Humans and Trees have much more in Common than What We Imagine. What can we Learn from Trees?
I recall my days as a Buddhist monk in Wat Chai Na (Monastery at the end of the Rice Paddies) outside Nakornsridhammaraj (the City of the King of the Dharma) during the early years of the 1970s.
In this monastery, we practised Insight Meditation (Vipassana) from 4 am to 10 pm daily. Monks resided in one half of the monastery and nuns on the other side of the large wooden, open framed Dharma hall for around 200 practitioners, ordained and householders. We spent our days, months and years, mostly in noble silence abiding among the Sangha of the Trees. We, the monks, sat and walked on a carpet of sand in the modest meditation area surrounded by around 80 huts.
One of the monks, Por Longbhut, aged in his early 70s, stood for three hours daily from noon to 3 pm under a tree. He barely moved any part of his body. I found him an inspiration. I adopted the same practice under a tree at the same time daily for between one to two years – except in the monsoon season.
The practice developed an extraordinary intimacy with trees – due to a physical proximity, a growing sense of natural empathy and deep spiritual realizations about the nature of contingency and inter-connectedness. On one of those days standing in the shade of the three, I understood why the Buddha realised enlightenment under a tree. I could not explain with my mind but the whole being knew that liberation/awakening/the natural world were as inseparable as wood and trees.
After his enlightenment on the resolution of the human condition, the Buddha spent seven weeks sitting, walking, standing and reclining close to the tree. He meditated and reflected on his realizations and the language he needed to communicate his realizations to householders, yogis, Brahmin priests, the rich and the powerful.
The Buddha was born under a tree and died under a tree. He spent decades as a wandering nomad living outdoors and teaching people in forests, as well as towns. Many indigenous communities, Buddhist monks, yogis, pilgrims, hikers, forest dwellers, hikers and city dwellers strolling in the park love the experience of witnessing trees as remarkable expressions of nature. Children love having a swing or rope hanging from the branch of a big tree. They regard a tree house as heaven. Youngsters love climbing trees and playing hide and seek among the trees.
We can find ourselves experiencing a real sense of wonder with trees. We might have a ‘favourite’ tree. I love a tree on the Dartington Estate, around 15 – 20 minutes on my bicycle from my home in Totnes, Devon, England. Reference to the land dates back to the 9th century. In the 14th century, workers built the magnificent Estate and gardens of Dartington with its splendid variety of beautiful trees and flowers.
In a corner of the Estate, a gnarled willow tree stands with girth of around eight metres just in front of the remaining tower of the parish church. It is believed the tree has stood their for between 1000 to 1500 years while the gravestones around the tree reveal the lives of those who died very young up to to those who reached their 80’s or longer. The tree speaks of an endurance amidst the vicissitudes of life and death.
Contact with the Trees and Reaching Out
In proximity with any tree, you can contact a tree using all the senses. You see the tree, hear it, smell it, can put your tongue on the bark, touch it, wrap you arms around the tree and sense its deep presence above and below the ground.
When you spend time with a tree, you need to stand still and upright like the tree itself to feel a depth of closeness with these giant plants. You feel your feet on the ground and the full length of your upright body to share what is in common with tree. You maximise your connection and intimacy with this tall, dignified construct of nature and with yourself. You get to know the heartwood of the tree. We need to know the heartwood of each other and ourselves.
Trees share much more in common with humans than what we imagine. We can think of them as social beings when they abide together in the forest or woods with countless other formations of the natural world – growing, dying and eventually disintegrating leading to further regrowth. The Sangha of Trees stands tall spreading out towards each other needing space for itself and gives space for the other trees.
As much as possible, trees display a certain measure of respect for each other through keeping the tips of its branches, if possible, a short distance away from the tips of the branches of surrounding trees. Certainly, twigs and thin branches may touch the twigs and thin branches of other trees, but you are less likely to see heavy branches pressed up against the heavy branches of other trees.
