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Everything I've Learned About Trees

I recently finished a book called The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak. The novel tells the story of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in the 1970s, as well as the following split of the island into the 'Greek side' and the 'Turkish side.' The narrative is told from the viewpoint of a Ficus carcia, popularly known as a fig tree.

The Island of Missing Trees is one of the most fulfilling books I've ever read. From start to finish, the novel honors nature and celebrates the beauty of the world we have been given, prompting the reader to consider their own tendency to disregard the gift that is Mother Nature. Through beautiful prose and a heartbreaking story of an immigrant family from Cyprus, the narrating fig tree opened my eyes to the treasures that lie all around me but that I have failed to see.

The Fig Tree examines the network of problems that led to and resulted from the invasion of Cyprus; it sheds light on the horrors of colonialism, the consequences of an invasion, and the hatred that can arise between rival communities. It discusses the landscapes of Cyprus as well as its food, people, music, and customs. The tree explores forbidden love, migration, discrimination, homophobia, racism, and prejudice. It also talks about other trees.

The Island of Missing Trees has changed my perspective on just about everything. It has shown me how humans have been so blinded by ego and alleged ‘progress’ that we have convinced ourselves that we are more valuable than other kinds of life. It has made me understand how much agony we have caused every animal and plant we've encountered, and how we have limited their value and worth to what they can offer us. But, more importantly, it has made me realize how naive I have been in exploiting the world's biodiversity without even attempting to understand anything about it.

While I cannot tell you the entire plot of the book, I can at least try and share the things I learned that put me face-to-face with my own ignorance. I do it in the hope that, like me, you will question the meaning of what it is to be alive, to think, and to feel. I hope it humbles you, and that it calls into question your idea that humans are superior and more capable than other species. I hope it brings you closer to the wonders of nature. I hope it helps you pause for a moment to appreciate that which comes from the earth and fills our surroundings with life.

So, without further ado, here is everything I learned about trees thanks to Elif Shafak’s masterpiece:

Trees are never lonely. Or at least, they never feel that way. They are connected through infinite networks of roots and signals hidden to the human eye. Trees feel each other’s presence and build relationships with one another. They may purposefully adjust and modify their behavior. Although entirely different to ours, they have brains and personalities.

If you pick up a handful of soil, there are more microorganisms in that clump than people in the world.

Trees communicate with one another via a network of fungi hidden deep in the soil. They can use it to alert each other of impending risks. However, man-made disasters like deforestation continue to sever these communication webs, isolating and silencing them and preventing them from transmitting knowledge to each other.

The climbing wood vine, also known as Boquila trifololata, may alter the form and color of its leaves by mimicking. As a result, experts are now convinced that certain flora species can see. Plants and trees can also hear; through vibrations, they can detect even the smallest sounds.

Trees respond to light by detecting ultraviolet and electromagnetic waves. They know when people are nearby and can tell the colors of the clothes they are wearing.

The fragrance we receive from cutting grass, which we humans "identify with cleanliness and restoration,” is actually a cry for help and a distress signal delivered by grass to alert other plants. Similarly, when afraid or threatened, many plants generate ethylene, a chemical emission that experts characterize as equivalent to cries of agony. Trees, in fact, produce new DNA pairings and develop new variants when stressed. They, unlike us, have the ability to change their own composition.

Through touch, plants and trees can recognize their friends and relatives.

Some flora, like the Venus flytrap—also known as the carnivorous plant—can count. It shuts its leaves only after its prey makes contact twice, usually within about 20 seconds. It does so by counting electric impulses that travel from cell to cell.

Although it is not clear how, trees can predict when animals – such as deer – are about to eat them. To defend themselves, they extract acid from their leaves that deter animal attacks.

In the Sahara Desert, a tree renowned as "the loneliest tree in the world" overcame high temperatures and a lack of water for more than 400 years. The Tree of Ténéré endured by "extending its roots far and deep" until it was struck down by a drunk driver.

Trees grow faster in urban areas, and they also die sooner.

Now, let me tell you a little bit about the story's narrator, the 80-million-year-old fig tree:

In Judaism, when people seek deep and fruitful study of the Torah, they sit under a fig tree, while in Islam, the Prophet Mohammed said that ‘the fig was the only tree that he wished to see in paradise.’ In Buddhism, Buddha first reached enlightenment while lying under a fig tree, and in Hinduism, the roots of a Ficus carcia symbolize Brahma the Creator, the leaves Shiva the Destroyer, and the trunk Vishnu the Preserver. In fact, fig trees are planted so that they blossom near shrines and protect those who visit them. In Catholicism, it was fig trees with which God covered the bodies of Adam and Eve, which has led people to believe that Eve did in fact not eat an apple, but a fig. The fig was also King David’s favorite tree, and it was the only flora that made it onto Noah’s Ark.

In Kenya, women from the Kikuyu group rub themselves with fig tree branches to get pregnant because they are thought to let one speak with God. In Cyprus, people perform rituals under fig trees to guide diseased souls to heaven. It is also believed that by circling a fig tree seven times while burning incense, you can change your sex. In Australian aboriginal and Philippine stories, the fig tree protects humanity from monsters. In Greek mythology, a fig tree spared Odysseus from death, while in Roman legends, it hung on to Romulus and Remus' basket before Lupa discovered them. And people all across the world drive nails into the trunks of fig trees in order to pass on disease, pain, or sadness... It is because of its folkloric significance that the fig tree has earned the nicknames of ‘holy tree,’ ‘wishing tree’, ‘ghostly tree,’ and even ‘soul-stealing tree.’

To conclude, I'd like to share a passage from the book that has stayed with me since I read it, and hopefully, it will stay with you as well:

‘Humans walk by us every day, they sit and sleep, smoke and picnic in our shade, they pluck our leaves and gorge themselves on our fruit, they break our branches, riding them like horses as children or using them to birch others into submission when they become older and crueler, they carve their lover’s name on our trunks and vow eternal love, they weave necklaces out of our needles and paint our flowers into art, they split us into logs to heat their homes and sometimes they chop us down just because we obstruct their view, they make cradles, wine corks, chewing gum and rustic furniture, and produce the most spellbinding music out of us, and they turn us into books in which they lose themselves on cold winter nights, they use our wood to manufacture coffins in which they end their lives, buried six feet under with us, and they even compose romantic poems to us, calling us the link between earth and sky, and yet still they do not see us.’

Note: This article's information was derived entirely from Elif Shafak's novel The Island of Missing Trees.


Illustration by Tereza Životská


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