The Shaker’s iconic motif is the Tree of Life. This analogy runs through very many cultures around the world through history, and Charles Darwin also alludes to a tree of life image in his magnum opus “On The Origin Of Species By Natural Selection” to explain how speciation occurs. All life on Earth is both indebted to, and reliant on, the world’s forests for creating and maintaining the biosphere that all life shares, through a process called photosynthesis. A tiny biological “machine”, called a chloroplast is at the heart of photosynthesis. We owe trees big time, for all they have done for us, and continue to do.
Think of a time you walked in a woodland, or forest. How did you feel? Did it have a calming influence, helping to relieve stress, helping you to get to a place mentally and emotionally where you could reflect, think, and feel connected to something much bigger than yourself? Makes sense, though, when you consider that forests were, for our primate ancestors, our homes. Something about forests is hard wired into our brains, a deep human memory, shared by all humanity. Going even further back in time, those trees that you are taking in on your walk are long lost cousins of yours. Somewhere down the tree of life you share a common ancestor with trees. There are proven physiological and psychological reasons for the beneficial effects trees and forests have on people. I need not go into detail about that here, there is plenty of information readily available. The Japanese have a concept called “shinrin-yoku”, which translates as forest bathing, and it is a cornerstone of preventive health care, healing and well-being in Japan. It works, I recommend regular forest bathing for all. In addition to health and wellbeing, trees and woodlands perform other valuable functions. They improve air, soil and water quality. They reduce the urban heat island effect, and lock up carbon, from global warming gases like CO2. Woodlands are part of the palette of measures that help with natural flood management. Woodlands, forests and urban trees contribute significant economic benefits. They support biodiversity by providing habitats and food.
That time you walked in a forest, think, what did you see, besides trees? Could you see sunlight, filtering through the canopy of leaves? Did you hear anything? Perhaps some animals? Forests provide both habitats and food sources for countless other species of animals, plants, insects, microbes, fungi, a vast interlinked and interdependent community, the “Wood Wide Web”. Did you hear the sound of rustling leaves? Was it wind that was making the leaves rustle? What is wind? Moving air, that is what wind is. What is air? It makes the thin skin of the atmosphere, but what is it made from? Air is a mixture of gases, 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, O2, traces of water vapour, carbon dioxide, CO2 and a few other gases in trace amounts. What could you feel and smell underfoot? There would have been leaf or needle mould, and soil. These give off a wholesome smell, petrichor, and if you feel the leaf mould and soil it will be damp, because they hold water, H2O. Those chloroplasts I mentioned earlier are performing a miracle, photosynthesis. Taking carbon dioxide and water from the atmosphere and environment, and energy provided by photons from sunlight, they are producing plant structure (carbohydrates), and releasing oxygen into the atmosphere as a by-product. Oxygen which all animals need to live, and trees at the same time lock up carbon dioxide, which is a global warming gas, and in the wrong amounts, as is happening now, causes climate change, global warming, and problems in the pipeline for all humanity, if we do not act decisively to transition off of fossil fuels, undertake carbon capture, and set about to help the biosphere heal itself.
This is the chemical formula that describes photosynthesis, and describes how plants contribute to the carbon, oxygen and water cycles.
CO2 + 2H2O + photons → [CH2O] + O2 + H2O
carbon dioxide + water + light energy → carbohydrate + oxygen + water
As if creating the atmosphere on which all life depends was not enough, trees have also benefitted humans in a huge variety of others ways too. It was one of the first materials we learned to use, to make things with, and as a fuel: shelters, buildings, wooden machinery, domestic items for use, like furniture; tools, weapons; medicines; means of transport, like ships, wheeled vehicles, sledges, aeroplanes; paper; fossiled wood, coal, is a fuel; and wood itself is used as a fuel. Trees and forests are also carbon sinks, and this fact is something we, as a species, are going to have make greater use of, and invest in means of carbon capture to mitigate against dangerous global warming. The United Kingdom has only about 12% woodland cover, one third of the European average. That there is a priority to create more woodlands in the government’s green growth strategy, published in the autumn of 2017, is very welcome, indeed. I look forward to helping with increasing the UK’s woodland cover, through my work with Zero Carbon Harrogate. ZCH is involved with delivering Harrogate District’s contribution to the White Rose Forest, which is part of the Northern Forest project. The national aim is to increase woodland cover to 19% by 2050.
There are approximately 100,000 species of trees in the world today. Each species has unique properties, the variations in colour, grain, strength, density, flexibility, and the environments they grow in, are staggering and so many of them are wonderful to work with to make beautiful and useful objects for people to use. I do love working with wood, and as each year passes the awe and wonder I feel for this material increases. This poem “The Trees” by Philip Larkin with simple eloquence, imagery and beauty evokes the cycle of renewal, and contains elements of sadness and happiness, grief and joy, despondency and hope. It speaks to me, and when forest bathing I hear “afresh, afresh, afresh” in the rustling of branches and leaves.
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.