Humans have found a multitude of means to speak without uttering a sound. Flashing lights can blink out messages using Morse Code. Nautical flags, one for each of the twenty-six-letter alphabet, can spell out single words or phrases. The American Sign Language or simple hand gestures can convey entire conversations with other individuals, and beckon or turn them away. Eyes through a glance or steady stare silently signal thoughts and emotions.
If humans can do this, imagine how more advanced communication is with living beings in the natural world. The Wisdom of Trees: How Trees Work Together to Form a Natural Kingdom (Roaring Brook Press, March 2, 2021) written and illustrated by Lita Judge is an astounding. meaningful, and informative exploration of shared connections. Working together for the common good is the key to survival and a flourishing society.
A Secret Kingdom
I am a single beech,
but I am not alone.
Together with my fellow trees,
we form a secret kingdom.
So begins our acquaintance with a world we think we understand but is much wider and deeper. Beech trees can live for hundreds of years. They have stories to tell.
Some we will never know, but people dedicated to the study of trees have expanded what they believe to be true. Trees speak skillfully and silently. Author and illustrator Lita Judge, through a series of fourteen poems deciphers what they are saying and supports the poems with factual discussions.
Trees may not have fiber optics, but they have fungi. Deep underground trees and fungi work in tandem assisting each other in essential life-sustaining exchanges of food. Fungi pass along messages from one tree to another. Chemicals are launched into the air when trees feel they under attack from unwanted insects or munching animals. Sometimes those chemicals attract other insects who will eliminate the threat. It's almost like something out of fiction to discover giant, tall trees in a rain forest maintain their own climate while cleansing the air and dampening the dangers of global warming. Did you know if a tree is in need, other trees will receive the distress signal and send help?
Trees are skilled gardeners, alternating years of abundant seeds in order to reproduce and feed animals at the same time. They prepare for seasonal shifts, especially for the cold in winter and for the following sleep. Did you know the length of daylight is a clock for some tree species? Fascinating. Trees care for each other by helping the youngest unable to make their own food and stopping their spreading branches from crowding nearby trees. There is more to the rings on a tree than exact age.
Trees host animal homes in their trunks and under their roots and in any other place insects land, rest, and nest. Like humans, trees age but they still give to the forest in exceptional ways. Diverse forests are a necessity rather than uniform forests. What might damage one specie will leave another unharmed. Humans need to respect the need for diversity. It ensures the continuation of a forest which in turn ensures our planet's survival.
Each poem penned by Lita Judge is a warm welcome from trees to their world. These poems focus on different aspects of trees. In a column on the right, Lita offers a description of the tree featured in the image on the left, using it to transition to a more complete explanation of the current topic. Within this conversational commentary are specific details and sometimes named scientists and their discoveries. Here is a poem and a partial passage.
We Are the Ghosts
My limbs and needles are gone,
and the warm body of a newborn deer
comes to rest within the ghost of my great trunk
that once touched the sky.
But underneath the soft litter
of fallen needles and dark soil, I still live,
surrounded by my kingdom
with their willingness to give.
Life Beyond Death
A forest may continue to care for its
elder trees, even after the body of
an ancient tree dies aboveground.
The roots are still alive and remain
a part of the community. When this
five-hundred-year-old ponderosa pine
fell in eastern Oregon, USA, its trunk
and branches began decomposing,
sending its stored nutrients back into
the soil, while its roots continued
to bring in water. The hollowed-
out trunk became shelter to many
animals. Nearby younger trees,
exposed to more sunlight, grew
quickly to fill in the forest canopy. . . .
On the open dust jacket readers are treated to two lush forest views. On the right, the canopy of kapok trees frames the rich flora as parrots fly through their branches. To the left, on the back, a doe, fawn, wild turkey, raccoon, and a squirrel enjoy the quiet of their woodland glen, a misty green in early morning light. The main title text on the front is varnished and raised on matte-finished paper.
On the book case a single scene is spread between the left and right, crossing the spine flawlessly. It is autumn with fewer leaves on the trees. On the left the colors are cooler, blue hues and green. On the right, the shades are more brown, gray and green. Chickadees join a squirrel on the left. An owl silently watches on the right, high above the ground.
The opening and closing endpapers are covered in a spring grass green. On the initial title page tree trunks and branches form a circle around the four words. Vegetation spreads along the forest floor. On the formal title page, a two-page picture gives us a glimpse of an elder pine tree, arms gnarled and twisted extending skyward. A full moon casts a blue light. A lone owl sits on a limb on the right.
Opposite the dedication and publication information page, we read the first title and first sentence. Beneath this is the single beech tree, still young, but enjoyed by two birds. All these luminous images
were created with watercolor and pencil.
With each page turn, readers are shown another intricately detailed portrait. We might be underground with roots and fungi and watching kits nestled in a den as their mother fox approaches above ground. We might be close to wasps moving like aircraft to land on caterpillars destroying leaves on an elm tree. We might hardly dare to breathe as a wolf moves through a dormant stand of silver birch in winter.
Lita Judge also places smaller illustrations within her columns on the right. We see a giraffe munching on an umbrella thorn acacia. There is a labeled depiction of one tree requesting help and another tree sending back the needed sugar. A small inset shows us the difference between deciduous and coniferous trees. Lita Judge realizes the need for images to enhance the text, giving a pictorial interpretation of her words.
One of my many favorite illustrations is for the passages above noted. To the left of the text column bordered by a thin branch with a few scattered leaves, is a page and one-half page picture. It is a close-up of the ancient tree now on the ground. The trunk is cracked and hollow. On the far left, two new saplings grow from the hollow. In the main part of the hollow, a fawn is curled, sheltering until the return of its mother. A squirrel scampers on the right near a new pine tree. Behind the fallen tree, on the right, a trio of new saplings grows. The green, brown, pale gray, and golden yellow palette generates a sense of calm and continuity.
Regardless of the number of times you read The Wisdom of Trees: How Trees Work Together to Form a Natural Kingdom written and illustrated by Lita Judge, you will glean new information. With each reading, your respect for these majestic beings increases. At the close of the book is a lovely Author's Note describing the impact of one tree Lita visits whenever possible. This is followed by extensive paragraphs on fungi, the years trees live and about the trees in this book. Further items are included for each tree highlighted on the two title pages and within each section. Lita Judge continues with headings:
Forest Fire Suppression,
The Future Of Our Forests,
How You Can Help Our Forests,
A Note From The Publisher.
On the final page is a glossary, sources, and good websites for more information on trees and forests. No collection, personal or professional, should be without a copy of this book. I highly recommend it.
To learn more about Lita Judge and her considerable body of work, please visit her website by following the link attached to her name. Lita Judge has accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. At School Library Journal A Fuse #8 Production, Lita Judge is interviewed by Elizabeth Bird, current Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system about this book. A video (access below) is premiered. At Scholastic's Ambassador of School Libraries, John Schumacher's Watch. Connect. Read., Lita Judge talks about the inspiration for this book. At Macmillan, you can view interior illustrations. Politics and Prose Bookstore on March 16, 2021 at 11:00 am is sponsoring an event with Lita Judge and this new title.
UPDATE: On March 5, 2020 in a post on Facebook Lita Judge talks about her process in making this book (all her books). She shares an early sketch.