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What may be learned from a tree by Harland Coultas

Harland Coultas (1817-1877) was a British botanist born in North Lincolnshire. Most of his works were written from the 1850s. His most well-known article is ‘What may be learned from a tree’ written for the New York Times on 4 August 1860, adapted from his 12-chapter book dedicated to ‘all lovers and friends of Nature.’

He begins his 1860  book with the poetry of William Shakespeare (1564-1616): 

And this our life, exempt from public haunt,

Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,

Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.

He sets out to write the tree’s ’life-history’ – ‘indisputedly the most highly-developed form’ of plant life. ‘In the appearance of one that has stood for centuries, there is something noble and majestic.’ Yet the majestic tree began its life as a tiny seed. Coultas begins with the first year of a tree’s life.

He describes how to tell the age and condition of a tree, the rate of growth, and what it has endured throughout its life. He provides an example of a tree he studied: ‘Between the years 1855 and 1856, the growth of the primary axis appears to have been greatly retarded. It grew only four lines, put forth three leaves, and there was no side production.’ He can state the exact number of leaves grown in an entire branch. The precision of his work makes him a sort of tree whisperer! 

One lesson is that people, working cooperatively and in combination, are powerful. The whole tree is a representation of its parts: ‘No part of the tree is unemployed or unimportant,’ says Harland Coultas. ‘And is there nothing analogous to this in the social world?’ 

The roots, trunk, bark, wood, fibre-cells, rings, pith, leaves, stems, branches, pods, seeds, fruit, flowers, the variety of form and function. The wind, the waters, the fires, the seasonal changes. They all play a productive part in a tree’s life-history. He writes of bare winters and green-filled springs – both rest and productivity are useful for the healthy growth of a tree. ‘So, when a nation is decimated by disease, or depopulated by war, its arts and sciences revive, its poets and philosophers, its statesmen and heroes, are all reproduced.’


He writes of how the tree adapts to the eternal fluctuations of change, citing the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), who spoke about Nature: ‘She creates eternally new forms; what there is, was yet never; what was, comes not again. All is new, and yet always the old.’

There is much to learn from this book, and from trees. Harland Coultas says, ‘Reader, if you wish for peace and contentment of mind, study Nature’ and ‘the impressive lessons which she teaches.’ He adds, ‘We may also learn from the tree an impressive lesson of our own frailty.’ 

Harland Coultas says of his own work: ‘Of all the author’s botanical works, this is perhaps the only one that will survive him,’ but adds, ‘we all do fade as a leaf.’ 

Photographer: Martina Nicolls

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