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March 19, 2018 | by  | in Environment Opinion | [ssba]

For the Love of Trees

I live in a small house in a leafy suburb. I’m lucky. After a few crap years in the concrete jungle it’s a breath of fresh air to be close to the bush. Even as I write this, there’s a pohutakawa that fills my bedroom with a brilliant vermilion blaze. If you look hard enough you see her star topped flakes undulating in the Wellington breeze.

The tree shades my desk at times and is perhaps responsible for my dampening flat. But I’m thankful for that tree, despite her audacity compared to a humble kawakawa or beech. To me, she’s a model of natural resilience and fortitude.

The other day, the neighbours cut down a grand old tree to let in more light. Others chop them down to make way for driveways. Councils have cut them down for new sleek subdivisions or liberation from emptying gutters and drains. The trees are falling. It’s the new chainsaw massacre.

Beyond felling at the human hand, trees are under biohazardous attack. Myrtle rust is causing manuka and pohutukawa  to break out in vicious yellow pustules of fungus. Kauri dieback is an incurable pathogen that affects the roots and will literally starve a tree to death.

I’m not sure I could overstate the benefit of a tree. In an age of certain climate change, trees are crucial for the absorption of carbon dioxide and reduction of the greenhouse effect. They shelter us from harsh UV rays; filter noise and air pollutants; prevent soil erosion; and provide a home for all kinds of creatures.

The trees standing staunch on the town belt also have a profound effect on our community.  Research conducted in Toronto has linked various social and physical benefits with exposure to urban trees.  Take a seat beneath the sprawling, viridescent canopy and you will experience a slower, calmer heartbeat. Your blood pressure will lower and your brain wave patterns will relax. Other thorns of mental illness are alleviated. If you’re physically sick, you’ll heal faster than your counterpart who shelters away from nature. Such research show that the roots of a healthy society are entangled in the roots of healthy trees.

But beyond their mere utility to us, trees are phenomenally complex creatures, whose mystery challenges that of neuroscience or quantum physics.

Although we cannot hear them, the trees are talking. Two decades ago, ecologist Suzanne Simard unearthed the existence biological pathways buried beneath the soil. The network is made of radiating tangles of mycelium — the vegetative threads of fungus. Along this network, trees pass messages to each other. Warning signals, pleas for assistance, and other unknown secrets are zipping throughout the forest at any given moment. In response to these messages, trees will come to the aid of others, transporting water, oxygen, and other nutrients to the needy tree. Big old trees in particular act as mothers of the forest, providing a central hub of message reception. Through this underground exchange system which resembles the internet, a forest will collectively manage its resources and work cooperatively for the health of the whole.

Researchers have recently administered anesthetic to plants. In particular, they’ve been doping pea plants which are an active, highly responsive plant. In humans and animals, a dosage of anesthetic would trigger the patient to become unconscious, slipping into a deep state of amnesia where our movement, responsiveness, and perception is switched off.

After being exposed to diethyl ether vapor, the curling tendrils of a pea plant immediately stopped moving. They were unresponsive to the stimulus of a trailing bug. As the drug wore off, they regained their normal functions, waking up. The anesthetic seemed to render them unconsciousness, which suggests that the plants were in fact conscious to begin with.

We must ask ourselves a fundamental question: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, what will become of us?  


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