What's In A Name? Author Tells Stories Behind Trees In her book Lives of the Trees: An Uncommon History, author Diana Wells explores the history of and people's relationship with about 100 trees. She says she hopes the book will inspire readers to discover the trees around them because "we need the trees and they need us."
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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

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

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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?

DIANA WELLS: 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?

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?

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?

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?

WELLS: 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?

WELLS: 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.

WELLS: 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?

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.

WELLS: Thank you very much.

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

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