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Daniel Lewis explored the roles of different trees play his new book, 'Twelve Trees'


There are some 73,000 species of trees on Earth, according to one recent estimate. The writer Daniel Lewis zeroed in on a tiny fraction of them for his new book, "Twelve Trees." Each chapter is one species. And he makes the case that, taken together, they're a bit like a family, where each has its own role to play with its own personality traits.

DANIEL LEWIS: So you get the quiet cousin. You get the rowdy daughter, the bookish aunt, you know, the brash sister. And so they lead different lives, but they all have a treeness about them that they have in common, I suppose, is one way to think about it.

SHAPIRO: These portraits don't just focus on biology and ecology. They also dig into culture and myths around species like the blue gum eucalyptus or the olive tree. And Daniel Lewis told me learning about these plants has helped him better understand human concerns. For example, the toromiro is a tree that's been displaced from its homeland.

LEWIS: The toromiro is the tree - the lost tree of Easter Island, and it's disappeared from its homeland. And, you know, everything has a - everything is from somewhere else, is one of my arguments about trees. And all of these trees have evolved in place, but they've also come from other places. Trees are more mobile than you might think. You know, they're blown by seeds. They're carried by water, and they eventually land in a place where they become established. And a tree like the toromiro on Easter Island has managed to go extinct on the island, but it survives only in botanic gardens around the world. And so the fact that it's an expat of sorts has given it kind of a different weight. And there's been an attempt to get it to regrow on Rapa Nui, as Easter Island is more properly called. And the fact that it's been in isolation from its homeland means that it's been far from home for a long time. So there's a notion of place that's struck through all of these trees.

SHAPIRO: You know, when I started reading the book, I was sitting at home on my couch, and I kind of paused, and I looked around me and I started counting the trees that I could see just from where I was sitting. And there was a towering oak outside my window, a fiddle-leaf fig in a pot, a dogwood in my yard. I saw them differently, even though I see them every day. How do you hope the book changes the way that readers view trees?

LEWIS: I think I really want people to understand a well-established notion, but differently. So simply put, the natural world needs our attentions, plural. You know, and that's an evergreen notion, to use a tree term. But it's not just to save the trees. It really is to save ourselves - I mean, I think we've got a lot of skin in the game - through reflection and poetry and patience with ourselves and, you know - and also not neglecting the importance of taking appropriate scientific action. I want people to understand that, you know, the salvation of trees can be our salvation.

SHAPIRO: As you're so aware, trees are mythic. Trees are metaphorical. Trees are cultural. And they are also the subject of scientific study. And this is a book that is deeply grounded in science but doesn't ignore the mythic and the metaphorical and the cultural. How did you thread that needle?

LEWIS: I think it's hard to miss the sensory elements of trees if you just take a moment to pay attention. And so it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to point out that they have smells. They have sounds. They are sensory creatures in a sense. They - you can't miss their extravagance in some ways. I think in that moment, poetry emerges because then we can start thinking about bigger things.

One of the throughlines of the book is climate change. And so to differing degrees, trees are able to respond. And the classic example are these fungi that they found in the coast redwoods that seem to thrive in drier climates. And one of the things they've done with the coast redwood is they've tried planting it at the very outer limits of its established range in the Pacific Northwest to see if they can get them to grow in drier regions, and indeed they can. And so to try to get these trees to grow through the actions of humans in areas where climate is having an effect is encouraging, because now we see that these trees can grow where it's drier, they can grow where it's at different altitudes. And so the human hand on the scale sometimes has to be gentle, in a way, to get these things to come to life.

SHAPIRO: Each of the species in this book tells a different story. What story do you hope they tell collectively when you take them as a whole?

LEWIS: I want people to understand that trees and people have far more in common than we might imagine, even though we look different, you know, because humans are messy, and they're noble, and they confront stresses of many different kinds, you know? And they're graceful, or they're invasive. And, you know, humans can be selfless. And, you know, trees do work in concert with each other. And I think humans can work in concert with each other as well. So I think that these 12 trees each say something about ourselves, you know, because trees are not just about trees. They're about many other things. And we live among them, and they live among us. So I think we have an obligation to understand them better.

SHAPIRO: Daniel Lewis. His new book is "Twelve Trees: The Deep Roots Of Our Future." Thank you.

LEWIS: Ari, thank you so much - nice to talk with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.