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What's In A Name? Author Tells Stories Behind Trees

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What's In A Name? Author Tells Stories Behind Trees

Author Interviews

What's In A Name? Author Tells Stories Behind Trees

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

In the introduction to her book, "Lives of the Trees," author Diana Wells offers this warning: This book is not for botanists or dendrologists or taxonomists or even for those who want to identify individual trees. It is a book for non-experts like me. Well, she might as well have added it's a book for tree lovers, people like me who are intrigued by trees, our relationship with them, the stories behind their names and other interesting tidbits of information about them.

That alder, for instance, is the best wood for underwater construction, which explains why much of Venice still stands on alder wood pilings. Or that botanically, bananas aren't even really trees but instead giant herbs.

Well, in her book, Diana Wells writes about a hundred trees, arranged in alphabetical order from acacia to willow and more, and she joins me now. Diana, why did you decide to write this book?

Ms. DIANA WELLS (Author, "Lives of the Trees: An Uncommon History"): Well, because I am a lover of trees. They're so much a part of our lives, both in ways we know and ways we don't know. I challenge almost anyone listening to be further than two feet away from something that came from a tree, whether it be a cup of coffee or a Kleenex or your rubber tires on your automobile. They are very much bound in our life. And these days, of course, we know that they're essential to our planet.

NORRIS: Of all the trees that you wrote about and researched, which one still lives on in your imagination?

Ms. WELLS: The Stewartia is a tree which I'm very fond of because it's in my garden, and it's an absolutely lovely little tree. It comes from Japan, and it has lovely white flowers in the summer, when not much else is blooming, and it has a flaky bark.

NORRIS: Is this the tree that you looked out on when you were writing this book?

Ms. WELLS: Yes, you've got it just right. It is exactly the tree I looked out on. The willow is a tree - weeping willow - I like because of its name. Its botanical name is Salix babylonica, which means it's a willow Salix from Babylon. In fact, it's not from Babylon at all. It's from China. But it was called that from a mistranslation of the Bible, when the Jews were exiled to Babylon and they wept when they remembered Zion and they hanged their harps on the willows, which were supposed then to have stayed pendent every since.

NORRIS: The willow also has some interesting lore attached to it. You note that in China, willow trees were planted outside the women's part of the house. Why?

Ms. WELLS: Oh, I don't know why. They were supposed to be female trees, and it was always compared with dancing girls. Of course, the most famous willow is the willow passion tree, which is a legend about two lovers who run away and they die and then they become two birds, which fly above the weeping willow tree.

NORRIS: Each of these entries is filled with all kinds of fun facts as well. We learn that willow wood was used in England to make bats that were especially springy for playing cricket, or that charcoal from willow wood is supposed to make the best gunpowder. Who knew?

Ms. WELLS: Yes, it's an interesting juxtaposition. The pomegranate is an interesting juxtaposition of philosophies because that was considered to be the tree of life. It was used symbolically, way back, to represent rebirth, and brides would throw one on the doorstep when they came in to see - be sure they had many children.

But then somewhere along the line, we got the grenade, which was from the fruit grenata, and that of course, as we know, is a weapon. It always seems to me a little ironic that the life-giving tree should also be a weapon of destruction.

NORRIS: Can I ask you about breadfruit? Because this is - it includes a story that many of us have learned about and read about, and who can resist a good story about Captain Bligh?

Ms. WELLS: Yes, well, the breadfruit was something that could be just used on its own, as a food really, and it sustained whole cultures, and the idea was that it would be a cheap food for slaves. So that's why Captain Bligh went to get it on the Bounty. They wanted it to survive. So he gave up his cabin, the best cabin, for it. And the problem was that sailors thought that the water was being used for the breadfruit, and they weren't getting enough. So that's how the mutiny started.

Then, actually, eventually, they did have another cargo of breadfruit that went to St. Vincent, but the slaves in the end didn't eat it.

NORRIS: I have to ask you about the Japanese cedar, in part because it looks like such a beautiful tree but also because you introduce the reader to a ritual there that I was not familiar with, the tradition of forest bathing.

Ms. WELLS: Yes, I love that ritual. You go into the forest and soak yourself in the trees. You don't take off your clothes or anything, and it's called forest bathing.

And apparently, a businessman in Japan still do it. I actually do do it quite a bit. Quite often, we'll walk in the woods and just let the trees - you know, I feel as if I'm part of the forest. And it's very, very soothing. It's beautiful.

NORRIS: What do you want people to do with this book? How do you want people to use it in their lives?

Ms. WELLS: Well, I think it would be nice if they got to know the trees around them. And if it inspires them to do that, I think that it would help us if we were more familiar with the trees because in the past people were very familiar with trees. Nowadays, you can get somebody living on a street named after a tree and they've never really seen the tree. It's just a street name. And I think if we did that, it would cement the bond, which has got a little loose, between us, and it would help all of us.

NORRIS: Diana Wells, thank you very much.

Ms. WELLS: Thank you very much.

NORRIS: Diana Wells is the author of "Lives of the Trees: An Uncommon History."

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