Awe-Inspiring Books About Trees

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These past few years, I’ve discovered a niche reading interest: books about trees.

What kicked off my interest in tree books was Richard Powers’ The Overstory, which remains a favorite.

Soon after reading it, I realized that the silent giants that surround us, that add so much beauty and comfort to our world, also add to our stories–and they have their own stories as well.

The books about trees on this list include some that focus on the trees themselves, and others that are simply enhanced by the presence of trees (such as Tom Lake)–but the stories wouldn’t be the same without them.

Fiction and Nonfiction Books about Trees

First, a story.

I have a thing about trees. I love them. I don’t know them–I’m lucky if I can accurately identify two or three kinds–but I love them.

I don’t think I realized just how much I loved trees until I lived in a place that had very few. It was hot. It was a little desolate. I missed the trees.

When I was a kid, one of my best friends in the neighborhood had a couple of towering oak trees in her front yard. One, which we creatively called “The Big Oak,” was perfect for climbing, and it had a swing.

All summer long, for years, we kept a ladder leaning against it so we could climb at any time. Throughout our summers together, we aimed for new heights, naming the branches as we went (“Swing Point,” “Allison’s Point,” etc.) until we could go no further. We told stories, made up games, and as we grew older, used it as a place to gossip.

If anything represented idyllic summers, it was that tree.

Years passed, as they do. Our families both moved out of that neighborhood after we graduated high school. My friend and I lost touch.

One day in college, I received a package from her out of the blue. Inside was a small cross-section from a branch, lovingly finished and branded with a short message (she and her whole family are amazing artists).


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Must-Read, Awe-Inspiring Books About Trees

She also included a note, saying The Big Oak had died and had to be cut down. The remaining neighbors had told her and she returned to salvage some of the wood. The cross-section was from the branch we called, “Allison’s Point.”

Every time I look at that little cross-section, I’m brought back to our countless days spent high in the branches. I can picture the steps and reaches it took to wind our way to our “points,” and feel the rough handholds on the bark.

I remember the days we went silent, watching the activity of the neighborhood with no one the wiser that we were up there, and the days that we talked and laughed nonstop. I remember the day I fell out of the tree and (after I could breathe again), we both swore never to tell anyone, afraid we would be banned from the tree forever.

And so, my love of trees runs deep, but I can’t say I ever thought I could read novel-length books about them.

These amazing books have awakened an affection, appreciation, and awe of the hidden life of trees. I’d love to know your recommendations.

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Fiction Books About Trees

The Overstory by Richard Powers

The Overstory

Author: Richard Powers
Publish Date: 2019
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction

This 2019 Pulitzer Prize winner absolutely blew me away. Powers constructs a novel that begins with a series of seemingly disconnected stories, each grounded by a tree, and some of them stretching back more than a century. The “understory” finally lands us on a number of central characters.

These disparate characters come together in a larger-than-life narrative that becomes a call to activism, a meditation on our place in the world, and an awe-stricken view into the complex and impressive lives and resilience of trees.

Harry's Trees by Jon Cohen, a heartwarming, feel-good book

Harry’s Trees

Author: Jon Cohen
Publish Date: 2019
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary Fiction

When 34-year-old Harry’s wife is unexpectedly killed, the Forest Service employee retreats to the trees to grieve and atone for his role in her death. There, he meets a young girl and a mother who are also grieving the loss of their father and husband. The girl, Oriana, is guided by her belief in magic and fairy tales, and is convinced that she and Harry have a mission. Only by completing it will they be pulled up from the depths of their grief.

Cohen writes with a lilting fairy tale structure, grounded in a healthy amount of skepticism and realism that make it work. Despite its themes of grief, I found this to be an uplifting delight. Readers who find solace in nature will love Harry and Oriana.

Tom Lake by Ann Patchett

Tom Lake

Author: Ann Patchett
Publish Date: August 8, 2023
Genres: Literary Fiction

On a cherry orchard in Michigan, Lara and her husband Joe have welcomed home their three grown daughters at the start of the pandemic. The family is scrambling to harvest the cherries with a reduced staff, and the girls ask Lara to tell of her summer in stock theater at Tom Lake, where she had a romance with now-famous actor Peter Duke.

Lara stretches her story out over weeks, revealing truths, correcting her daughters’ misconceptions, and keeping some precious things to herself. She revels in the time with her daughters, where time feels suspended in much the same way it did that summer at Tom Lake.

Every moment of this rare summer literary fiction novel feels like golden hour, filtered through the haze of memories, lakes, and dreamy orchards of cherry trees. Patchett seamlessly weaves between the timelines, while quietly revealing truths about family and personal history. Every word feels careful and perfect; I loved it.

Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

Wishtree

Editor: Katherine Applegate
Publish Date: 2017
Genres: Middle Grade

My kids and I adored this middle grade novel about an old oak tree named Red that watches over the neighborhood and the many animals that live in its branches. For decades, the tree has been known as the “wishtree,” where each year people tie their wishes written on strips of cloth.

When a new family moves in and they aren’t exactly welcomed with open arms, Red decides to intervene. This is a beautiful, touching story of nature and friendship that both kids and adults will love.

Sugar Birds by Cheryl Grey Bostrom

Sugar Birds

Author: Cheryl Grey Bostrum
Publish Date: 2021
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction

In Washington State in the 1980s, Aggie is a ten-year-old who loves birds and climbing trees. But after a fight with her mother about her climbing, she lights a fire that ends in tragedy–and she flees into the woods, hiding among the trees.