Fungi make an immense contribution to the welfare of trees. Fungi and trees support each other – the tallest plant on earth and tiny, tiny fungi need each other. Fungi depend on living plants for their growth. They can form a very thin cotton web stretching over kilometres and sustaining itself for years, decades, even hundreds of years. As the largest living organism, fungi can enable trees to gather the water necessary to push up through trees.
Fungi enable vital nutrients to be shared between trees. The forest internet offers glucose and carbohydrates to fungi in payment for the fungi’s functions. I read the fungi may use a third of the tree’s food supply. There is immense diversity among the fungi in the Sangha of the Trees. Diversity in the forest supports trees and fungi in terms of survival so there is no domination of one species of tree. We, humans, can learn a lot from diversity.
Like people, trees have different ages reflecting the family dynamic of great grandparents, grandparents, parents and children. The roots of trees reach out to be close to the roots of nearby other trees, as well as the branches and twigs reaching out to be close to the nearby trees. You can see the space between the leaves, twigs and branches and the overlapping amidst their quiet, dignified presence.
We must develop more ways to reach out to others.
Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide
Trees produce oxygen, which humans and other creatures breathe in. We depend upon oxygen every minute of the day. Carbon dioxide is the gas that humans breathe out. Practitioners of mindfulness of breathing reduce their stress and tension as oxygen enters deep into the cells to give access to a range of important experiences confirming the importance of inter-relatedness with everything else.
Trees absorb carbon dioxide through their leaves as part of the conversion process trees use to develop glucose to enable trees to grow. Through absorption of the gas, forests contribute to the reduction of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. This helps stop the gradual increase in heat in the earth’s atmosphere.
Trees do not function out of ‘self-interest’ but organically connect with the bigger evolutionary picture. As trees push up water through the body of the trees, they also release water vapour into the air, which rises and rises until it forms clouds. As pressure in the clouds builds up, the clouds release the water back down to earth to enable the process to start again. The excess of greenhouse gases contributes to fluctuation in global temperatures having a significant impact on the natural cycles with more and more swings in temperature. We live in the time of significant outbursts of swings in the climate. We need to plant many, many more trees to help us protect the Earth and all sentient beings.
Trees have the remarkable capacity to accommodate particles of dirt, due to air pollution from traffic, factories and buildings. Where trees flourish in cities, towns and on factory estates, the public will breath in more oxygen with a significant reduction in dirty particles. Trees contribute to a healthy environment for humans, animals and birds, whether farm, domestic or wild animals.
We take shelter from the sun on hot days because the temperature is much cooler at the foot of the tree. Spending time in the shade of the tree, we feel more and more cool with the additional help of water vapour the tree releases into the atmosphere around itself and beyond itself.
Different species of trees serves different purposes. We may use oak chairs and an oak table at home, oak beams often support old ceilings while oak barrels store wine. Poles for phone lines come from pine trees. Paper comes from wood pulp. Ash trees make oars and parts of guitars. Pencils often come from cedar trees while willow trees make cricket bats.
I have a small piece of land in my road originally used to park my car until I gave up car ownership at the start of the new millennium. A fully-grown tree stands there. Around five years ago, the tree looked vulnerable with large lifeless branches, as well as blocking sunlight to my neighbour, whose grows flowers in her garden to sell. I paid a tree surgeon to prune the tree one spring. I felt shocked after he completed his use of the electric saw. It looked like a massacre. I regretted the decision. Within two years, the tree had recovered its strength. The tree had developed a large canopy of green leaves, new branches, twigs and remarkable presence.
The tree offers us a message of recovery despite much loss.I have two trees at home. I bought a tiny rubber tree when I move into the house in 1983. Seven years later, a friend gave me a sapling frpm another tree. Both trees stand together in their respective large pots in the bay of the living room window to catch the morning light. For years, one stood at the back of the house for the afternoon light and the other besides a wall. I move them at the same time to the bay window years ago. Both trees appreciated it. Within a couple of days, the leaves uplifted revealing an added strength. None of the leaves touch the ceiling, window or walls.
If we humans, blessed with so much, can prune our lifestyle, we can experience the same inner strength and remarkable sense of presence. We have much to learn from trees.
