Why Trees Matter

If you turn your head to the side and squint, ash tree bark kind of looks like ocean waves at sunset.

On Friday, the city cut down the healthy 50 year old ash tree outside my bedroom window. The reasons cited: streetlight and minor pavement damage. I’m no Julia Butterfly Hill, but when the notice first went up, I complained to the proper authorities, who assured me that the site would be re-evaluated. That was the last I heard when the men with the saws came. For six hours, the  roar of the chainsaw ground through my bones. All day, I felt cold, queasy, and thoroughly ashamed at my species. What  kind of society values a streetlight and concrete over a beautiful, mature, living tree?

Part of it was the timing. I’m currently reading The Man Who Planted Trees by Jim Robbins, which is about David Milarch‘s quest to preserve and clone the trees most likely to survive in an inhospitable future.  I had just read this stunning figure: as of 2010, about 8 million acres of lodgepole and ponderosa pine in the US and 43 million acres in Canada have been killed by bark beetles. I can’t even imagine what 51 million acres looks like. Milder temperatures caused by climate change have extended the destructive beetles’ season from two weeks to six months, broadened their range, and increased their victims from mature trees only to saplings. There’s even some evidence that pine beetles are starting to attack other tree species. And warmer weather often means dryer conditions, which stress already vulnerable trees. The bottom line? 6.3 measly degrees is going to make a huge difference for trees. How much, we don’t really know — there’s an overwhelming lack of information when it comes to tree research.

Even if we stopped logging right now (78% of our ancient forests around the world have already been cut down), our trees would still be in trouble from climate change. As the author says, “The only thing harder on trees than beetles, it seems, is people.” Ouch.

If you consider yourself a tree person or even someone moderately invested in the future of humanity and this planet, you should be deeply concerned about a future with fewer or no trees. Trees matter. I’ve come up with an idiosyncratic and incomplete list of why. (Many are taken from Robbins’s book, which I recommend.)

  1. Trees have a net cooling effect in city as well as forest settings. According to the USDA, “the net cooling effect of a young, healthy tree is equivalent to ten room-sized air conditioners operating 20 hours a day.” Unfortunately, warmer conditions under climate change kill trees, and losing trees leads to warmer conditions, and there you have it — a positive feedback loop and a perfect recipe for climate destabilization.
  2. Massive flooding in Thailand, China, and Pakistan has been partially linked to deforestation.  Trees ameliorate flooding, absorbing and slowing waterflow, protecting river banks against erosion and run-off, and replenishing water tables. Clear cutting these natural barriers aggravates flooding.
  3. Many trees are considered keystone or umbrella species that an ecosystem would collapse without. Protecting, say my beautiful coast redwoods, protects a vast array of animals and plants that redwoods support.
  4. Trees absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. Duh. According to the USDA and the Arbor Day Foundation, “an acre of forest absorbs 6 tons of carbon dioxide and puts out four tons of oxygen. This is enough to meet the annual needs of 18 people.” I wonder what our current forest / human ratio is?
  5. Trees can lower energy bills. Plant them strategically to produce shade and reduce wind. According to Dr. McPherson of the Center for Urban Research, planting one tree on the west side of your house will yield about 12% energy savings in 15 years. (Yes, it takes a while. But as the saying goes, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.)
  6. Trees scrub our world clean of toxic substances. They can clean up toxic waste better and cheaper than conventional cleanup. It’s called phytoremediation. The roots absorb and break down substances like ammonium, nitrogen, pesticides, and nitrogen run-off from farms that cause dead zones. They can even deal with things conventional methods can’t extract, like pharmaceuticals and endocrine disruptors. One willow can process 15 gallons of waste a day.
  7. Seeing trees makes humans less crazy. Going for a walk in the woods helps kids with ADD concentrate and increases anti-cancer proteins in cells. Proximity to green space reduces the rate of anxiety disorders. Even having a home view of trees cuts down on aggressive conflicts with family members. How do they do it? One theory is that tree gives off a chemical cocktail as an aerosol.
  8. Civilizations that cut down all their trees collapse. This is Jared Diamond’s theory, not mine, but he provides so much proof in Collapse that it’s hard to disagree with his central thesis that misusing our natural resources predictably comes around to bite us in the ass. Money is not edible. To paraphrase Diamond, “being rich just means being the last to starve.”

Trees plainly deserve more attention in the green conversation than they’ve been getting — more research money and energy, too. When I read my Twitter feed and come across yet more articles on miniscule impacts to human health (chemical x is linked to cancer / asthma / infertility / whatever human ailment), I just want to shout, “Hey! Other species besides humans matter!” And then I grumble in my head about why we’re wasting so much energy and money investigating infertility when, at 7 billion people + and rising, infertility is clearly not a major problem humans are facing. But I digress.

