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Trees of Power Book Review

April 21, 2019

I met Akiva Silver at the NOFA conference last year, where he gave a talk on the history, uses, and cultivation of hazelnuts and chestnuts. I very much enjoyed the presentation, and it taught me a lot, so when he told me he’d written a book and asked me to review it I immediately said yes.

Trees of Power: Ten Essential Arboreal Allies (Chelsea Green, 2019) is several things at once. It is a catalogue of practical propagation and planting techniques, an in depth look at ten particularly useful and marvelous species, and most of all an argument for the abiding importance of trees. In other words, the book is a product of the author’s vocation, grounded both in his experience running his nursery in Spencer, New York and the years he has spent identifying trees, gathering their fruits and seeds, and simply communing with them. The experiential and scientific information about trees combined with Silver’s unmistakable love for them is a remarkably persuasive argument; it not only leaves you feeling like you have the tools to go plant a dozen hazelnuts, but it also gives you with a bunch of convincing reasons that you should.

The book’s first thirty pages cover a lot of ground, touching on the ways trees relate to soil carbon, environmentalism more broadly, an ethic of thrift, deep ecology, the economy, community, as well as advice on tree identification. These are big, interesting ideas, but at times they feel a bit unmoored. Or perhaps that’s mostly in contrast to the rest of the book, in which the abstract and conceptual is tied back to the immediate and specific. It’s the difference between reading about trees as a theoretical carbon sink and reading about the amount of biomass - which overwhelmingly consists of atmospheric carbon - various species of poplar can produce, and how best you can go about establishing them.

The book is interesting and widely applicable, whether you want to start a commercial nursery or just improve the diversity of your yard. The in-depth profiles of the ten trees of the subtitle are particularly useful, detailing not only the human uses of each type of tree, but also its relation to other species of both plant and animal that interact with it. When added up these particulars give a sense of the endless give and take that is the foundation of all life. There should be more books like this, idiosyncratic, interesting, and deeply informed by both broad and personal knowledge. What Trees of Power communicates so effectively is the tremendous complexity required to support healthy ecosystems and the sense of humanity that comes from humbly interacting with them. 

Not always, but more often than not, planting a tree is a promise to the future. It is hard enough to accept more commonplace agricultural cycles, which take from weeks for fresh greens to a few years for something like a beef cow. Arboreal time frames are further removed from the rush of everyday existence by an order of magnitude. Some precocious apples or chestnuts might start bearing relatively quickly, but often the real return on a tree planting does not come for decades, and there’s no guarantee it will come to the individual who does the work. It’s a remarkable book that can make something that is at most tangentially self-serving feel like a joyful imperative.

Trees of Power is available from the authors website, or, I’m sure, from our favorite oligarchic online commerce platform.

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