Trees


© Rev Rex A E Hunt, MSc(Hons)
Spirit of Life Unitarian Fellowship
Kirribilli NSW


OF OLD TREES AND MOMENTS OF WONDER…

“The planting of a tree, especially one of the long-living hardwood trees,
is a gift which you can make to posterity at almost no cost and with almost no trouble,
and if the tree takes root it will far outlive the visible effect
of any of your other actions, good or evil”
(George Orwell)


You don’t have to go into the city to the Australian Museum
—be it the fifth oldest natural history museum in the world—
to see an impressive work of art.
        Just go outside and look at the trees.

Nature’s magnificent living sculptures are in our house gardens,
on nature strips, and in the parks and bush reserves.
        But they are so often easily overlooked.

Stand under a big old tree and look up.
The tallest trees in Australia are all eucalypts, of which there are more than 700 species.
While Australia’s oldest tree is a clonal male (
Lagarostrobos franklinii) Huon Pine, 
        in Tasmania that is 10,500+ years old,
        with individual stems 1,000 to 2,000 years old.

Can you see the passing of time in its gnarled trunk?
The network of bugs and insects burrowing into bark and foraging in leaves?
Wildlife taking refuge in nests and leaf-lined hollows?
        Microscopic creatures, fungi, and bacteria
        all in a feeding frenzy helping to nourish it with nitrogen?

Big old tress have always fascinated me.
Right from the time as a young boy I learnt to climb
        some of their more juvenile and smaller offspring on our annual camping adventures
        to The Grampians (Gariwerd) in country Victoria.

Not to mention conquering dad’s apricot tree,
and its fruit, down at our wood-heap!

While a trip to the Victorian Dandenongs—and Sherbroke Forest—was always a special treat
because the towering mountain ashes could be seen.
        We were always warned: Think twice before you enter a forest of ash.
        ‘Widow makers’ they were called—sky-scraping, shallow-rooted, loose-limbed gum trees.

During a bush fire the mountain ash won’t burn easily.
Its their crown which can be explosive!
        Ironically, it is only by means of such a violent crown fire
        that a new generation of mountain ash can germinate.

Now, big old trees are disappearing—fast.
And their disappearance is threatening several endangered species
        such as the South Eastern Red-tailed Black cockatoo.

Yet our very existence is rooted in the fundamental processes
of trees and cockatoos and the universe itself.

As recent as about 18 months ago, Sustainable Timber Tasmania started to register
and map the top 200 giant trees in that State.
        And they found the second tallest tree in the southern hemisphere
        was just 20 metres from the edge of a road,
                and they didn’t even know it was there.
                                         No sign. No track in. It was just there!

Part of the purpose behind the tree register was to assist the tourist industry,
so long as such tourist activity was managed.
        “We want to get everyone out looking at these trees and partaking in nature…”

One psychology researcher says he is concerned that the growing interest
in more contact with nature generally, and with trees specifically,
relies too much on only experiencing it visually.
“[Visual contact] is important, but an impoverished view of what it means to interact with the natural world. We need to deepen the forms of interaction with nature and make it more immersive.”

While another has claimed:
“We have entered the urban century, with two-thirds of humanity projected to be living in cities by 2050… There is an awakening underway today to many of the values of nature and the risks and costs of its loss… This new work can help inform investments in livability and sustainability of the world’s cities.” (Quoted in Robbins 2020)

Size really matters with trees.
Tasmania is second only to California as being the global hotspot of giant hardwood trees.
        And a giant tree is a tree more than 85 metres (278 feet) tall or 280 cubic metres in volume.

It is claimed the annual net ecological benefit of planting a large species tree
is 92% greater than planting a small one.
“Until there is acceptance that large trees, taking decades to reach maturity, have significant value—a fact based on scientific evidence—we will continue to see spurious but convenient assertions that higher numbers of small replacement trees are adequate compensation to facilitate development.” (Quoted in Gagen 2021)

Sadly, Australia—including Tasmania—has an unhealthy tree-felling and pulping tradition.

oo0oo

As a species, trees have been in existence for around 370 million years.
Do you know… that trees can taste the air—and insect saliva?

When under attack from pests
some trees can identify different insects by their saliva.
        The trees release pheromones that warn other trees,
        and sometimes summon other insects that prey on the attacker

That trees help one another through a ‘wood-wide web’?
When you walk through the bush, there is a network beneath your feet.
        Parent trees nourish their saplings through roots,
                and with the help of symbiotic fungi,
                roots connect neighbouring trees to share nutrients and warnings about threats.

That trees are nothing but flirts?
The scents and blossoms of fruit trees and willows
        are billboards to draw attention to themselves and invite
        passing bees to sate themselves.

Sweet nectar is the reward the insects get in exchange
for the incidental dusting they receive while they visit.

