Monday, May 21, 2012

Go ahead, hug a tree

After almost two decades of gardening our verdant half-acre in Corvallis, I’ve had to remove five dead or dying trees in the past two years. I have no hang-ups about using my chain saw for its intended purpose, but it’s still sad to see these old friends go: a gnarled coast pine growing too close to the house, a stately madrone that might have had too much water, a graceful vine maple that likely had too little, a spindly mountain ash muscled into submission by larger, taller neighbors, and a pink dogwood that never fulfilled its destiny of actually being pretty.

You only need to be in the
proximity of trees to gain
their health benefits--but go ahead
and hug one anyway
I have about 20 trees of various shapes and sizes remaining, including a 150-foot incense cedar that anchors my prayer garden with its striking, deeply furrowed trunk. The newest addition is a Shishigashira Japanese maple that I bought from a friend who has a boutique nursery specializing in unusual landscape trees. I handpicked this specimen for its curly leaves, highly layered look and brilliant scarlet fall foliage. Planting a tree and nurturing its early growth isn’t quite the same as parenthood, but it remains a solemn act of stewardship just the same.

I read recently that ancient bristlecone forests in North America are falling victim to a fungal disease spread by pine beetles. Many years ago I visited a grove of these trees in the White Mountains of southeastern California, and was awed by both their age and beauty. Each tree was arboreal sculpture, some with no more life than a few clusters of needles at the tips of contorted branches. To know that trees as old as the pyramids of Egypt are dying prematurely deserves some serious contemplation. I have also traveled through the Brazilian Amazon as a magazine reporter and seen trees spreading out to the horizon in all directions. In the Sierra Madre of Mexico, I witnessed old-growth Ponderosa pine forests being savaged by industrial logging financed by the World Bank. Ironically, in Oregon, where trees on public lands could actually be sustainably harvested to the economic benefit of all, they are left practically untouched.
I have an affinity for trees that’s unusual even for an Oregon native. I graduated with a minor in forestry from OSU, so I know something about the economic and recreational value of forests. Their importance to some of our most pressing environmental problems should also not be underestimated. We take them for granted, but they are a near miracle. In a bit of natural alchemy called photosynthesis, trees turn the insubstantiality of sunlight into food for insects and wildlife, and we use trees to create shade, beauty and wood for fuel, furniture and homes. One of the best things we can do to heal the earth while also serving humanity is to plant trees—en mass. It’s been said that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second-best time? Today.

Leave it to the Japanese to popularize an esthetic practice involving trees that sounds a bit kooky but which caused The Ogler to sit up and take notice. In Japan, researchers have long studied what they call “forest bathing.” A long walk in the woods, they say, reduces the level of stress chemicals in the body and increases the killer T cells in the immune system, about which I’ve already written. Trees are known to release vast clouds of beneficial chemicals, some of which are anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral. Among the many good reasons to spend time in the woods should be added the possibility that trees offer a yet unknown degree of protection against cancer. The shade they provide also protects us against damage caused by UV radiation that can lead to melanoma and other forms of skin cancer.

I’ve always believed that there was nothing wrong with being a tree hugger. Now I know for sure.

No comments: