Home > Posts > What Trees Can Teach Us

By Mike Grindle | March 16th, 2023

The English poet and painter William Blake once wrote that "the tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way." These words were part of a letter he wrote in defence of poetry and whimsicalness, his words arguably somewhat metaphorical. But there is a more literal truth in what he wrote about concerning how we view our forests. In his time, Blake had little to explain such a gap in thinking but an intrinsic understanding that nature was crucial to us and more intelligent and alive than we understood. Now, more than ever, science proves this instinctual feeling correct.

hidden life of trees book

Some nearly two centuries after Blake's letter, the ecologist Peter Wohlleben noted in his book, The Hidden Life of Trees, that,

"When you know that trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you can no longer just chop them down and disrupt their lives with larger machines."

For spouting such ideas, Wohlleben would have once been labelled insane. Such a statement still raises eyebrows now. But the reality is that we now know that trees are capable of such things and so much more. Thanks to what Wohlleben labels the "wood wide web," and their ability to detect scents, trees can and do communicate. More impressively, they share and depend upon each other.

"When trees grow together, nutrients and water can be optimally divided among them all so that each tree can grow into the best tree it can be. If you "help" individual trees by getting rid of their supposed competition, the remaining trees are bereft. They send messages out to their neighbours in vain, because nothing remains but stumps. Every tree now muddles along on its own, giving rise to great differences in productivity. Some individuals photosynthesize like mad until sugar positively bubbles along their trunk. As a result, they are fit and grow better, but they aren't particularly long-lived. This is because a tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it."

No more are the cooperative efforts of trees more apparent in the phenomenon known as 'crown shyness,' whereby certain species of trees respect each other's space by reducing the growth of their canopies so as not to touch each other. The science behind this is still being explored. But the result of this behaviour is an avoidance of collisions, a reduction in the spread of leaf-eating larvae and more equal access to sunlight.

All of this is fascinating for certain. But the secrets trees hide extend beyond their nature. Indeed, under forest canopies may lie the cure for our current state of ecological homesickness.

The healing effects of forest bathing or "shinrin yoku" have long been documented in Japan, where more than four decades of research back up the claims of its advocates. In the west, similar studies are drawing the same conclusions. That time spent in forests reduces anxiety, helps us sleep better, lowers blood pressure and may even help prevent cancer. Again, the research is explaining that which we intrinsically knew already - immersion in nature is good for our well-being.

"You stand beneath this canopy of trees,
surrender will, hold still. You close your eyes
and listen as the rustling of the leaves
and lapping breeze-blown waters tranquilize.
Inhaling deeply, you can breathe the smell
of dew-damp soil, the scent of pungent pine,
organic emanations. All is well,
you’re in the zone in nature’s forest shrine.
Permit your eyes to open, now you see
the beauty of extraordinary things:
moss-covered rocks in shades of verdigris,
sun-dappled flapping of some insect wings.
Immerse yourself in all your senses, feel
the peace of this retreat restore and heal."
- Shin-Rin-Yoku by Betsy Hughes
old book illustration of trees and people
Illustration by Frederick Cayley Robinson

Yet this basic human birthright remains under attack as nature becomes increasingly inaccessible to many. And studies frequently show that it is ethnic minorities, the disabled and the poor who are missing out the most. No surprises there since it is these same groups that frequently suffer elsewhere.

To put this in other words, society's most affluent are, once again, figuratively hogging the canopy space. The result is sick forests, people and cities.

Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel peace prize and the founder of the 'Green Belt Movement' knew too well the intrinsic link between a nation's welfare and ecology. Beaten and imprisoned multiple times as a dissident by the Kenyan government, she nonetheless empowered herself and vulnerable women around the world through the simple but symbolically powerful act of planting trees.

"We have a political and economic system that does not allow people to appreciate the beauty of where they live." Maathai once spoke, "That's the tragedy of poverty." Planting trees and reconnecting with nature, Maathai felt, were integral to reclaiming self-autonomy. Likewise, human rights and environmental catastrophes are not issues we can address separately but are interconnected.

Many of us are lucky not to face the colonial-era style laws and government crackdowns Maathai suffered. Others are not so lucky. But in either case, so long as nature suffers, we suffer nonetheless. Unbreathable air, toxic rivers, and plastic-filled oceans are not issues happening to some set-aside "nature" that we may sometimes like to visit. They are happening to us.

For our own well-being, we need to learn the lessons that the sheltering trees figured out millennia ago. For if we could only make room for each other and shelter the wild as they do, we may breathe easier yet.