Thirteen Ways to Smell a Tree by David George Haskell

I’m delighted to be on of the stops leading off the blogtour for this super little book, a collection of essays about the olfactory aspects of trees by a noted writer and biologist. I was particularly interested in this volume as it promised not just nature writing, which is a theme I’ve been actively trying to read more of this year, but also a popular science focus – a particular interest of mine.

Although I am aware that trees have a smell – the resinous piney smell of an Christmas tree indoors for instance – compared with flowering plants like roses and lilac, rubbing and chopping the leaves of herbs and so on, I’d not really thought any further to the aroma of trees themselves, and in particular, their wood and bark and seeds, rather than just flowers and leaves.

Haskell begins with his equivalent of Proustian madeleines – conkers! He relates how the smell from a conker and its casing picked up in a park in Denver, Colorado, immediately takes him back to his childhood in England. Our sense of smell goes straight from nose to our brain with no need to filter or translate, straight into our memories. As Haskell says, ‘Sniff… and we teleport directly to other times and places.’

Each chapter typically looks at the natural and botanical history of each ‘tree’ considered, their aromas considered from an emotional response and a chemical scientific one, together with Haskell’s reminiscences and other inspiring references. I loved the way that the heading tells us the age or ‘vintage’ of the tree in question too, so we have mightly oaks, hundreds or years old, or twenty year old ash saplings for instance. The story of how a ginkgo tree suddenly started producing stinky rot and vomit-smelling seed balls is interesting – in this case a lone ninety-years-old female tree with no other ginkgoes for miles, then someone planted a few male trees nearby and ‘tree sex commenced’!

But after the opening few trees, we reach the first of what I’d describe as one-step-from-the-tree chapters, with ‘Gin and Tonic’. Naturally, the bark of the cinchona tree from which we get quinine for the tonic is the ultimate star here, but we have to go past juniper in the gin and the oils in the lime garnish too. This drink, seen through these three trees takes on a new allure. Another of these one-step-from-the-tree chapters takes in whisky barrels made from white oak, the heartwood being the best. American white oak having milder tannins than most other oaks whether white or not, which means that squirrels eat its sugar-rich acorns first, storing the more tannic red oak ones which keep better for winter. We also take in the smells of woodsmoke, olive oil and old books.

The chapters that intrigued me most in a way were those with a more scientific point of view. In talking about Ponderosa pines, Haskell describes some of the many different chemicals, especially the monoterpenes, that give trees their ‘aromatic signatures’. The resinous piney fragrance comes up again in the chapter entitled ‘Pine tree hanging from the rear-view mirror’ which looks at car air fresheners! (‘VINTAGE: Patented 1954’) They’re not necessarily the beneficial bad smell displacers they purport to be though.

‘…the reactions of “air-freshener’ chemicals with pollutants yield a mist of invisible particles and organic gases. This happens outside too. Wherever traffic fumes, particularly nitrogen oxides, merge with the aromatic molecules of trees and ozone, then fine particulate matter are created. Inside the car, the mix of tree aroma and traffic fumes potentially creates a hazard not only to the lungs but the other tissues of the body.’

This leads on to a discussion of which trees produce fewer chemicals like isoprene (one of those monoterpenes mentioned above)- maples and limes for instance, but plane trees traditionally planted along boulevards because they handle pollution well, actually churn the stuff out so not so good for us. So civic horticulturalists beware! It was all fascinating. Be reassured, you don’t need any expertise in chemistry to read the essays, as Haskell does describe all the different smells in comparative terms to those you’ll be perfectly familiar with.

The book ends with a series of exercises to encourage us to stop, pause and smell trees, and then a short piece on trees and music by violinist Katherine Lehman who created a series of soundscapes to complement Haskell’s smell essays. You can hear them here (they’re a bit odd!).

I loved the combination of popular science and natural history tinged with personal experience and memories. There’s a lot encapsulated into this little book, now in paperback in an A-format, so small enough to fit into your pocket. And dare I say it, a great stocking filler idea for the tree-lover on your Christmas list.

Source: Review copy – thank you.

David George Haskell, 2021, Gaia Books, flapped paperback, 2022. 192 pages.

BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

9 thoughts on “Thirteen Ways to Smell a Tree by David George Haskell

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It’s autumn when the berries fall (obvs female trees only). I read an article that said in Seoul where there are over 100k ginkgoes on the streets, the city employs 440 people to pick the berries before they can fall and rot!

  1. Calmgrove says:

    This looks fascinating, thanks! My attention was immediately drawn though to the mention of particulates as I’m convinced these are an invisible danger too many are unaware of: we live next door to an aromatherapy shop (lovely proprietor though) and I wonder at what may be masked by joss sticks, candles and the like marketed as being good for one’s health.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Ventilation is probably key, and not being asthmatic or having other respiratory problems. I didn’t realise that the tree chemicals (or synthetic equivalents) given off can react with the particulates and other gases from traffic and other combustibles.

      • Calmgrove says:

        There was this worry a few years ago, wasn’t there, that incidences of certain cancers (lung cancer especially, and I think leukemia) seemed to cluster in the vicinity of overhead power lines.

        It seems though that it wasn’t the electricity per se which was to blame but particulates clustering round pylons because of the static the Iines produced, said particulates composed of carcinogens in soot, diesel exhaust and so on which were then drawn into the lungs.

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