Our survival and society depend on trees.
A collection of trees gives ongoing support to the neighbouring trees protecting each other from the elements, from the extremes of heat and cold. Trees provides an ecosystem as a collective making a largely protective environment enabling a copse, wood or forest to receive maximum mutual support. Isolated from other trees, a solitary tree remains vulnerable to its roots drying up in the heat of the summer, trunk or branches freezing or cracking in the winter or the winds damaging the health of the tree or causing it to uproot.
Trees of the same species planted for deforestation decades later find themselves living a somewhat solitary life, disconnected by metres from their neighbours. Workers will give much care to these specialised forests. The life expectancy of rows of trees of the same species tend to much, much shorter – either due to lack of intimacy and diversity or through being cut down.
Trees have a much longer life sharing life with a diversity of trees, plants and creatures instead of a manicured row of forests. The same principle applies to human who flourish through diversity but become narrow minded, isolated and insular through identification with their group or nation at the expense of others.
Trees have the capacity to emit compounds, smells and send signals to discourage insects that might exploit the vulnerable tree, often due to climate change or old age. Under the earth, the root of the tree can expand twice as far as the crown of the tree. It is not unusual for the route to overlap in places with other trees without becoming an obstacle to growth.
The strength of the trees minimises the impact of invasive fungi on the trees but as the trees age, or due to environmental impact, the trees may find themselves liable to greater vulnerability including invasions from caterpillars and certain beetles.
Trees located on the banks of the river remain vulnerable to the loss of topsoil. These trees can fall over in a heavy thunderstorm. We had such an experience on our Dharma Yatra in the French Pyrenees in 2013. We experienced six large trees crashing down besides us including upon our Dharma hall, made up of canopy and and poles during a very violent summer storm. One tree fell right besides the kitchen where 16 people took shelter. Two trees fell across empty tents. Miraculously, nobody was hurt. Local citizens kindly made the village hall available for us that night.
Certain beetles eat through the leaves while weevils leave millions of eggs in the branches. Many trees raise one offspring to replace it, even though some seedlings may grow for a while for a few years.
Seeds of some trees get carried further afield. A beech tree might produce 30,000 beechnuts in a year while living for 400 years. Despite producing more than a million beechnuts, perhaps just one will become a full-grown tree. Animals eat the rest of the seeds or the seeds become humus as they disintegrate in the soft earth. Seeds play an important role in the forest even if they do not take root.
The Ageing Process of Trees
I have been teaching retreats regularly for 40 years in a sub-tropical rainforest between two communities, Dhammananda (Joy in the Dharma) and Bodhi Farm (Farm for Enlightenment), both started in the mid-1970s, near The Channon, Lismore, NSW, Australia. The communities pay respect to the Aboriginal communities, who inspire a sustainable way of life. Many children were born in huts or tents on community land despite the distance from the hospital. Members of the two communities built the meditation hall out of fallen trees in the forest. Goanas, possums, snakes and tropical birds reveal themselves quietly in the forest. We regard ourselves as temporary guests.
Young trees could grow at the rapid speed of half a metre a year if they were exposed to ongoing sunlight, but the canopy of the mother tree provides an umbrella to enable a gradual and healthy growth of a young tree. When trees grow slowly, they grow strong and resistant to insect invasions and strong winds. 80-year-old trees can stand under the mother tree, which is about 200 years old. Children who grow too quickly through poor diet and overeating remain prone to a shorter life compared with children who eat a modest, wholesome diet rich in fresh nutrients.
We encourage diversity when we grow new woods and forests of various species of trees and plants, which also supports animals and birds relying upon trees to form a habitat. Trees employ photosynthesis to gain energy from the light of the sun to enable a tree to produce its own food. The synthesis includes sunlight, water and carbon dioxide. The enormous networks of fungi act a distribution network to get ‘food,’ such as glucose to the leaves. When trees grow together the nutrients and water gets divided among the trees, so they can grow in the best possible way. Trees remain strong in terms of the support that surrounds them.
