Thirteen Ways to Smell a Tree by David George Haskell – Interesting and surprising ways trees and their scents fill our lives

Thirteen Ways to Smell a Tree by David George Haskell

This book is subtitled “A Celebration of our connection with Trees” and to a large extent it sums up the contents of this remarkable little book well. Instead of working its way through types of trees, it actually concentrates on perhaps our closest link with trees, even when we perhaps do not realise it. It argues that our sense of smell is vitally important to how we appreciate and recognise trees, that of the senses smell is the quickest to connect with the source, unlike sight which depends on light, and hearing which is mediated through sound waves. Our sense of smell connects us with memories, both our own and community, as well as alerting us to the presence of what is emitting the odour, however subtle. Thus, beginning with the scent of the Horse Chestnut – the “Conker tree” with the opening of the spiky green case to reveal the shiny magnificence of a new conker, through to the smell of books as discovered in shops, libraries and specific types of paper, Haskell reveals the scents of trees he has encountered and their history, especially the effects of his memories as well as their more general backgrounds.

This is a clever and personal book, revealing stories that will have a relevance to most readers and some surprising byways of history. There are many personal reflections, such as the excitement of gathering and preparing conkers for battle, and the speed with which they are destroyed despite their size and supposed strength. There are also points where research has been needed to establish origins, such as how quinine was harvested and traditionally used in medicines such as anti-malaria preparations until the relatively recent development of synthetic blends. Not that this is expressed in a heavy or ponderous way; this is a book in which facts and arguments flow like chains of thought. Thus, while woodsmoke is seem as a pleasant smell, redolent of community gatherings around a common fire for centuries, but also that it has come to be associated with the fear of wildfires that have destroyed acres of land around the world. While fire in its “sensory visual, aural and aromatic experience” has been seen as a common aspect of human gathering and celebration, it is also a way of inhaling many chemicals which can be harmful to the human body. Certain trees are to be mourned in their removal from our streets and environments like the green ash and elm, but they are the victims of diseases and creatures that attack and destroy from within. Ginkgo is a tree which has been planted in American urban areas, but if male and female trees are planted in the same locality, the resulting fertilisation can produce a fruit which is deeply unpleasant to smell as it falls to the ground. Alongside the aspects of the culinary use of the fragrant Bay leaf comes a surprising chapter on the “Pine Tree Hanging from the Rear-view Mirror”, those ubiquitous air fresheners to be found in cars and other vehicles. They became popular as people spent more time in enclosed vehicles and wanted something to cover both external travelling odours and anything less than fragrant in the car or similar itself. A scientist, Julius Samann, was the first to patent a small, concentrated hanger to dispel unwelcome scents, and moved from a politically incorrect outline to the now familiar pine tree shape, although apparently various countries seem to be typified by a different choice of scent. Another chapter is devoted to the casks used to mature whisky – not a straightforward choice of wood, but careful seasoned specific trees.

My favourite is the author’s own habit of smelling books, and how different printing and production standards can be revealed in the scent, as well as the age and storage of books. This is a book of the senses, a celebration of trees as a basic element in our lives, and most especially the unexpected smells which can evoke so much in our minds. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.