Today is National Tree Day. As a proud dendrophile, let me explain why you should hug the next tree you see. Don’t be shy.
Time to confess. Time to out myself on my passion. I’m a dendrophile. If you’ve already finger-sprinted over to your favourite search engine, you will know this means that I am a person who loves trees. Loves forests. Loves those tall, dark and handsome types that help consolidate our terrestrial world, provide shelter, food, fuel and oxygen and bind together the very skin of Earth. Valentine’s Day for Trees is with us – National Tree Day, 28 July – and I’m here to write my love letter.
I guess this is appropriate – we are living in the Anthropocene after all – so let me tell you about the objects of my affection in human terms. Often, with love at first sight, it’s all about the beauty – the fascinating Mandelbrot patterns of branching, arching limbs that reach out to frame the heavens and drip-feed dew to the ground below. Clothing these limbs are the myriad colours, shapes and textures of the most Instagrammable garb of all: leaves in all their complex glory. Individually, leaves charm with the glow that only photosynthesis can create, whilst collectively, as a canopy, they create the most striking silhouettes, and the most ethereal of vaulted ceilings.
The Japanese know this and have words to describe the ephemeral beauty of trees’ interaction with the rest of nature. For example, komorebi is a noun that describes the quality of sunlight as it filters through the leaves of trees and the pattern, lumination and colour that is then cast on the ground, adjacent trees or, most especially, your own face.
In Japan, it’s not unusual to see a person standing in a grove of trees, face uplifted to the sky, eyes closed, absorbing the sun and trees’ gift of komorebi as it plays across their face.
At the risk of getting too rapturous here, let me just briefly lament the loss of such words from our English language. We used to have such words – many of them – before we became too urbanised, too digitalised and no longer felt the need for such words of connection. Somehow texting a tree emoji just doesn’t have the same effect.
This is just a brief declaration of a tree’s charms. Don’t get me started on the fragrances, the scents … the chemical love bombs designed specifically to attract fornicators from far and wide (well, those from the worlds of insects and birds at least). From the honeyed nectar of eucalypt blossoms to the restorative zing of pine needles, the aromas created by trees can uplift us and delight us.
I’m a dendrophile. If you’ve already finger-sprinted over to your favourite search engine, you will know this means that I am a person who loves trees.
So I’m beguiled by beauty, but as with all true love, there comes the deeper connection, one forged by knowledge and understanding. At the root of this connection (sorry – there has to be at least one tree pun to hose down this steamy story) is the knowledge of just how much these trees provide for me and my kind. Consider the action of those delightful scents: the unique chemical signature of each particular scent has a purpose beyond our human pleasure.
Whether it’s to attract pollinators to ensure the production of seeds to create the next generation of trees, or to warn neighbouring trees of an attack by a pest, dynamic tree odour molecules have been supporting and protecting both trees and us for millennia. Just recently researchers have identified a key chemical odour molecule which can enhance the action of human killer cells to attack cancer cells and improve immune function. There’s fascinating science behind such research and how it impacts our own well-being and behaviour.
Whilst I don’t want to kill off the passion prose in this article, we need to take a more sober moment to consider the bleeding obvious: without trees we will just kind of … die. Trees are the kingpins in the whole ecological services system that pumps oxygen into the air; absorbs and stores carbon dioxide; binds and feeds soils; protects water courses; moderates water tables and air humidity; provides homes and food for multitudes of animals, lichens, algae, fungus, microbiota, all of which contribute to the circular production of food for us; ameliorates the effects of extreme weather, flood and drought; reduces temperatures, slows the path of avalanches, prevents erosion and loss of valuable topsoil, and the list goes on.
Trees have been the motif of life, fertility, continuance and wisdom, since our species climbed down out of them. From the powerful, slow-to-anger Ents of Lord of the Rings, to Hometree in Avatar, our more recent popular culture sanctifies and deifies trees, often anthropomorphising them with valuable qualities we can recognise as being human, to render the trees more easily understood and to engage our connection more readily.
I’m not alone in professing my love for our trees: fellow dendrophiles in Melbourne write lovemails to their favourite city trees. Melbourne city council’s Urban Forest Visual project assigned identification numbers and emails to individual trees with the goal of having local people report safety or health issues with the trees. The council got a lot more than that though; initially, locals started to write odes of affection to their favourite tree and soon the trees were receiving emails from across the globe. In the legendary spirit of friendly competition, one British cricketing tragic wrote to a Melbourne English Elm street tree:
Are you and your fellow English Elms enjoying the Ashes series as much as we in England are, and are you giving the native Aussie trees some stick over their team’s performance? – English Elm, 14 July 2015.
Are you just a tad envious of my romance with trees now? Will you ditch Married at First Sight for Gardening Australia? Relax – Love My Way can be yours. The truly bewitching truth to this love story is that it is so easy to attain. Skip the Tinder and head for a forest, or bushland, a park, or a garden.
Once you start looking, you will find trees just quietly waiting to be discovered and adored. Thousands of people across Australia have been out planting baby trees on National Tree Day, you may have been one of them, but if not, why not plant one of your own? Your local nursery can tell you just what you need based on your location and how much space and sunlight you have. There are many trees which are quite happy to have a pot life, so don’t think your apartment needs to miss out.
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Extending your choice for tree species that can happily grow in a pot may require you to delve into the world of bonsai. For centuries, bonsai trees have been propagated and grown into astonishing specimens, many incredibly old and venerable in appearance. Arguably, trees are always better off in the natural environment they are adapted to, but nurturing bonsai can still fulfil many of the psychological and physiological benefits we gain from a nurturing relationship. Have a look at this amazing array of Australian native trees being cultivated as bonsais.
Time to sign off, and time to head out to my own favourite trees to whisper sweet nothings to them. Why don’t you give it a go yourself? Suspend any scepticism for just a few minutes, go find a tree in a park, a garden or even on a street nature strip, run your hand over the bark, look up into the canopy, watch the tracery of branches, limbs and leaves and at the least, thank that tree for being such a damn fine thing.