In an unexpected summer storm, I dash underneath an old valley oak and look up at its thick, furrowed trunk pushing upwards to the sky, the hail bouncing off its spatulate leaves. Trees are so familiar to us, but too often we view them as simply objects, background, or products, incapable of awareness, memory, feeling, perception, or intention. An inferior, uncomplicated life form, there for our use as paper, a Christmas symbol, weapon, charcoal, building material, medicine, furniture, to name just a few uses.
Old growth woodlands are far more complex and remarkable than we imagined, offering indispensable value to our climate and environment. Scientists are still catching up with their ways and capabilities. I’ll share some astonishing things I have learned, which unfortunately do not apply to farmed, corporate tree plantations or one-off street trees.
A tree would laugh at our perception of time, based upon the tiny window of human existence. My sheltering tree could live 600 years; others many thousands (such as the bristlecone pine). The first real tree evolved around 370 ml years ago (us homo sapiens, around 300,000+).
Beach, spruce, and oak trees all register pain as soon as some insect creature starts nibbling on their leaves. This triggers the tree into releasing a defensive chemical that makes their bark or leaves toxic or unpalatable; or like elms, even attract parasitic wasps to destroy the pest. Through the vast network of tree roots and fungi in a forest, trees communicate the danger to sister trees who respond with similar defenses.
Trees are social beings, and some species can even share nutrients with an ailing sister tree. They lean on each other for stability and protection against wind and snow. They seem to have an awareness of water scarcity and adapt to survive.
Forests act like giant air filters, cleaning out pollution, releasing tons of oxygen into the air. No wonder walking in one feels so fresh! Our battle against climate change centers around carbon dioxide release and fossil fuels. Trees and forests are without a doubt the best carbon capture technology in the world.
Well, a walk in the woods will never be the same again.