While writing this entry, I’ve decided that my next move is to harangue the city arborist again.  If the city budget won’t stretch to replace my cherished street tree, I’ll pay for it myself. It’ll be worth it, emotionally as well as ecologically.

When’s the last time you thought about trees? Did I miss anything major on my list of why we should give a damn about them? (Maybe just the fact that they’re beautiful and fascinating and we don’t really know that much about them?)

Photo credit: Redwood Canopy by Tolomea

36 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Gayle on 04/02/2012 at 01:35

    Thank you for posting this. A great read and very thought provoking.


  2. Great post. But also, I just wanted to say that when I first opened your email and glanced at the photo of the ash out of the corner of my eye, I DID think it was ocean waves at first! I love trees. I need to spend more time with them instead of sitting at the computer all day.


    • Hi Beth,

      I originally took the photo because I thought the pattern was cool. When I uploaded it to my computer, I was surprised that it looked so abstract. I guess I also need to spend more time with trees instead of my computer! Went out for a long walk in the woods yesterday and came back feeling on top of the world.


  3. When trees come into conflict with urban hardscape infrastructure, trees usually lose. Unfortunately, few people in authority truly realize the true importance of trees as green infrastructure:

    Biodiversity is the Living Foundation for Sustainable Development

    …Of all life forms, plants are the primary source of energy in the biosphere and are, therefore, the basis of all life on land and in water. Forest biodiversity may be the richest of all terrestrial systems. Together, tropical, temperate and boreal forests offer diverse sets of habitats for plants, animals and microorganisms, holding the vast majority of the world’s terrestrial species. To destroy such an essential resource appears to be madness, yet in meeting important human needs, forest trees have been plundered on a global scale. The retention and management of plant diversity is urgently needed in order to build “designer ecosystems” that will replicate the natural systems that have evolved over 4 billion years on this planet and that create the very conditions for life to exist. Given that biodiversity also includes genetic differences within each species, it is critically important that genetics from endangered and superior specimen old growth trees be preserved now, while these unique organisms are still alive.

    At Champion Tree Project International, protection, propagation, and planting of clonal materials from the largest and oldest trees in the world are our goals.

    Sustainable Land Development Initiative
    Building a Sustainable Community Forest


    • Hi Terry,

      Humans are notoriously short sighted in our treatment of natural resources. The more I learn about the complexity of ecosystems, the more appalled I am at how we blunder in and make sweeping changes without understanding what we’re doing or how it will affect anything. I read an article the other day in which Thich Nhat Hanh, who urged us to consider that humans may not even be here in 100 years, and frankly, I almost feel relieved.


      • I understand your concern. I think that hope on this issue is the single most important feature of the book “The Man Who Planted Trees” that you feature here in your post. My friend and CTP partner David Milarch is living proof of the potential of one man’s efforts to make a positive difference for future generations. As David likes to say, “I am working for my grandchildren”.

        Here’s link to a recent TEDX video so you can see David’s personal message of hope – http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/TEDxNASASiliconValley-David-Mil


        • Hi Terry,

          I do find David’s quest inspiring and hopeful. (I think it’s awesome that you know him — he sounds like quite a character in the book!) But a big part of the impact The Man Who Planted Trees had on me was in learning how much danger our trees (not even exotic rainforests, but right here at home) could be in, even if we stopped cutting them down. I really don’t think that message gets around much, even in the green community. I guess what I want to see is an environmentalism movement less specifically anthropocentric — one in which we realize that the wellbeing of the rest of the world is also *our* wellbeing.


          • Jennifer,

            I respect your opinion and you are certainly entitled to it, especially considering that this is your blog after all. However, speaking as a person who has been involved in environmental tree movements that are NOT anthropocentric for my whole career, I can attest to the simple fact that they haven’t worked. This is a problem that more science and technology can’t solve. Book author Jim Robbins is also a friend and he has done is masterful job of explaining the scientific problems related to trees, however, as he would agree, he is not the first author to tell this tale of catastrophic danger. What Jim and I both have witnessed is the charismatic power of big (Champion) trees when utilized by a wise (but imperfect) human like David Milarch to create a lesson for all humanity. The story simply doesn’t resonate with most people unless there is a human element and big tree “wow” factors involved. Google “Champion Trees” “David Milarch” and you will see what I mean. There is not another environmental organization on the planet that can match the publicity generated by this combination.