Each is the natural world making its own rules
and its own intricate webs—ecosystems—of energy.

After all, trees are important to our lives in many ways.
The most obvious is their role in producing the oxygen we breathe
and sequestering carbon dioxide to help protect our atmosphere.
“Over the course of their lives.” writes German forester Peter Wohlleben, “[trees] store up to 22 tons of carbon dioxide in their trunks, branches, and root systems… The forest is really a gigantic carbon dioxide vacuum that constantly filters out and stores this component of the air.” (Wohlleben 2016: 93)

Put simply: every walk in the bush or through a park is not only good for us…
research suggests that being around trees is good for our mental and social well-being.
        It is like taking a shower in oxygen.
        But only by day.

Trees don’t photosynthesise at night,
so they’re not exhaling oxygen through their leaves then.

One of my surprises when checking some tree stories was to note
that in 1936 George Orwell, of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four fame,
lived in a cottage in Hertfordshire and planted a garden of
“five fruit trees, seven roses and two gooseberry bushes, all for 12 and sixpence.”

That any socialist, pragmatist, or practical person might plant fruit trees is not surprising.
But to plant a rose… that can mean so many other unexpected things! (Solnit 2021)

oo0oo

Trees are an invitation to think about time and to travel in it the way they do,
by standing still and reaching out and down.

Trees are part of our universal natural heritage.

Trees, especially giant trees, are also gems of wonder.

A sense of wonder is a form of courage,
because we all have tendencies to dismiss whatever is puzzling,
and to believe whatever is socially sanctioned, soothing, and acceptable.

In our encounters with the broader parts of nature—we are thoroughly nature—
we watch the world become new things in new ways.

When we hear that a friend has had an experience of wonder,
        we expect it to remain important to them.
We expect to see photos.
We expect to hear about ongoing reading and study and possible return visits.
“Wonder beckons… [it] refers to experiences that catalyse urgent, ongoing consideration. Life is lived in buzzing huddles. Generic, plain-vanilla cosmic space does not support life.” (Fleischman 2013: 110, 111, 311)

Wonder fosters life by encouraging fresh insight.

A favourite poet of mine is Mary Oliver.
        This is her poem called “When I Am Among the Trees”,
        a gentle reminder of our connection with these gentle giants among us.

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness,
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness,
and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
”and you too have come
into the world to do this,
to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

So sometime during this week, go outside and literally sit under a tree.
Go outside and realise that we’re surrounded by genius!

Look up and say, what is this tree doing that we need to do
in our industrial/technological/social media world to meet our needs?

Here’s a few clues:
• There are solar arrays. And they’re not flat on top of a roof, they’re in vertical arrays.
        They are tilting as the sun moves across the sky.
• It is defending itself against pests.
• It is pulling water hundreds of feet up.
• The roots are exchanging nutrients with the roots of the tree next door…

I invite you to both explore and enjoy the wonder and presence of trees.
Because as it has been suggested by both philosophers and poets
        the way in which we relate to the world as something sacred
        is by renewing our sense of wonder.

And who knows, perhaps on your next walk in a park or the bush
you will discover for yourself
wonders great and small!


Bibliography
Abbott, S. “Tasmania’s Top 200 Giant Trees Registered, Mapped and Open for business”. ABC News. ABC Northern Tasmania. 4 August 2020. (Accessed 12 December 2020)
Brack, C. & M. Brookhouse.
“Where the Old Things Are: Australia’s Most Ancient Trees”. The Conversation, ABC, 19 April 2017. (Accessed 3 September 2018)
Campbell, S-E. (ed)
The Face of the Earth. Natural Landscapes, Science, and Culture. Berkeley. University of California Press, 2011
Fleischman, P. R.
Wonder. When and Why the World Appears Radiant. Amherst. Small Batch Books, 2013
Gagen, M.
“Why Keeping One Mature Street Tree is far Better for Humans and Nature than Planting lots of new ones”. https://phys.org/news/2021-02-mature… Republished by The Conversation. 2 February 2021. (Accessed 9 February 2021)
Keen, S.
Apology for Wonder. New York. Harper & Row1969
Robbins, J.
“Ecopsychology: How Immersion in Nature Benefits your Health”. Yale Environment 360. 9 January 2020. (Accessed 17 January 2020)
Solnit, R.
“Every Time you Commit an Antisocial Act, Push an Acorn into the Ground”. On Orwell’s lessons from Nature. The Guardian. 16 October 2021 (Accessed 17 October 2021)
Suttie, J.
“Why Trees can Make you Happier”. Mind and Body. 26 April 2019. (Accessed 29 September 2019)
Wohlleben, P.
The Hidden Life of Trees. What they Feel, How they Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World. London. William Collins, 2016

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