How much we love Trees – Tree Girl

Another interesting article in the book called “Tree Girl” by “Julianne Skai Arbor”. In this article she shows how much she loves trees and many interesting insights.

I have always felt a strong connection with trees in my childhood experience. Nature was filled with marvelous animate beings. like characters in a book that came to life with magic and mystery. Trees, especially, had wisdom to share, protection to offer  and company  to give I had a relationship with them. As a young adult. I moved  to California and discovered the majesty of the native Redwoods, Giant Sequoias, Bristlecone pines and many species of Oaks. After spending a lot of time with trees. I began to really look at trees  and experience them in a much deeper way. I became certified as an arborist because I had an affinity with trees and wanted to better understand the science of how they live and what cause them to die. I began taking notice of sad-looking trees who were not thriving, mostly in urban and suburban settings, and I wanted to be of service to them. 

Now with more training and years of observation, it seems that all I see in urban settings are trees that are isolated unhealthy, ignored, butchered, or decapitated. Even in wider areas, we are witnessing an increase in tree sickness and mortality from the rippling effects of global climate change, loss of ecological community, acid rain and other pollution, and an overall lack of the kind of land management indigenous peoples performed for thousands of years. Trees like animals, retain genetic memory of their wild ancestry, memories of how the landscape was before modern human settlement-before gravel, asphalt, and concrete became dominant ground coverings. Trees want to be wild. 

Regardless of humankind’s well-intentioned attempts to control nature, a trees branches will grow haphazardly. Branches, leaves, fruits and seeds fall wherever gravity pulls them, conspiring with the wind to scatter messily on the ground or on the cars beneath them, sometimes irritating humans. In 2009,63 healthy and mature holly oak trees (Querus ilex) lining the shopping district in downtown  Palo Alto, California, were cut down because city planners, as well as some shop owners and shoppers, found the abundance of acorns dropping on the side-walks every autumn to be a safety hazard and a nuisance!1 But in the wildness of a country, state or national park, those same city planners, shopkeepers, and shoppers might bask in the same tree’s  fertile abundance. 

When the trees were removed, there was public outrage at the unsightliness of the “improved” public space. Those trees were lost, in part, because of poor initial choices in urban landscape design (by perhaps the same city planners), as well as due to a culture-wide disconnect with Nature and her bountiful gifts. For thousands of years, in their native region those same acorns would have been respected and coveted as a food source. This urban tragedy was not an isolated incident, urban deforestation such as this occurs commonly in public lands and private lands, not just in wild natural areas. Trees like most other species, have become expendable and disposable if they are in our way or not doing what we’d like them to. But a tree is not civilized, nor will it ever be-even when shaped as topiary. it will rebel. wildness is the true nature of trees, and that is what we instinctively love about them. 

In the urban landscape,where the botanical realm is forced to conform to imposed restrictions , even an untrained eye can see the inherent desire for freedom in tamed trees who are limbed up tidily, pruned like man icured lollipops, or topped in careless butchery, surrendering in compassion with electrical power lines. Even an uneducated eye can discern what looks unnatural, and we feel empathy and compassion for such an unhealthy looking tree.2 Call this intuition, conscious awareness, spiritual attunement, or simply common sense. We are able to recognize a tree’s true character and sense who it could be if it lived under optimal conditions, free of pollutant and surrounded by its wild ecological community-no denied its true identity. Like people, trees need neighbours . But in most urban and landscaped situations they are missing the other trees, plants, mycorrhizal fungi, soil organisms, insects, birds, and mammals that make up a full ecosystem trees depend upon. A tree is not just a tree; it is a complex living system, responding to its community. Nothing lives in isolation. 

Many species of California oak trees (Quercus sp),for example, can be a host for 300 distinct organisms that either call the tree home or rely on it as an important place to visit daily or seasonally. These relationships determine a organisms’ identity; each one’s existence depends upon the other, and such is the web of life. So where does a tree end and an insect, animal, plant, fungus, bacteria, or even water or land itself begin? Where does a hollow cavity in trunk end and an owl’s home begin? Where does a tree bark end and epiphytic moss or lichen begin? is there distinct border between a tree and the wind, sunlight and water it interacts with? Where is the line between tree’s root hair, the mycorrhizal fungi, and the myceliur network that assists the tree’s cycling of nutrients depend.   

Trees are one of the most vital ecological parts of our globally interconnected living system. They are our partners on this planet, shaping climate, regulating weather and the hydrologic cycle, producing oxygen, and sequestering carbon dioxide. They absorb atmospheric pollutants, prevent soil erosion, fix nitrogen, cycle nutrients, and provide habitat for countless organisms above and below ground. Trees have been on the planet for 360 million years, long before we have. With the exception of some cultures whose harsh ecosystems are treeless, humans have always relied on trees directly for subsistence and existence. Trees made human cultures possible, granting us food, shelter, wind breaks, wood, fiber, fuel, fertilizer, and countless other physical and cultural gifts. Wherever there were people and trees, there was traditional knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, based on generations of acute observation and intentional interaction. Where does a tree end and human culture begin? 