Celia, 16 and angry at being left with her grandmother for a few months, joins the search for Aggie. Her anger turns to intrigue as she gets to know Aggie’s autistic brother, Burnaby, and the charismatic Cabot, a local farm worker. She feels a kinship with Aggie and slowly gains her trust, just as her own relationship turns dangerous.

This was a fantastic eco-fiction novel with three unforgettable characters, each brilliant and sensitive in their own ways. I loved their bonds and their ties to the Washington landscape.

Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy

Once There Were Wolves

Author: Charlotte McConaghy
Narrator: Saskia Maarleveld
Publish Date: 2021
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction

Inti arrives in Scotland to manage the reintroduction of wolves into the wilds of the Highlands. Her twin sister, Aggie, is in tow, and dealing with trauma from her past. Inti believes in the wolves; the locals, however, fear for their safety and their livestock, and their fears seem founded when a man is found dead.

I LOVED this gorgeous, atmospheric eco-fiction novel with fantastic characters and relationships. Wonderful on audio and my top read of 2021.

A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler

A Good Neighborhood

Author: Therese Anne Fowler
Publish Date: 2020
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction

Neighbors are suspicious when an affluent family moves into an established neighborhood and tears down the existing house to build a McMansion. Their renovations destroy Valerie Alston-Holt’s beloved old tree, and that’s the last straw.

The stakes rise and are complicated by the budding romance between Valerie’s son and the new neighbors’ daughter, until they reach their tipping point.

A compelling story that examines issues of race, class, and how people with different values can live alongside one another. 


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Books for Nature Lovers about Trees

Nonfiction Books about Trees

The Treeline: The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth

The Treeline: The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth

Author: Ben Rawlence
Narrator: Jamie Parker
Publish Date: February 15, 2022
Genres: Fiction, Nonfiction

“The world is in the grip of unprecedented change. The planet you think you live on no longer exists.”

Ben Rawlence

If you share my interest in the complex role of trees in the ecological community, as well as in climate change, I highly recommend Rawlence’s deep dive into the boreal forests of the north. In his investigative journey, he travels to the treelines of places such as Norway, Siberia, Alaska, and Greenland to examine six hardy tree species and how the world is changing on the edges.

It’s a fascinating examination of the intricacies of nature, and what you think you know is often turned on its head. Expanding forests in the north may sound like a good thing–more trees!–but the shift in climate that wrought the change has devastating cascading effects at the treelines, through the forests, in the economy, and even in the oceans.

The amount of information here is truly overwhelming–and Rawlence weaves it all into a riveting narrative that combines science with local lore and tradition. The climate predictions across the board are dire, and while this book provides little in the way of solutions or even hope, the hope there is lies in the long-proven adaptability and ingenuity of the forests.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Lab Girl

Editor: Hope Jahren
Publish Date: 2017
Genres: Nonfiction

Hope Jahren is a scientist who studies trees, plants, seeds, and soil. This book is a reflection on her journey from her childhood days playing under her father’s laboratory tables to leading her own labs and research.

I was enthralled by Jahren’s writing, her keen and poetic observations of the natural world, and her grave, sometimes deadpan and sometimes dramatic narration of the audiobook. Love of science is at the core of Jahren’s story, but human relationships–particularly with her colleague, Bill–also take center stage. Their adventures in science and all its trappings are delightful and unexpected.

The Hidden Life of Trees

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate

Editor: Peter Wohlleben
Publish Date: 2019
Genres: Nonfiction

I’ve fallen into a weakness for books about trees–I think I find their quiet resilience comforting. So I couldn’t resist this nonfiction book about the remarkable ways that trees communicate, form families, build communities, and sustain one another.

Wohlleben is a German forester with a true love of trees and he explains the science in an accessible, relatable way. My mind sometimes wanders when I listen to nonfiction books like this, but I still enjoyed learning about this secret world.

Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert MacFarlane

Underland: A Deep Time Journey

Editor: Robert Macfarlane
Publish Date: 2019
Genres: Nonfiction

In Underland, Robert Macfarlane journeys into some of the earth’s deepest, most unimaginable spaces, including natural caves, mines, urban caverns, and more. He explores their roles in the beginning of human time and their imagined roles many millennia in the future.

Macfarlane evokes both claustrophobia and a dizzying sense of the vastness of time and space. The expedition is an exploration of connections–between places, people, species, and time itself. It will leave you filled with awe at the wonders of the natural world.

Eating Dirt by Charlotte Gill

Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe

Author: Charlotte Gill
Publish Date: August 29, 2023
Source: Libro.fm ALC
Genres: Nonfiction

Charlotte Gill spent two decades working as a tree planter in the temperate Canadian rain forests, doing the back-breaking work of replenishing the trees stripped by clear-cut logging operations. In this memoir, she recounts the brutal, mesmerizing work and her life with the “tree-planting tribe,”–the people inexplicably drawn to the seasonal work that wrecks their bodies and clears their minds.

Gill has a way of making the work sound (almost) appealing, despite the harsh conditions: the connection to the land, the sense of doing something worthwhile, and the camaraderie with her fellow planters. At the same time, she contemplates the logging industry and planters being a part of it–and how effective the planting operations are at replacing the complex old-growth forests. This was a fascinating look at a very particular–and important–niche in the tree canon, and Gill’s poetic voice adds insight and awe.

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What are your favorite books about trees?

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