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  • Writer's pictureBette Allen, MD

Trees Can Help Shift Our Perspectives on Sustainability and Life

Time spent with trees, from the human perspective, may recall childhoods playing under the shade of a tree or climbing one. Perhaps you had a tree house or a swing hanging from a strong bough. Every fall there would be leaves to rake up and run through. Of course, there were also the fruits from trees. These may have turned into apple pie or apricot jam. Back east sap from maple trees gave us maple syrup. In the low desert people could pick oranges and lemons from their citrus trees.

With adulthood and the responsibilities of householders, the perception of trees often changes to focus on the problems trees cause. There are leaves which plug your gutters, litter your yard, and then have to be raked. There’s the bounty of fruit that’s too high to be harvested and too much to eat, then falls to the ground and makes a fermenting mess. The birds that nest in the tree poop on your car. Tree roots grow into the foundation of your house and ruin your plumbing. Those roots also make it hard to cut your grass. And let’s not forget that trees have to be watered. It is only after cutting down the offending tree that you may find that your house and yard are hotter and drier than before. The cost of cooling your house is more than the cost of watering the tree.

Of course, many of these problems could actually be beneficial. The leaves that you rake up for trash every fall can be used as mulch on bare ground and also turned into compost. The fruits which rot on the ground could be harvested by volunteer groups who will distribute them to people who will use them.

These silent giants provide us with food, shelter, oils, resins, and timber. Trees soak up water in wetlands and prevent erosion on hillsides. Not only does their shade help to cool the space beneath them, but the process of transpiration cools the air. The leaves of a single tree can draw hundreds of gallons of water per day hundreds of feet up from the roots and into the air – like a swamp cooler. There, high above the ground, the chlorophyll in the leaves uses sunlight, carbon dioxide and water to create food for the tree and oxygen. The sugars flow back down to the roots.

Unseen beneath the earth’s surface is a huge network of tree communication facilitated by the mycelia of subterranean fungi. This web of mycorrhiza allows communication within and among different species of trees. The survival of trees is a collaborative effort, dependent on soil, water, micronutrients, other plants, animals and insects. They appear to stand still, and yet over time populations of trees move as the climate changes. For instance, as southern New Mexico gets hotter and drier, seeds dropped by birds in the lowlands do not take root, but seeds dropped at higher elevation in cooler areas may survive. So, ponderosa forests are moving north. Other factors contribute, such as drought, fire, the presence of bark beetles and people.

With narrow vision, we only take into account our human time - what impacts us and our family. We forget the quiet giants that have accompanied us and sustained us for longer than humans have existed. Their communication is not silent but is on a different wavelength. We appreciate time spent sitting under a tree, the sight of cherry blossoms in the spring, the colors of autumn leaves in the fall, or walking through the woods in any season. We feel the difference between using tools made of wood and those of plastic. We are awed by the taste of local fruit freshly picked, compared to the imported waxed fruits in the market. Observing the lives and behaviors of trees can improve our lives now and aid our survival into the future.


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