Wisdom of Trees: An Interview and Video Reveal for the Latest from Lita Judge
Recently I’ve very much been getting into trees. If any of you are into science podcasts the way that I am, then you might be familiar with Ologies. Host Alie Ward interviews different scientists, specializing in different “ologies” (Vaccine Infodemiology, Bilharziology, Gargology, etc.). Her most popular episode was “Dendrology“. So much so that the fellow she was interviewing, one Casey Clapp, went on to start his own tree-realted podcast (Warning: Bad Pun Approaching) Completely Arbortrary. So you see, I have trees on the brain.
The timing couldn’t be better too. Recently I came across the Kirkus starred review for Lita Judge’s latest book The Wisdom of Trees: How Trees Work Together to Form a Natural Kingdom. As they said of the book:
“As the text explains: “The poems in this book reveal what trees might say if they did use words.” The poems are written in an accessible free verse with a pleasing rhythm and near rhymes, and they include sly homage to both Shakespearean verse and more modern memes.”
Lita, as it happens, was willing to answer my questions on the subject. I was curious to learn more. And, happily, she has an accompanying video that you’ll get to see for the first time ever.
Betsy Bird: Hello, Lita! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. This first one’s gonna be a hard one, so brace yourself: Do you have a favorite kind of tree and, if so, what is it?
Lita Judge: Hi Betsy! Thanks for having me! Oh, that is a very hard question. Gosh, do I have to choose one? I was born on a small island, deep in the Tongass National Forest of Alaska. So I have a particular fondness for the Douglas fir. In the coastal rainforest of the Northwest they grow to be giants, with their gnarled limbs covered in moss and lichen. I was married under these giant trees too. And during my ceremony we called in a pair of wild spotted owls that lived and nested within their limbs.
So perhaps that is my true favorite.
But can I just mention aspen as well. When you walk into a forest of aspen trees, you aren’t actually stepping in amongst several different trees. The trees are all part of one organism, so your steps are actually leading you into the heart of a giant individual. How can one not feel happy when looking up to the sky to see aspen leaves quake and dance in the wind? They always give me a sense of joy and peace.
BB: Aww. Well, this might be a no-brainer but where did the idea of this book come from? Why talk about trees right now?
LJ: The idea for the book came while I was hiking in the Cotswolds, in England. I had set out to visit a favorite individual tree, a common oak, that’s about 1500 years old. It would take about 12 people standing with their arms fully extended to reach around its trunk. Many years earlier I had visited this tree. While sitting under its giant limbs, I sensed the presence of the tree so strongly, I literally felt as if I could hear it whisper encouragement for me to embark on the journey of writing my first children’s book. I went home and wrote that book, and have been writing ever since. So I’ve made frequent pilgrimages to visit that tree when I need inspiration.
But the last time I visited, I found myself worrying, as I hiked into the countryside, if the tree would still be standing. Over the course of my travels, many of the trees I have known had been cut for land development or timber. The forest where I was born has been terribly impacted by clear-cut logging. I began thinking about how hard it is to see ancient forests. So few stands of intact old-growth forest remain in our own country. While at the same time our climate is heavily impacted by human activity. Forests clean the air from pollutants, and help prevent global warming. We need them more than ever!
I’d also been reading new research about the remarkable ways that trees communicate with one another. I began to realize that the stories trees had to tell were more startling and important than the stories I was creating. I knew I had to learn more about trees and write this book.
BB: Can you give us a sense of the kind of research you did for this book?
LJ: I found it was a really exciting time to be creating this book. There are several scientists around the world researching trees, but little has been written for children about this topic. There is an amazing Canadian scientist, Suzanne Simard, in the northwest, who is performing experiments that demonstrate how trees actually communicate through a network of mycorrhizal fungi in their root systems. I read a lot of the latest research papers, talked to scientists, and traveled extensively into different forests, particularly so that I could create the illustrations for this book. I wanted to create illustrations in a very naturalistic style. I felt it was important to paint the trees as they are, rather than putting my own style into them. I wanted to give them a voice, which meant painting on location in several places to truly capture the trees.
BB: You must have walked into the project with a fair number of assumptions. What surprised you the most in the course of making this THE WISDOM OF TREES?
LJ: I think the biggest surprise, was how much goes on below the surface of the earth. I fell in love with trees, as I think most people do, for their majestic beauty and strength above ground. But below ground, they are super organisms, connected to each other, communicating with one another, feeding one another, helping each other if one is damaged or suffers disease. They literally work together to ward off attacking insects. They have a sense of community and a cooperative wisdom. Their survival depends on the whole community working together. I guess I was startled by the fact that as I was trying to learn about them, I realized I was learning from them.
BB: What’s the coolest tree you’ve ever seen in person?
LJ: I think perhaps the coolest tree I’ve ever visited is an ancient yew tree that lives in the heart of North Wales, named the Llangernyw Yew. The tree is thought to be between 4000 and 5000 years old. I traveled to meet it when working on this book, and sat within it, sketching. Like other very old yews, the core of the tree has long decomposed, leaving only the exterior, which is literally so wide in circumference that you feel as if you’re sitting within the middle of several yews. It is one ancient tree that has witnessed thousands of years of our history. But I’d like to gently warn anyone else trying to find this tree. If you rely on your GPS, you may find yourself in a farmer’s field, knee deep in mud, out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a lot of sheep!
BB: Is there a particular tree or kind of tree that you’d still like to visit?
LJ: I would dearly love to visit the tropical rain forest in South America and climb a giant kapok tree. In the two and half acres of rain forest around a kapok tree, two hundred different kinds of smaller trees can grow. And all that diversity supports up to forty-two thousand different species of insects. A scientist studying one individual kapok tree recorded more than six thousand different kinds of bugs, birds, and mammals actually living in that one tree! Wouldn’t it be amazing to sit on its limbs and listen to howler monkeys or to peer through the leaves and see a jaguar!
BB: Finally, what are you working on next?
LJ: I have several projects in the works. My next book, which I wrote and illustrated, comes out in the spring (on April 20th) and is titled Even the Smallest Will Grow. It’s like a gentle lullaby which reminds readers that even the biggest and bravest were once small, and that the smallest can become anything they choose to be. Next is a book written by Kelley DiPucchio (whom I adore) which I illustrated, called Forty Winks, A Bedtime Adventure. It’s about a mother and father mouse trying to put their 38 mouse children to bed. I’m also working on a new whimsical tale inspired by my own pet deer mouse. I seem to have an unlimited capacity to draw and paint mice. And I have a nonfiction book about the natural history and evolution of dogs, and their partnership with humans. And I have another whimsical book about friendship and the unexpected beauty that may unfold if we have the patience to trust one another.
And now, for your viewing pleasure, please enjoy this look at the making of The Wisdom of Trees:
Thank you to Lita for answering my questions and to Morgan Kane and the folks at Macmillan for connecting us.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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