            Now you know why I value this as an essential public outreach tool for overall sustainable development. Thanks to you for spreading the word…

            Sustainable Land Development Initiative
            Building a Sustainable Future Requires More Than Science

          • Hi Terry,

            My comment was more wishful thinking than PR campaign. I recognize that humans, as a species, are never going to be primarily motivated by rational reasons to do the right thing. I had a discussion about giant pandas with another blog friend the other day, who asked if they were worth the conservation effort and money. I said yes — because we need good stories, charismatic characters, and public interest so we can also continue to save less sexy but even more important species.

            However…yep, I’m still wistful, still would like people to understand that what’s good for the planet is ultimately good for humans and to let that be a guiding principle in our actions.

  4. Posted by seitei on 04/02/2012 at 08:24

    great post, as usual.

    re: #7: have you ever heard of Ecopsychology? The field tries to shed some light on the important emotional connection between man and the “natural environment.” Its literature may not contain much talk of neurotransmitters and chemical compositions, but you might find Theodore Roszak’s book “Ecopsychology” a thought-provoking read.


    • Hi Seitei,

      Thanks for the recommendation. I didn’t realize it was a field, although I’m intrigued by both the theory (which my personal experience certainly agrees with) as well as the fact that the human benefits of trees can be measured on a scientific level.


  5. I am very sad to read this. I live in Dallas, Texas where we are not known for our huge trees, and whenever I see them cut any existing tall trees down, only to make more parking lots (and to plant smaller trees anyway) just sickens me. Even the previous owners of our home cut down the trees right before we bought it. We put up three trees on Arbor Day a few years back, and it’s taking forever for them to grow. It gets terribly hot during the summer, and it makes it difficult for us to let the kids go outside and play when they have no shade to keep them cool. Whenever the kids see trees being torn down on the streets, they get very sad and upset. I feel for them, but at the same time, I am glad they are starting to understand the importance of keeping trees around. Thanks for sharing your posts. I always love reading them.


    • Hi Jordyn,

      I love that you actually planted trees on Arbor Day. I hope they’ll grow up tall and strong and provide some shade and clean air for you and your kids. Sounds like they’re already growing up to be people who respect trees. 🙂 My mother was a plant enthusiast, and I just learned that my grandmother has a degree in botany (who knew?!), so it definitely passes down!


  6. I’ll help you plant the new tree. *hugs*


    • I’m so grateful to have you as a friend! Let me work things out with the city (you have to go through approved tree lists and probably nurseries) and we’ll make a day of it.


  7. Posted by David Milarch on 04/03/2012 at 07:25

    Our ancient forest friends need all of our help. All of us everywhere. It is a little known fact that 97% of the most iconic trees in the world the Coast Redwoods have been cut down. Our children and our grandchildren to come will inherit only 3% of the tallest living beings on earth. Isnt it time we all do something about that. 98% of the old growth forest is gone now too. Its time to rebuild our old growth forests. Isnt it?

    – David Milarch
    “The Man Who Planted Trees”


    • Hi David,

      Thanks for stopping by! Absolutely. I grew up around redwoods and find contemplating a world without them to be incredibly depressing. Planting trees is something we can all do. Can I help in some way with the Champion Tree Project? And would you like to guest blog about your progress?


  8. Startling to say the least to hear about the impact of bark beetles due to climate change. It’s all so interconnected. I’m always amazed by the intelligence of your articles. You would think “we are all going to die” because we are killing trees might wake some people up. Back to Fern Gully.


    • Hi Sandra,

      I was startled and dismayed, too. How did losing millions of acres of trees fly under my radar?? We tend to hear more about how humans are directly killing forests (illegal logging of rainforests, etc.), but not about how climate change is going to affect them. I think we are heading for some very interesting times.

      Kevin was just telling me about a short story in which water is in such short supply on this planet that people are cutting down all the trees to keep them from absorbing any. Of course, cutting down trees actually makes the climate hotter, causing more evaporation, so they’re really shooting themselves in the foot from a longer term survival aspect. I see this as a metaphor for many of our actions now, especially to save the economy at the cost of the environment.


  9. Posted by onemanswonder on 04/04/2012 at 13:21

    Hey Jennifer — Bravo! Great reasons for what I think most of us know in our hearts and souls. In addition to your persuasive list, I’d add the pure aesthetic reason we need healthy trees.
    Many years ago, my wife and I pulled up to the curb in front of our house one summer night, and just couldn’t bring ourselves to go in the house. It was just too pleasant there with windows and sun roof open, gentle breeze wafting through and music playing.
    As we look back on that magical hour plus, we realize that much of the joy had to do with being wrapped in the space formed by the canopy of the big, classic- fountain- shaped American under which we’d parked.
    Little did we know that that splendid tree was already infected with Dutch elm disease. Less than a month later, we came home from work to find the tree — and the shady, sheltering space it defined — gone.
    Ever since, we’ve been more aware of the way trees not only appeal to us in their own right, but of the wonderful way they shape one’s experience of everything under and around them.


