Joyce Kilmer famously wrote: “I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.” And despite many criticisms of both poem and poet, it remains to this day one of the best-known pieces of poetry. People who know nothing else about poetry can often recite at least that line if not the entire poem. One of the reasons for its longevity is the fact that so many people for so many years made fun of it.
But another reason, I think, is that trees really are beautiful. The more we study them, the more we discover the amazing things they can do. A wild fig tree in South Africa, for example, was found to have roots that went 400 feet down. Tree roots work symbiotically with the rhizosphere, exchanging nutrients with the soil so that both tree and soil around it are healthier.
Trees can lift as much as 100 gallons of water a day out of the ground and discharge it into the atmosphere, making them fantastic partners in reducing storm water runoff. Trees filter air pollution, water pollution and toxic waste in the soil.
Trees properly placed around buildings can reduce air conditioning needs by as much as 30 percent and save 30-40 percent in heating costs as well. Not to mention that trees are great at absorbing carbon dioxide, collecting as much as a ton of carbon dioxide by the time they’re 40 years old. And what do they do with it? They supply oxygen to us.
We now know that some trees release aerosols that attract pollinators and repel threats. For example, evergreens emit trillions of pounds of terpenes (a terpene is a kind of isoprene that acts as a natural pesticide) a year. The world’s forests emit 500 million tons of isoprenes annually, many of which act as a natural sunscreen for the planet.
Studies have shown that people who spend time among trees have lower concentrations of cortisol (a stress chemical) as well as lower pulse rates and lower blood pressure. In addition, green space – not just trees but other plants as well – has been shown to be helpful for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Conversely, the loss of trees has had a detrimental effect on the world. Floods have become far more frequent lately, partly because of deforestation, because when there are fewer trees to soak up the water, it rushes along the surface of the ground, causing much more damage than it otherwise might.
More than 90 percent of America’s old growth forest is gone. 80 percent of the world’s old growth forest is gone. And we’re still cutting more trees every day, perhaps as many as 3-6 billion a year out of forests (not counting the cutting of trees from plantations).
What does that mean for us? Certainly not good things. Increased droughts, increased floods, more diseases, increased warming of the planet.
The good news is that it’s not irreversible. We can stop the cutting; we can replant. We just have to want to do it. The first step is understanding how important trees are … and how beautiful – lovelier than poems even.