Certain species of trees grow tall, narrow or thick and very upright. Trees can also spread out in various directions. The same tree can grow straight in one soil and crooked in another soil in another continent. There is often a symmetrical crown at the top of the healthy tree due to the water that the has accumulated at the base and pushed up the trunk to feed all the branches.
The branches at the top will bend slightly downward. Other species of trees grow in a completely different way. A forked tree finds itself under pressure in fierce winds and vulnerable to breaking at its thinnest and weakest point. Trees high up the mountain side shape and bend to maximise their survival including coping with the weight of falling snow. Deciduous trees enjoy the sunlight while conifer trees with leaves all year often avoid the sunlight.
A very big and mature tree retains hundreds of gallons of rainwater, which it sends up through the trunk and into the branches and twigs to feed the entire tree and then into the air above the tree. Such a tree can send more than 100 gallons of water up through its branches in a single day in a hot summer. It can only do that through stockpiling water in the winter. Otherwise, the soil would become quickly hard and dry.
Trees suffer in intense ongoing heat that goes on day after day; wood and bark in the trees can start to split. The tree tries to adapt so it will measure the water it needs to pump up through the tree.
The roof of trees provides a canopy for each other, which helps to keep moist the soil for the trees from the heat of the sun. Leaves, twigs and branches enable rainfall to spread equally so the rain can absorb into the earth and reach the roots of trees.
Human beings also must learn to adapt to climate change, overpopulation and diminishing resources. We must explore fresh ways to reach out to others, develop diversity and hospitality.
Trees support each other, provide a home and food for certain animals, birds, reptiles and insects.
The End of the Life of a Tree
I spent nine months in a cave in Koh Pha Ngan island in 1973. The cave overlooked a large coconut grove and beyond the grove, I had a beautiful view of the sea. One was never alone with a variety of creatures, snakes, scorpions, spiders and small animals visiting the cave, night and day. A tree stood outside the cave about three or four metres in the front of the cave. Right behind the tree, was a ledge and a sharp 20 metre drop to the wild vegetation below. One night a hurricane (named Hurricane Sally) hit the island. More than 30 fishermen out at sea lost their lives. The great wind uprooted the tree in front of the cave which fell into the area at the bottom of the ledge. I felt I had lost a close companion. We cannot depend on anything. Not even on an ancient tree.
The cutting down of the big trees for commercial gain leaves the younger trees vulnerable and isolated. It can take them 10 years to recover from the loss of the parent tree, so the younger trees can stand firm and steady without the support of the parent. As the younger trees grow they start again to offer all the protection from excessive sunshine, snow and wind.
If the trees around them are cut down, they feel isolated and the loss of the network of trees and fungi shortens their life. A single attack from a single insect can start to spell the end of the life of that single tree.
The thickness and stability of the trunk matters to enable a long life for the trees. When trees are thirsty sounds can be heard within the tree, a cry for water. Other trees may pick up these sounds and naturally adapt their shrinking water supply for the tree. Scientists can use instruments to hear the sound
Trees often grow too much the same height as the trees around them. Space between the trees help develop branches to keep the tree steady and firm. Foresters would girdle trees by cutting a metre of bark from around the trunk of the tree to impose a slow death on the tree. Without the bark the tree cannot transport glucose from its roots to its. Some trees still survive the foresters attempt to kill them.
Forest animals like boar and deer enjoy beechnuts and acorns to enable them to put on fat. When seeds lay in soft, warm soil they immediately start to sprout in a short period with the shadow of the parent tree.
The molecules link together in the base of the trees and the bonding pushes the water right up to the top of three. With human beings we drink water from the mouth, and near top of the body, so it permeates down through the lengths of the body. .
Rainwater runs down the trunk into the earth to the roots of the tree and the process reverses when the tree experiences thirst.
Our skin is outer which protects the inner from the outer world. It is the same with trees. Bark is the skin of trees. We lose billions of tiny particles dally daily. It is similar with trees. As the tree ages, it can start to lose its smoothness and become rougher and less flexible – like us as we get old. As age sets into the tree, the water supply does not reach so easily the top of the tree, – like human beings who start growing grey, white on top or lose their hair. The tree finds itself getting wide rather than taller – just like humans. Unless we moderate our diet….!
