No one wrote as eloquently about the influence of trees on human life as the late Professor Aubrey Manning, but I will try to put in words, however modest, my own gratitude and love for the healing powers of trees. There is also the recently discovered – in the last two decades – astonishing secret life of trees. It is important to write about these findings because our ignorance still allows us to cut down trees that made our streets cleaner, healthier and beautiful, cut down trees that are in our countryside but along railway lines, and even trees in our gardens to make space for cars, sheds and other ‘essentials’.
Meanwhile, there has been an unprecedented increase in cases of asthma, especially in children living in cities, and an increasing level of people experiencing mental problems. I realise that there are many complex reasons involved, but for those who live surrounded by the concrete jungle in many cities, it must be a sure road to depression, boredom and often crime. In one of my last posts, I quoted Dr Max Pemberton and the study in Michigan that connected drab views from prison windows with repeated offending of prisoners, as opposed to those inmates who were looking at trees and green bushes.
Surviving my turbulent childhood was all down to my living surrounded by trees of the mountain forest. The three-mile walk to school was down the mountain’s dry stream bed, that created a rough but much shorter passageway than the elegant serpentine road that spanned the mountain like an asphalted ribbon. My best friend, Eva, was as much fascinated by Greek Mythology stories as I was, and we would roam through our patch of dense woods ‘building’ temples: mine was to Selene, the goddess of the Moon, and hers to Diana, the huntress. We were never bored because to play in the sun-dappled, green density of the woodland, with the intoxicating scent of pine needles, soft moss under our bare feet and birds chirping overhead, was as close to paradise as any 10-year old child could get.
At the same time, I read all the books by the legendary naturalist Grey Owl. The story of saving two baby beavers and his life in the vast forests of Canada captivated people all over the world. He travelled the world, speaking even to the royals in England. His passionate message was simple: we must protect Earth’s environment, animals and forests in particular. Trees are Earth’s lungs and we need clean air, or we will destroy our future.
There is so much we are still learning about the secret life of trees. For a few years now, we have known about the acacia trees in Africa. When one tree’s leaves are being munched by passing giraffes, it releases a powerful tannin through its surface pores. The smell is carried downwind and the next acacia tree picks it up and automatically releases its own tannin in response to the message. One of the readers of my blog, Tim who lives in Africa, observed that giraffes will never feed in the direction of the wind because all the trees would exude the tannin. Instead, they will be browsing against the wind on unsuspecting acacias. It is a remarkable case of communication between the trees, and no doubt, there is more to be discovered.
Giraffa (camelopardalis tippelskirchi), Giraffe, Masai Mara National Reserve.
When Dame Judi Dench filmed a documentary about her beloved trees in the grounds of her six-acre garden, it was wonderful to hear the water travelling up the tree from its roots to the leaves, courtesy of a special listening device, and wonder at the technology. The fact, discovered not long ago, that older trees help and communicate with younger ones through a fungi network that connects their roots, is also mind-boggling. Her last comment: “I have always thought of my trees as part of my family and that there’s so much more to these magical beings than I realised. And now I know there is.”
There is also a growing realisation that being in daily contact with woodland helps people to recover from the daily stress of modern life: commuting, general overcrowding, pollution, and urban noise.
Our GPs are now prescribing organised walks through the woods for those needing to experience the healing power of trees. They are people with depression, anxiety, autism and even earlier stages of dementia. The courses are gaining in popularity, and not before time. Participants are taught the skills of working with wood (can you remember the intoxicating scent of fresh wood shavings?), surviving in the forest and observation skills – how many shades of green are there? It is quite moving to hear their tearful endorsements that without the woods they would be lost and without a will to live. Meeting with the wildlife of the woods, squirrels, and birds adds to the experience.
When the author and photographer of the book “In The Shadow Of Inspiration”, Julian Ashbourn travelled to Canada to write about Grey Owl’s life in the deep forests, it was his fascination with the beauty of trees, and the profound influence of the woodland, that inspired a poem he wrote and included in his book. I quote a part that reflects my love of trees too:
“We yearn for days in far-off lands,
With forests green unspoiled by man
Where creatures great and creatures small
Would sing their song in nature’s hall.
In days of old, we often spoke
Of chivalry and hearts of oak
But no human heart shall ever be
As pure and noble as a tree.”
For me, the greatest pleasure in May is to walk through the woods and admire the carpet of English bluebells that is stretching between the trees. And what can rival the magnificent beauty of magnolias and ornamental cherry trees? A feast for the eyes and soul. All of us should leave a legacy and plant a tree.
Last year’s Chelsea Flower Show was for the first time in history dedicated not to flowers but trees. The slogan – Planting trees could save the Earth – was evident in many show gardens. My favourite was designed by Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. It contained woodland, a bubbling stream, lots of pebbles, a willow den, secret pathways and huge ferns. Her children loved it. I admired her parenting skills when she showed baby Louis how interesting is a large pebble, its colour, and shape.
My own garden was created based on the same principles – masses of trees, climbing roses entwined into the trees, lots of wildlife, and an extra bonus of wonderful fruits at harvest time.
And the icing on the cake at harvest time:
In my post about the Duchy of Cornwall, I wrote about Prince Charles’s passionate belief in the importance of trees. He has already planted two hundred and fifty thousand trees and is planting more. The iconic, worldwide bestseller about the shepherd who was ‘The Man Who Planted Trees’ written by Jean Giono had one purpose; to make people love trees or more precisely, to make them love planting the trees: for who plants trees, grows happiness. Let’s join Prince Charles and get planting and grow happiness.