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The Wonderful World of Trees and Treehugging
by Wendy Priesnitz

"Trees are wonderful things. They provide shade, hold soil, water, carbon and nutrients, and provide habitat for innumerable species. Our ancient ancestors lived in and among trees, and both benefitted. Is there still a primal connection between humans and trees, and do we still benefit from being among them? The answer is yes. Studies have shown that we are psychologically healthier when we spend time around trees and in woods." Harv “Ponderosa” Teitelbaum

city treesHeart, Lungs and Soul of the City

Urban trees have a terrible life. Tall trucks bash them, utility companies dig up their roots and trim back their branches, high-density developments squeeze them out, insurers hate them. However, trees have real benefits for cities. They provide cleaner air, help reduce noise, provide flash flood protection and can actually reduce air temperature. They can also enhance our emotional and physical well-being. According to behavioral scientist Roger Ulrich, physical signs of stress such as pulse rates and muscle tension lower within four minutes of a stressed person moving into leafy surroundings.

New York City’s parks department has found that, including their ability to combat pollution and add real estate value, the city’s street trees provide an annual benefit of about $122 million, with the city receiving $5.60 in benefits for every dollar spent on trees. In Salem, Oregon, there is a Greenways Ordinance, which is designed to help preserve salmon habitat. In recognizing trees’ role in reducing the amount of impervious surface area in the city, planning officials have also realized that shading parking lots reduces the temperature of stormwater runoff so it doesn’t harm aquatic life.

Climate Change

Trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it as carbon in the plant material and in the surrounding soil. Over the last 300 years or so, the activities of humans (such as the burning of fossil fuels, and vegetation clearing) have lead to a large increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, creating what we call climate change or global warming.

There are a couple of problems with using trees for carbon offsets. For one thing, you would need a woodland about 1.7 times the size of the UK to absorb the UK's current carbon output. Secondly, the carbon sequestered during a tree's lifetime is locked up in the woody tissues. If it is used to build houses or furniture, the carbon remains locked up in the timber. But if it is burnt or allowed to decay much of the carbon is released again into the atmosphere.

treehuggerEmbracing Protection

Given all the benefits we receive from trees, it’s our duty to protect them, whether that’s by physically preventing them from being cut down or by carefully stewarding the use of the products made from them, like wood and paper. The term “treehugger” – originally derogatory – came from the Chipko movement, a group of villagers in India who prevented commercial logging by hugging trees. Some of the largest protests have been to protect the old growth temperate rainforests in coastal British Columbia from clearcutting. And one of the main protestors is a 78-year-old grandmother named Betty Krawczyk who was first arrested with almost 90 others during the notorious 1993 Clayoquot Sound demonstration against MacMillan Bloedel on Vancouver Island. She is still regularly jailed for defending thousand-year-old Douglas Firs and is currently incarcerated at Alouette Correctional Centre for Women in Maple Ridge B.C.

Tree sitting is another tree protection tactic. For 738 days in the 1990s, Julia Butterfly Hill lived in the canopy of an ancient redwood tree called Luna to help raise awareness of the plight of ancient forests. That led to protection of the 1,000 year-old tree and creation of a three-acre buffer zone around its home in Stafford, California.

Planting trees and combating deforestation is the focus of a Kenyan woman named Wangari Maathai who founded the Green Belt Movement to organize poor women to plant trees. Since 1977, over 30 million trees have been planted and over 30,000 women trained in forestry, food processing, bee-keeping, and other trades. Maathai received the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the movement.

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Perhaps, unless the billboards fall,
I’ll never see a tree at all.
  ~Ogden Nash, Song of the Open Road

Enlightenment from the Trees

Many people feel a strong kinship toward trees and some ancient cultures believed humans came from trees.

Spiritual insight and personal transformation can be achieved through close contact with trees. Many an inspiration is born while meditating, praying, singing or writing beneath a tree. Perhaps the most famous enlightenment ever came while the Buddha was sitting under the bodhi tree.

Both the ancient Celts and Native Americans believed that trees reaching for the sky united the earth with the spirit world. They believed trees communicated with the moon and the stars and were forewarned of any oncoming dangers by the wind. Trees, in turn, would send those warnings and other heavenly messages down to the earth through their roots. The “wish trees” of northern Europe are successors to ancient pagan tree shrines where people once appealed to the spirit beings or devas for help in solving problems.

In North America, trees are also an integral part of the rich relationship with Nature that the indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast First Nations have evolved over thousands of years. They carve totem poles from the native, densely-grained ancient western red cedars. Unfortunately, during the past century, industrial logging has dramatically reduced the number of these trees that are suitable for totem pole carving.

treehouseThe Ultimate Treehouse

People of all ages are fascinated by treehouses. Perhaps the most lavish is owned by the Duchess of Northumberland in northeastern England. Sitting high in the branches of 16 trees, the five-room, 6,000 square-foot structure is part of a transformation of Alnwick Castle’s grounds into a fantasy garden. The castle is already famous as the setting for Hogwarts School in the Harry Potter films.

“Regardless of their ability, children should be encouraged to get outdoors and appreciate nature,” says Lady Jane Percy, the energetic young Duchess whose husband’s family have resided at Alnwick since the early 14th century. The duchess was apparently an avid tree climber as a child and was inspired by a survey which found that one-third of children aren’t allowed to climb trees.

What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another. ~ Mahatma Gandhi

Resources for Healing

Since ancient times, trees have offered resources for healing. They have not only yielded medicines from their leaves, roots, bark, wood and fruit, but have also supplied a source of energy on which many indigenous healing and curing traditions rely. For thousands of years, trees have been used to make infusions, decoctions, poultices, ointments and tonics to heal both humans and domestic animals. Even modern-day pharmaceutical companies include parts of trees in some of their drugs and treatments. Medical researchers have found the dried bark and needles of the Pacific yew to contain taxol, an anti-cancer compound that has been judged effective in treating ovarian cancers.

Photos (c) Shutterstock Image

 

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