By Liza Field
Bay Journal News Service
People feel better out under the trees.
So do most songbirds, owls, butterflies and brook trout. So do our creeks, soil microbes and water tables. Even a parking lot feels better—certainly to humans—under the blessed shade, heat relief and refreshing stir of a tree canopy on a July afternoon.
The whole world, in fact, gets such good vibes from trees that many researchers are recommending that we plant trees as an obvious low-tech solution to many of our world’s most baffling crises.
For one thing, trees generate rain. Through a remarkable transpiration process, their leaves return moisture to the atmosphere. One large oak has the potential to release 40,000 gallons of water per year. Trees also capture and conserve rainfall via their canopy, shade, microbe-rich humus layers and deep roots.
In fact, a forest in one region will often send free shipments of valuable rain far downwind to drier locations.
“The direct relevance of trees and forests for protecting and intensifying the hydrologic cycle … and the sharing of atmospheric moisture with downwind locations is beyond reasonable doubt,” says David Ellison, lead author of a recent study on this tree-rain link.
These findings throw sunlight on the strangely persistent droughts that have dehydrated vast swaths of Africa, Asia, Mexico and South America in recent years. Upwind, deforestation has left dried-up weather patterns in its wake.
The Global Innovation Lab for Climate Finance has thus recommended the restoration of Latin American “cloud forests”—the misty high canopies that once covered the region’s mountains.
As a 2015 study from the European Environmental Agency points out, such forests also store and retain precipitation longer than denuded areas, releasing it through dry periods to thirsty lowlands.
These findings should catch notice in the United States, where drier weather patterns are taking a toll on agriculture, water tables and cities, and where previously protected federal lands have been targeted for aggressive logging.
But since humans rarely “miss the water till the well runs dry,” a number of other tree benefits might stir Americans to find shovels and plug some native saplings into the ground this spring.
Trees induce tranquility. Their beauty, bird chorale music, even the phytoncide vapors they exude, all induce feel-good brain chemicals in humans.
Tree-lined neighborhoods and housing projects also experience remarkably lower violence rates than those lacking trees. Researchers say that trees appear to inspire trust, goodwill, even euphoria.
To glimpse this yourself, check out photos of the ethereal cherry trees blooming along the Potomac last month in DC— beneath them, human crowds from around the globe, myriad ethnicities and ages, faces lifted with delighted smiles for one another and the trees.
It’s hard, seeing so much goodwill, not to wonder if government leaders around a globe strained with conflict might not resolve things more amicably in meetings held outside under some trees.
“I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head.”
—William Butler Yeats
Trees benefit not only mental but physical health—increasing the oxygen count, shade and beauty that beckon people outdoors to exercise and meet neighbors and defrag from work. They make for cool places to live. And that cool is measurable.
“On average, it’s seven degrees warmer in New York City than it is just outside the city,” says David Haskell, tree devotee and biology professor at University of the South in Tennessee, “partly because of all these hard surfaces absorbing heat. But trees change the weather in a city. They have a significant cooling effect. They save a lot on air-conditioning.”
Meanwhile, these no-cost solar-powered air conditioners also clean smoggy air, filtering out tons of the particulate matter (e.g., soot) that is particularly deadly to human lungs.
These air freshening benefits led a report from the Nature Conservancy to conclude that urban tree programs could directly save thousands of human lives per year—both local and global.
Tree of Life
How many other species could be spared by re-canopied landscapes is impossible to estimate, but the loss of canopy and woodland habitat has been a leading cause of species extinction around the globe.
One native, mature tree constitutes a vertical, microcosmic world of climate, air, water, soil and myriad beneficial species.
That’s reason enough to plant aplenty, this spring month of Arbor Day, Earth Day, Easter and other occasions to raise the dead.
For tips on planting and tree-care, nursery sources, native species or forest advocacy, visit the websites of the Arbor Day Foundation, the National Wildlife Federation, the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition or your state’s forestry service.
Liza Field is a conservationist, tree-planter and ethics teacher in southwest Virginia.