Wherever the oak tree was a dominant species, acorns were the staple food for many cultures worldwide that developed agroforestry systems, before and even after the wide-scale production of agricultural grains. For thousands of years, native Californians gathered acorns, tending to more than a dozen species of oak trees, as well as other trees and plants. Acorns were a principle food source, sustaining ¾ of all native Californians by providing nutrition and calories (up to 45% of their daily diet). In some regions, a family could harvest, store, and eat up to 500 pounds of acorns a year! They used management techniques such as low, slow-burning, controlled fire to keep away diseases and damaging insects, to prohibit catastrophic fires, and to add nutrients to the soil. They also managed oak trees by pruning, propagating, and knocking on tree limbs.4 They sung songs and did ceremonies for the oaks to maintain their relationship. They were nourished both physically and culturally by their intimate relationships with these trees.5 

What happened to all these acorn-eating balanocultures6? each some exceptions, the processing of nutrient- and carbohydrate-rich acorn food has become a lost art. Some Practitioners and researchers of traditional ecological knowledge believe that the rampant spread of disease in some species of oaks and other acorn-producing trees7 is due to not only to the rippling effects of global climate change and environmental unbalance, but also stems from this loss of intimate interaction-a cultural reverence and reciprocal dependence. I suspect this is true as well for many other tree and plant species that are no longer being utilized and appreciated as they were traditionally. In the ethnobotanical co-evolution of plants and people, the phase of development in which a cultivated crop is no longer tended and goes feral is called “cultural abandonment.”8  

“When people don’t use plants they get scarce. You must use them so that they come up again. All plants are like that, If they’re not gathered from, or talked to, or cared about, they’ll die.”9 

Today, we don’t think much about oak woodlands being orchards, nor do we think of forests, grasslands, wetlands, desert, or coastal, riparian, or tundra ecosystems as farms that require horticultural experts to grow and harvest crops, or to be managed for the future. Historically, everywhere people lived, the wild was tended and cared for because it was considered to be home, and other species were part of the community. Of course, the wild is still our home, and the biodiversity of these communities are worth preserving and reviving. In fact, at this point in the ecological crisis, the wild is depending upon us to lend a hand-to know when to listen, when to step back and get out of the way. 

So as the resurgence of traditional ecological knowledge continues parallel to the science of ecological restoration, and as the industrial-chemical, fossil fuel-dependent systems of agriculture, food production, and transportation continue to collapse, it is obvious that the science of environmental conservation includes reviving traditional cultural skills-what Dennis Martinez calls “eco-cultural restoration.” The resilience of forests, woodlands, and everywhere else depends on this relationship. 

Tree literacy is crucial for understanding this resilience, and arboriculture is the modern science of caring for individual trees, from birth to death.10 Arborists are the trees caretakers, or “doctors,” and an effective arborist will have a good understanding of the sciences of botany, ecology, and biology, as well as an affinity, instinctual curiousty, and deep respect for trees. The health of a tree is an indicator of the health of the entire ecosystem, and vice versa. Could we say the same about the health of the trees and the health of the human species?” 

A tree’s health is determined by both its expression in vigor (genetic capacity for resilience) and vitality (ability to grow, reproduce, and adapt to its surroundings). A tree could be high in vitality, but low in vigor and vice versa.12 Like us humans and most organisms, trees are affected by their environment. Trees react to biotic (“living”) stresses- invasions from animals, insects, fungi, and microscopic diseases, as well as compact and unfertile soils. They are also affected by abiotic (“non-living”) environmental factors, such as water, lightning, chemicals (natural and manufactured), salts, elements, gases, minerals, acid rain, erosion, geologic forces such as seismic activity, as well as altitude, gravity, wind, temperature, and, of course, sunlight. We’ve all seen a shaded plant or tree reach for the light (heliotropism), but did you know that trees are susceptible to too much direct sunlight? Some species of trees, positioned directly next to cement or asphalt(which reflect excessive heat and light) can sunbum, resulting in bark chipping off, creating a vector for disease. Keep a look out for these casualties on the sides of sidewalks, streets, or parking lots. 

Many human activities and products affect trees, including concrete, underground pipes, and jackhammers.  Well-in-tentioned but inherently poor pruning and trimming, bracing filling of cavities or simple nail punctures all place stress on trees’ cellular structure.  If a tree is vigorous enough, the conditions favourable and the damage not too radical, it will survive.  However, many times it will not. Vigor cannot be increased without genetic manipulation, but vitality can be improved by cultural practices such as fertilization, soil aeration, watering, and supporting a healthy surrounding ecosystem. 