Trees can grow to fill the space that other trees do not use. Oak trees have the capacity to endure storms in a way that beech trees cannot partly due to the thick layers of the oak. We see the same situations for people as well. Some people have the power to endure the storms of life while other people feel weighed down. Trees develop their root networks to protect themselves as much as possible from being knocked down by falling trees.
There are more forms of organic life in a square metre than people on the earth. I live alone. Countless numbers of tiny creatures, such as ants, spiders and beetles, wander in the small back garden, as well as the visits of cats, birds and butterflies.
Tiny creatures spend their entire life close to trees, laying tiny eggs and appreciating the moist earth around the tree due to minimal sunlight. The cycles of birth, life and death of the trees continues to give support to the forest as death leads to decay and support numerous creatures. The horizontal tree starts to dissolve, the rain breaks up the wood with the remnants entering the soil.
Trees create a small microsystem on our streets. There is far more oxygen in the air on street with trees than a street without trees. Many animals, birds, insects and plants depend on trees – as well as human beings from providing shade, to making a fire, to household furniture and more. This bring health to adults and children. Some insects, such as the bark beetle attack the weakened trees unless the tree can resist the first attack. Certain small creatures can also harm tree getting under the bark so beetle can attack more easily.
We see half of the trees, namely what is on and above ground level. The presentation of the tree depends what happens beneath the soil, as well as access to water, air, light and nutriments. Usually, we cannot see the roots of trees even though their impact on the growth of the tree matters significantly. We, the human species, share much in common with trees. Our inner life has deep roots with a variety of past experiences, pleasurable and painful, influencing our outlook, our communications and our actions. A depth of inner peace contributes to a network of clear relationships with friendship for the friendly, strangers and unfriendly.
Spreading their roots far, trees form a community, a network, above and below ground. Like humans, trees play an important in sustaining our ecological system. Trees fulfil their role in the eco-system. Are we fulfilling our role?
I recently re-read The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Whollebe, an Austrian, who runs an environmentally friendly woodland in Germany and supports the return of primeval forests. A best-seller, the book contains numerous insights about the life, death and co-operation of trees. I have drawn widely in places upon his book for this essay. It is my favourite book on trees.
The roots of trees will often spread twice as far as what we see. This means that the roots of nearby trees will often touch each other underground while other trees live a more solitary existence. Rather like humans.
When trees are close together they pass along nutrients to their neighbours.
Trees depend upon a healthy eco system with no dramatic changes that the elements can cause. – earth (earthquakes, rock fall etc), air (gales, hurricanes), heat (fires, sun), water (rainstorms, monsoons, floods). Moisture, reasonable temperature range and soil soft enough to absorb the rain support the life of trees. Water drains away from the tree when the soil has become hardened due to building work or extensive dry periods. Trees on the streets can meet hardened earth and pipes which affects the expansion of the roots but nevertheless trees on the street can live long, healthy lives.
Animals, such as squirrels and mice, carry seeds to new environments. The air is cleaner under trees A walk in the forest enables a human being to breathe in much oxygen to revitalises the cells bringing health to the body.
Water flows up a tree about around a centimetre per second. In the summer months, a forest will emit three tons of oxygen into the air in a square mile.
There is a long list of benefits that trees offer. Trees reduce climate change, provide oxygen, clean the air, cools the air on hot days, provide food, offers homes to numerous creatures, large and small, provide wood to make items, cook food, heat a home, prevent soil erosion and much more.
The name on my British passport is Christopher George Wood Titmuss. Wood is the name of my father, who I never met. My grandson’s name is Kye Christopher Oliver Allwood. Allwood is the name of his father, who he knows. There is a certain delight with Wood in the passport and a grandson with the name, Allwood.
The Hidden Life of Trees
Published by Ludwig Verlag, Germany, part of Random House.
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