    • Hi Jeff,

      You’re right, I didn’t include the aesthetic element — and whatever it’s called when I spend time around trees and feel my stress draining away and my heart lifting. (Apparently this effect may be due to an aerosol of chemicals that trees pump into the air, but whatever it is, it’s important.) For me, the appreciation of trees was aesthetic from the start. Walk in my door and the first thing you see is a painting of a tree; come further in, and there are tree-motif things all over the place. I think a tree is the perfect example of form and function. They move me on a level beyond the quantifiable and scientific. That’s probably true for many people.

      I’m so sorry you lost your tree to Dutch Elm disease. I just read an article about how scientists have discovered some elms with disease-resistant genes that they are cloning. I hope we’ll be able to repopulate not only our elms but to protect as many of our other trees against climate change as possible.


  10. Posted by Andrea on 04/04/2012 at 18:25

    Hmph, well if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that humans know how to mess with nature. Buying goods from overseas that are shipped over in crates made of wood from overseas has introduced all sorts of insects that our local trees can’t fight off. So our greed for cheap goods has inadvertently caused a great number of trees to die. But that’s not enough, so we cut them down because their roots create cracks in the sidewalk. Wow. Am I the only one ashamed to be human right now?

    I have another item to add to your list: in urban areas, tree-lined streets have more foot traffic and thus a healthier local economy. So owners of stores should have a vested interest in caring for the trees outside of their door!


    • Hi Andrea,

      Oh, I’m with you on the feeling guilt and shame part. I’d love to not be partially responsible for this whole mess, to be a disbelieving third party observer to the catastrophe. But of course, it’s my problem, too, and maybe the guilt and shame make up a part of my motivation to do something about it.

      Trees definitely increase property value! Although I think there are better reasons than financial ones to take care of our existing trees and plant new ones, some reasons will click better for some people than others, and we need everyone we can on board.


  11. I really enjoyed this post! (: Trees are beautiful lifeforms. I know this probably sounds really airy-fairy, but when I’m upset or stressed, if I see a near-by tree I often go and touch it’s trunk and sit with it until I feel better… There’s something about them that I find so calming, grounding and strengthening…

    I agree more attention and value needs to be placed on them. I’m actually a lot more worried about deforestation than I am about climate change. It’s the issue I feel most concerned about to tell the truth.. Maybe because it’s something where the corner really hasn’t been turned yet..

    I hope your council pay attention to you about your ash tree. If you are prepared to pay for it, perhaps you could tell them this in writing and even write a letter to your local paper? I’m not saying this would make them change their policies necessarily but at least people would know that at least some of the residents actually care about these things!!


  12. I think it is too easy to brush off the importance of trees and use the derogatory form of treehugger when talking about anything to make the world a little bit better. There is little regard for what trees do for us because most of us never see it. We think of the tree in our yard that is, most often, purely for decoration or a bit of shade.

    I would love to see more people start paying attention to what trees need before planting them in urban and suburban areas so we can avoid this kind of short-sightedness.


  13. […] my post on trees, David Milarch of the Champion Tree Project stopped by and we had a nice chat by email. He’s […]


  14. […] Why Trees Matter « It’s Not Easy To Be Green. Share this:TwitterFacebookPinterestLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in awareness, Check it out! and tagged awareness by compostues. Bookmark the permalink. […]


  15. […] after much haranguing with my condo association, to planting a new tree outside my window where the last one was removed. Planting a tree is a small first step away from the armchair. Getting myself fully scientifically […]


  16. Posted by seitei on 10/14/2012 at 10:55

    posting this here seemed appropriate:


    two doves have settled in my attic.
    lamenting the loss of their tree,
    there is persistent indignant cooing
    about territorial rights and furniture arrangements.

    either that, or the neighbors downstairs
    are having sex on a bed w/ rusty springs.
    one is a triathlete.
    the other is wearing a gas mask.


  17. […] after much haranguing with my condo association, to planting a new tree outside my window where the last one was removed. Planting a tree is a small first step away from the armchair. Getting myself fully scientifically […]


  18. […] after much haranguing with my condo association, to planting a new tree outside my window where the last one was removed. Planting a tree is a small first step away from the armchair. Getting myself fully scientifically […]


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