Are they getting the love they deserve?
Imagine for a moment a typical morning that goes like this: you wake up and brew a pot of coffee, then take oatmeal out of the cupboard for porridge. Topping it with almonds, an apple, cinnamon, and a drizzle of maple syrup, you sit down to peruse your favourite magazine while you eat. Less than an hour into your day, how many times have you already relied on trees? The bed you woke up in, the coffee beans, cupboard, almonds, apple, cinnamon, maple syrup, magazine, even the chair and table at which you ate—all products of trees. They say dogs are man’s best friend, but that title could easily be contested by our leafy partners on this planet. Not only are trees our breathing counterparts—our exhalations fuel them and vice versa—but we have evolved together over millennia, our lives becoming so entwined we may fail to notice all of the ways these great trunked beings serve us.
Trees have fed us since time immemorial with precious calorie-rich nuts and palate-pleasing fruits. First Nations of North America regularly ate inner bark as a springtime food and processed acorns for their starch.
What would we do today without our more exotic tree products: our beloved olive and coconut oils, cacao, and avocados? We’ve deepened our relationship with food-producing trees over time as we’ve bred them to reflect our preferred tastes and traits, co-evolving to form a sort of mutual dependence.
The list of remedies that trees offer us is about as long as the list of human ailments.
Ancient cultures the world over were adept at using local tree medicine from balsam fir for wounds and oral health to alder for tuberculosis.
In modern medicine, even pharmaceuticals often have surprising arboreal sources, such as the anticancer drug Taxol that is extracted from yew bark. And since they come in capsules and liquids, we sometimes forget how many of our natural supplements and skin care products are derived from trees. Some examples include heart-healthy hawthorn, superfood moringa, and rich shea butter.
Without any effort on our part, trees are continually doing our lungs a huge favour: their leaves and needles filtering massive amounts of airborne soot, pollen, hydrocarbons, and other pollutants. And as conifers release special chemicals to ward off pests, the result is almost germ-free forest air. All we have to do to benefit is show up and breathe!
Beyond the myriad wood-derived objects we encounter daily from toothpicks to toilet paper to two-by-fours, trees make our world habitable in some pretty fundamental ways.
Intact forests are a veritable rain pump, passing moisture further and further inland by their transpiration and the resulting clouds. This way, we’re not all relegated to the perimeter of the continents with the rest being mere desert—and we have trees to thank for it.
Imagine being exposed to the withering midsummer sun or a biting blizzard wind: stepping into the cool shade of a forest or its dense shelter provides palpable relief.
What if we have questions about the climate and environmental conditions in years past? Ask a tree! Their rings hold valuable information that we can learn from as we contend with changing patterns on our planet today.
Although we’ve come to see a decorated tree as synonymous with Christmas, it’s actually a relatively recent holiday custom.
Many ancient pagan peoples from Egypt to Scandinavia marked the winter solstice by bringing evergreen trees and boughs into their homes, but it wasn’t adopted into the Christian tradition until the 16th century in Germany. It caught on in North America in the 19th century after Prince Albert made it fashionable, and it took off from there.
Not including all the ones bought within our country, Canada exported 2,270,627 Christmas trees in 2017! The internet abounds with eco-alternatives to fresh-cut or artificial trees, so the tradition may yet be evolving.
A Korean study found that older women walking through forests versus urban areas enjoyed healthier blood pressure, artery elasticity, and lung capacity. While perhaps not surprising, this finding is nonetheless exciting, as it points to a beautifully simple prescription: spend time in the forest!
There is a bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of California that started growing in 3050 BC. If we think our grandparents have witnessed a lot, imagine what this wizened elder might have to teach!
Trees operate on a timescale that extends well beyond a human lifetime, and in this way, they connect us to both the past and the future, to those who came before and those who will come after us.
Birthplace forests and woodland burial grounds acknowledge this enduring nature, as does the Greek proverb, “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.” Anyone familiar with The Lord of the Rings story knows that the talking trees may seem tediously slow, but in the end, they come through with a display of great wisdom and power.
Trees have been revered as symbols of life, wisdom, and power across religions and cultures. The symmetry of roots and branches are seen as bridging the earthly and spirit worlds, and the Kichwa people in Ecuador call their forest “the most exalted expression of life itself.”
In Christianity, the Garden of Eden holds the tree of knowledge; Buddha’s enlightenment was gained through meditation under a bodhi tree. And, of course, many of the folktales we grew up hearing feature an enchanted forest as a powerful force of both danger and refuge.
Still today, we regard certain forests and groves as sacred, among them many sites in India where tree spirits or a local deity is believed to reside.
Science is just now verifying what we seem to have known intuitively for so long: trees are intelligent beings. They pass the test on several levels, such as their proven ability to learn, remember, and make beneficial choices in response to their environment.
Trees also thrive in community where they share resources, give each other the heads-up on danger, and even care for the young and vulnerable among their kin. Not so unlike us, really.
Considering what trees give to us, it seems only right that we reciprocate. With their slow turnover of generations and lack of mobility, trees are being mightily challenged by the pace of our changing climate.
Large intact forests are where they can fulfill their needs for community, procreation, and adaptation. They’re depending on us to manage our greenhouse gas emissions as best we can and to let forest ecosystems live out their natural processes for maximum resilience.
We might need to use less toilet paper, walk to work, or advocate for protection of forests, but we’ve come this far with our leafy friends—and we need them strong and healthy as we take on the future together!
Jackie Skrypnek is a holistic nutritionist, permaculture gardener, and all-round food enthusiast. She creates nourishing breakfasts for the guests at her tiny house B&B in Cochrane, Alberta. hereaboutsbnb.com
A version of this article was published in the December 2019 issue of alive Canada with the title “Trees.”