Thirteen Ways To Smell A Tree by David George Haskell

4.5 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Tree huggers have been around for a while, and as mad as it sounds, communing with nature in this way is mostly harmless, unless you have just hugged a holly… Whilst we may use some of our other senses when interacting with a tree, such as sight and touch we very rarely use some of our others. But there is something very pleasurable about walking through ancient woodland listening to the susurration of the leaves in the wind or smelling the resinous scents of a pine forest.

In this fascinating book, Haskell has taken thirteen trees that we have probably come across in some capacity or the other. Beginning with the acrid and oily horse chestnut, known to many small children for their conkers, we meander around other scents and smells such as the juniper and how it has flavoured gin, the way that the white oak is the main flavouring for whisky and how the scent of the ash tree is disappearing.

Not all the smells covered here are pleasant, the living fossil that is the ginko has a particular scent that it is thought was used to attract beasts that walked this planet a long time ago. The glossy green leaves of the bay have a scent that is one of my favourites, my parents have one in their garden and I always snap some leaves in half to smell it when I am there. Trees also give us smells after they have stopped growing, the scent of woodsmoke in the right context can be wonderful, but in a forest can be terrifying. The scent that I am most familiar with though is that of books, as I do have ‘quite a few’ around the house…

The delight I feel in the ponderosa’s aromas joins me to the communicative heart of the forest. Trees confide in one another. Insects eavesdrop and concoct. Earth and sky converse.

This is probably one of the most unusual title books that I have read recently. I really liked this and thought that Haskell has come up with a very novel way of getting us to engage more with the natural world around us. I like the way that he has selected a number of trees, and used that particular species to tell us a little about that tree and how we interact with it. He is a really good writer too, his prose is engaging and fascinating as well as being stuffed full of fascinating facts that can be dropped into conversations. If you want to read a very different slant on natural history writing then I can recommend this.

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  1. Liz Dexter

    What a good idea – this sounds lovely! I had the smell of woodsmoke just this morning as I ran along the canal past the boatyard and all the boat dwellers were getting going.

    • Paul

      It is a great concept for a book and well written too. Love the scent of all tree-related things

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