Tree People

Tom's trees 2

Photo by Tom Atkins

I talk to the trees, but they don’t listen to me.
I talk to the stars, but they never hear me.
The breeze hasn’t time to stop and hear what I say
I talk to them all in vain.

~ Pardner (Clint Eastwood) in Paint Your Wagon


She was crooning to her Wandering Jew, and I asked, “What’s with the singing?”

“Oh,” she replied, “My plants grow a lot better when I sing to them. Sometimes I play Mozart, but they don’t like rock and roll.”

At the time, I thought she was crazy. After all, who doesn’t like rock and roll?

I admit I have always spoken to animals I encounter. Usually I am ignored, but my pets seem mostly interested; well, except for the cats. Admittedly, I’m never clear whether my pets really get me or it’s just cupboard love. But they listen well, except for the cats, and usually don’t argue or disagee, unlike some of my friends — and of course the cats.

It’s easy to anthropomorphize animals, even fish and bugs — that’s Disney’s forte and key to success. Animators also anthropomorphize all kinds of other things: teacups and assorted silverware, furniture, weapons, buildings, machines and plants. And, of course, they all talk back to us, whereas in real life it’s mostly a one-sided conversation.

So, my conversations with trees are also mostly one-sided; I don’t know if they don’t hear me or just don’t reply. But other than that, it seems trees are pretty social. Researcher Suzanne Simard notes, “Yes, trees are the foundation of forests, but a forest is much more than what you see … underground there is this other world, a world of infinite biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate and allow the forest to behave as though it’s a single organism.”

Trees communicate their health, the presence of predators, share nutrients and generally help each other out. Studies of forests have shown that trees work together and try not to crowd each other out. “Crown shyness” or “canopy disengagement” results in the top levels of some trees that grow so as to avoid the reach of their neighbors. The result is a clear space between tree canopies that neither tree tries to claim. Melissa Breyer notes, “One study showed plants arranged their leaves differently when growing amongst kin or unrelated specimens, shading neighbors of different species, but allowing important light to reach their to kin.”

Paul Stamets’ studies of mushrooms have noted, “The mycellum infuses all landscapes …We have now discovered that there is a multi-directional transfer of nutrients between plants, mitigated by the mycelium — so the mycelium is the mother that is giving nutrients from alder and birch trees to hemlocks, cedars and Douglas firs.”

But trees are also generous to us humans. Ephrat Livini summed up many studies on what the Japanese call “forest bathing … (it) is proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress hormone production, boost the immune system, and improve overall feelings of well-being.” Forest air contains “various essential oils, generally called phytoncide, found in wood, plants, and some fruit and vegetables, which trees emit to protect themselves from germs and insects.” It works on humans, too. Studies of the effects of even thirty minutes’ exposure to forests show that it “promote(s) lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments.” And, of course, the effects aren’t only physical. There are psychological effects as well. “The subjects showed significantly reduced hostility and depression scores, coupled with increased liveliness, after exposure to trees.”

Trees are a great benefit to an urban environment, too. Trees breathe as we do and remove particulates from the air, sequestering carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen in the process. They also reduce the temperature of urban areas, a matter of growing inerest given the threat of extreme heat from global warming.

But we don’t always return the favors we receive from our urban trees. As reported by Melissa Breyer, forester Peter Wohlleben says, “Urban trees are the street kids of the forest,” adding that their roots struggle in the harder soil under sidewalks. If that weren’t enough, they are also warmed at night by radiated heat from streets and buildings, unlike forests which cool down. They are deprived of the shared forest microorganisms that help them collect nutrients and water, and they can be poorly attended to by city workers. “They also have to sleep at night … research shows that trees near street lights die earlier. Like burning a lamp in your bedroom at night, it is not good for you.”

I suggest we try to be a little more supportive of our urban trees, or maybe just trees in general. They certainly do a lot for us and we need to take care of them for a change. Water and fertilize as appropriate, shut off those lights every evening, and maybe talk to them a little — some caring and interested company could do them some good.

On the other hand, if Clint can do it, let’s give singing a try; maybe just not rock and roll.

Additional Information:

Melissa Breyer, City Trees Suffer from Not Getting Enough Sleep, TreeHugger, June 13, 2017

Melissa Breyer, Trees Are Aware of Their Neighbors and Give Them Room, TreeHugger, August 15, 2017

Ephrat Livini, The Japanese Practice of ‘Forest Bathing’ is Scientifically Proven to be Good for You, Quartz, Published World Economic Forum in collaboration with Quartz. 23 Mar 2017

Suzanne Simard, How Trees Talk to Each Other, TEDTalks, June 2016

Paul Stamets, 6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World, TedTalks, March 2008

The Nature Conservancy, Planting Healthy Air, A global analysis of the role of urban trees in addressing particulate matter pollution and extreme heat, 8/25/2016

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