If a tree could talk to you, what would it say? I suppose it depends on where you are asking the question – an urban tree starved of space and water, or a high canopy tree in a lush, moist forest – and also which period in history you are talking to the tree during. Our current period of history would certainly be the least likely in which you would obtain a polite response from a tree, and that is the point that Ana Salote, in her beautifully written book “Tree Talk” is making.
The basic premise of the book is a world in which humans have brought themselves, and the planet, to the brink of catastrophe. The deus ex machina comes, not in the shape of a god or an angel, but in a tree called Ash who has developed a mental link with a boy called Charlie. Only Charlie, of all humans, can hear what Ash is saying – and Ash, for his part, wants to learn more about humans in order to understand why they are treating the natural world in such an awful way. Tree Talk is ostensibly a children’s book, but I was entranced by it as soon as I began reading. So many lessons abound in this rich tale of hope, dispair, belief and loss, and I would challenge any person to close this book unmoved.
I asked Ana, the author, whether it was right to “burden” children with such deep messages, and how parents should put such messages across. She said: “Tree Talkâ€™s main purpose is to show how deeply interdependent all life is, and to urge the kind of respect and fellowship with other species that encourages a new set of values.”
“I think that children should be told the facts about climate change but within a context of hope and opportunity. They should be educated about the lifestyle changes which are necessary. The most important thing parents can do is to present these changes as life-enhancing.
“Teach children to breathe the day, not to view it through glass with car-stagnant blood. Teach them to connect with nature. Seasons are not commercial festivals where nothing changes but the tat and the chocolate moulds on the shop shelves, where the forms of the glucose and trans fats we are encouraged to pump ourselves with morph from witch to Santa to bunny. I have a 1927 magazine which says: â€˜October is the month in which the Dartmoor ponies are rounded up, when the Harvest Moon shines, when you enjoy the blackberry jam made from the fruit you gathered.â€™ Now thereâ€™s a mental canvas for a childâ€™s autumn.
“The next generation must be unhitched from the real burden which is consumerism. The counter-messages are so strong and insidious we need to seduce children with deeper satisfactions. Last night I was up in the Somerset hills, fully alive, cradled in sunset with deer leaping against it. Iâ€™m sorry, you canâ€™t buy that in a supermarket.”
One thing that struck me as particularly magical about the book, was the use of “Gnosis”, to allow different species to communicate with each other. When asked about it’s origins, Ana said: “Gnosis was inspired by a moonlit ash outside my window. It had a fleshy cast to its trunk and a definite air of sentience about it. I got into bed and started writing Tree Talk. I believe that consciousness is a continuum which does not start and end with humans, or even with animals. Our arrogance makes us unimaginative. I hope that the book encourages children to realise that all life has a viewpoint which deserves consideration and respect. Symbiosis is planetary. Breathing is communal. Gnosis represents that connectivity. ”
The only part of the book that jarred with me was the apparent use of genetic engineering as a short-term way out of the ecological crisis. Ana explained that she had struggled with this concept herself, and while against the use of GMOs in general, does see a place for technology, if only to avert catastrophe: “I think we need to build arks, like the seed bank at Svalbard and Kew, and I think we need to pursue the science of adaptability because we, and other species, may need it. In the book genetic engineering is symbolic. It represents the need for the utmost wisdom and circumspection to be used in all future human interventions. Ecosystems and not ourselves should be the beneficiaries of a new utilitarianism. There is a difference between developing tools for exploitative reasons and developing them for protection and conservation. Knowledge is not dangerous in itself, itâ€™s how it is used.”
Tree Talk is available now from many online outlets. I thoroughly recommend it for all parents, and those who want to feel like wide-eyed children again.