Monday 7 November 2022


Book review: Thirteen Ways to Smell a Tree by David George Haskell [blog tour]

Trees line even the most urbanised of streets. Yet despite having them on our doorsteps, beyond appreciating the blossoms and coloured leaves as the seasons change, many people don't take much notice of them. And that's a real shame. Trees are vital to us, working hard to give us green spaces, oxygen, and a viable ecosystem for the many big and small organisms that keep our planet alive.

David George Haskell has taking his appreciation of the humble tree up a notch, by writing about thirteen different types – in all their shapes and forms – from the perspective of his own experiences with them. As he traces back their roots and meanings throughout history and across continents he brings readers closer to these mighty beings.

He starts with the wonderfully versatile horse chestnut (aka the conker tree) and covers other well-known species, such as the beech and oak, along the way. He also takes some liberties with the definition of "tree" with dedicated chapters to related things derived from trees, for example, gin and tonic, woodsmoke, and books.

I really loved and appreciated the earlier chapters in his little nature tome in particular. His descriptions of the horse chestnut, for example, evoked the smells of the leaves and feelings of playing games with conkers as a child. It was all very nostalgic but with bonus facts about this species from across the world threaded throughout.

Similarly, the chapter on the green ash has incredibly vivid aromatic descriptions, transporting the reader to standing right in front of one of the trees, witnessing and smelling it. At the same time, however, it comes with the harrowing realisation that this particular species is in decline due to a beetle laying their larvae inside the trunk, which destroy the tree from the inside out. With an added fungus that targets the same tree spreading across the globe, it's only a matter of time before this iconic tree is no more.

I was a big fan of the chapters about what we more traditionally consider trees, but for such a small tome there should've been more different species included (e.g. the maple or birch) instead of veering into "tree-related" directions. The tree-shaped air fresheners section for cars felt particularly far-fetched. While there were some interesting factoids in there, for sure, as someone who doesn't own a car and finds the air fresheners unnecessarily strong this felt too far removed from the nature writing I was expecting from this book. 

While I do absolutely adore books and so a chapter dedicated to one of my most favourite items in the world was very welcome, at the end of the day it was those sections of Thirteen Ways to Smell a Tree that followed through on their descriptive title that were the most engaging, and memorable. They've made me more aware of the wonderful trees that we can see around us, and I will most certainly get closer to them in the future, to see if I can smell the same subtle fragrance notes that David George Haskell so beautifully describes in his book.  

Thirteen Ways to Smell a Tree by David George Haskell is published by Octopus Books and you can now buy a copy from your favourite local book shop!

Blog tour stops for Thirteen Ways to Smell a Tree by David George Haskell

This review for Thirteen Ways to Smell a Tree is a part of the official blog tour for the launch of the book. Make sure to check out the other stops too!

Disclaimer: This book was gifted to me by the publisher, but this has not impacted this honest review.

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