Michael Higgins Plants a Mighty Redwood
President of Ireland Launches Largest Grove of Giant Redwoods Outside California
Birr Castle Demesne and Crann – ‘Trees for Ireland’ – are deeply honored that President of Ireland Michael D Higgins visited Birr to launch the ambitious plans to create, through public participation, the largest grove of giant redwoods outside of California, within the historic gardens of Birr Castle Demesne. Pupils from Gaelscoil na Laochra, Birr and Kildorrery National School, Cork who have been nurturing seedlings for the project also took part in the ceremony.
To date, almost 90 giant or coastal redwood trees are sponsored in the names of
Irish people living abroad as well as people here at home. Some trees have also been purchased in the names of loved ones gone before us.
In addition to paying for the planting and establishment costs, sponsorship, starting at €500, provides a trust fund for the care and maintenance of the forest grove. As well as a certificate of dedication, the names of the sponsors are inscribed in a book of honor at Birr Castle. Each sponsor also receives membership of Crann – ‘Trees for Ireland’ for one year. Trees have been purchased from the US, New Zealand, Canada, the UK, other countries in Europe and Ireland. Further details are available www.giantsgrove.ie.
Which Irish Counties Are Named After Trees
By Roslyn Blyn-LaDrew
All Irish place names have a fascinating story to tell, but three are of particular interest for this issue of the Irish Edition because they tell us something of the importance of trees to the ancient Celts.
In fact, Irish has a specific word for a sacred tree, “bile,’ pronounced “BILL-yuh.” While we may not know much about the specific names of pre-Christian Celtic gods and goddesses, we do know that they were worshipped in “oak groves.” That’s one reason why we don’t have the ruins of temples or other religious buildings standing today — oak groves from 2,000 years simply don’t survive the way stone structures do.
The word “bile” is completely different from the Irish words for “tree” (crann) and “sacred” (naomhtha), adding to its significance. Apparently it was important enough a concept to have a word of its own. There were various punishments for cutting down or harming sacred trees. The famous “Rag Tree” at Doon Well, a holy well near Kilmacrenan, Co. Donegal, shows a modern-day connection to the ancient belief in the sacredness of trees.
People still go there today to tie rags or other small objects to the tree; each object or rag represents a person’s prayer for an intercession or a cure from the holy water
Getting back to our county names (ainmneacha na gcontaetha), here are the three that are based on trees. We may never know exactly how old these names are or how they came to be used, but we can be sure that they represent the importance of trees in the days of “na Sean-Ghaeil.”
County Derry comes from Contae Dhoire: “Doire” means “oak grove”
County Kildare comes from Contae Chill Dara: “Cill Dara” means “(monastic) cell of the oak.” It is said that St. Brigid herself established the religious community here, under an oak tree, with areas within the community for monks and nuns, an unusual idea in her time.
County Mayo comes from Contae Mhaigh Eo [say: wee-oh]: Maigh Eo means “plain of yew trees.” Yew trees are known for their extreme longevity (400 to 600 years, sometimes more). Another remarkable feature is that the entire tree is toxic to humans except the flesh of the berry. According to Roman writings, the ancient Celts sometimes committed suicide by ingesting yew, rather than surrendering to their enemies. Because of this toxicity, yew also tends to kill other plants that try to grow near it, creating natural groves and open areas.
In every walk with nature, one
receives far more than he seeks
— John Muir
They are often found in churchyards and we may assume that many churches in both Ireland and Britain have been built on sites that held religious significance for the pre-Christian Celts, perhaps once surrounded by yews. Yew wood is also prized for bows, due to its springiness. We may not think of the landscape of modern-day Mayo as being covered with yews but we can imagine that our ancestors valued these once-abundant trees highly.
Perhaps from this we can reflect upon the role of trees in our own society and take greater steps to ensure the future of the iconic trees of the Philadelphia area, such as the William Penn “Charter Oaks,” the Dawn Redwood at Shofuso (the Japanese House in Fairmount Park), and our locally named “Franklinia,” cultivated at Philly’s own Bartram’s Garden.