Trees respond unfavourably to being grown in containers, and many such trees are doomed.  Root-bound trees are found all too often in even the best-intentioned nurseries.  Trees in bondage will rarely grow normal root systems that are able to absorb water, nutrients, and oxygen (yes, trees need oxygen, too).  Girdling often occurs as contorted roots encircle the trunk and strangle the tree.  A young tree may be planted like this, and a few years later simply fall over or die prematurely. Indeed, urban street trees are notorious for having low average lifespans and high mortality rates due to poor planting, poor environments, and poor management. The average lifespan of a tree in an urban environment, with soil that is compacted or stressed from lack of water and nutrients has, sadly, been estimated at between a mere seven and fifteen years(depending upon the study and the tree).13 Keep a look out for these sad-looking characters when you search to park your car under the shade of an unhealthy canopy. Can you read a tree’s vitality by observing it or touching it? How about with simple intuition?  

 Suburban trees fare a bit better during somewhat more favourable conditions. In many cases the same urban trees were planted in optimal suburban conditions and managed properly, they would have a much longer life expectancy of 60-200 years14, depending on the species. Many of the trees along roads and sidewalks, in parks and yards-doing their job of sucking up carbon dioxide, beautifying the landscape, providing habitat, and offering temperature regulation-are sentenced to a shortened lifespan and will have to be replaced some expense, only to be possibly  again later. To avoid this tragic waste of trees from biotic, abiotic, or caretaking stresses, we need not only better urban design (such as permeable pavement), but we also need a greater knowledge and understanding of tree’s biology. 

We can start by learning the names of our botanical friends, as well as whether they are native or exotic to our region and whether they are native or exotic to our region and whether they are endangered and by what. This can help us feel a bit more confident in the eco-literacy of our place. For a place is simply a community of beings (biotic and abiotic) working together as a system. Suddenly being in the natural world becomes a little less lonely and a bit of their story. We don’t all need to become arborists, but it would help if we all had some simple knowledge and tactile experience with trees in order to understand and care for them, whether on our own properties or in our communities. In fact, we know a lot more now about trees than we did even a generation ago, and there is always more to discover. 

The late, great Alex Shigo was the father of modern arboriculture. Trained as a plant pathologist , he was also a conservationist with an unprecedented breadth and depth of scientific exploration. He brought professionalism and integrity to the arboricultural field, as well as attention to trees as living beings who command respect. with his passion for promoting a true understanding of tree biology. Shigo catapulted tree care out of the Dark Ages, ending misguided practices such as filling a tree cavity with cement or bricks, or painting a branch’s stub cut with tar. He proved that many such old-school practices promoted decay and even hastened a tree’s death. The simple lack of knowledge and forethought had created a culture of ignorance and fostered a disregard for the complexity of trees as biological beings. Shigo noted that if there is a tree problem near a home, or anyplace where there are many people, over 90% of the time the cause of the tree problem will be the people and their activities.15 

Shigo also taught that trees have dignity. “Plan before you plant” is one well-known “Shigoism”. Trees should not be planted where they won’t have room to grow, only to be mutilated with bad “pruning”, topped or chopped down later because they are overcrowded or in an inconvenient place. Take a ride down any street lined with electrical lines and trees, and you’ll observe “necessary tree trimming” that often looks and feels like butchery. That’s because many people, even trained tree workers, have not been educated properly, nor are they sensitive to the long-term health of an individual organism or its role in its ecosystem. 

Perhaps the most radical aspect of Shigo’s work was his emphatic teaching that, to be more effective, arborists need to understand tree biology, to get to know trees intimately—to “Touch Trees”, a slogan that became his trademark.  For Shigo, an arborists’s knowing touch was equivalent to the mastery of a well-experienced surgeon.  Using a chainsaw, Shigo examined the interiors of thousands of trees, both decaying and healthy, to undersand their intelligence in self-maintenance by compartmentalizing their own wounds in four ways to stop the spread of disease.  Discovering how a tree worked to prevent its own death gave Shigo the understanding of how humans could unintentionally cause it, and thus how to prevent it.  He was not unlike Leonardo da Vinci, a radical artist and scientist in his time, who dissected the human body and other once-living things, to comprehend his rendered subjects more intimately and make his beautiful art more realistically accurate.  Shigo believed that a good arborist combines science (knowledge) with art (skill) and common sense. 

Alex shigo cared deeply about trees and about people. He encouraged  arborists to care for their patients by knowing them as individuals rather than making assumptions about a tree’s health from a distance. His primary research led to new standards in tree care practice, changed the consciousness of arborists and foresters, and earned him great respect. He wrote over 270 publications and lectured with a daring, outspoken, heartfelt candor. With his chainsaw in hand, Shigo was also a tree-lover and tree-hugger at his core. He created a life of intimacy with trees. Shigo is my hero, for he said what other scientists never dared to say.”You have to touch a tree and feel it,”Sexy!