and his readers: Get off the path, slow down, sit a spell. Only then, can you fully take in what is right in front of you.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize It was also named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction by Shelf Unbound. Smith can be reached via his website:

Comments are no longer available on this story

filed under: