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The Avid Gardener: In praise of trees

by on September 21, 2016 2:02 PM

John Muir is a common name in my mother’s family. My grandfather, uncle and cousin all lay claim to that name, as well as our distant ancestry in Scotland. It’s easy to imagine, then, why I felt a connection to the famous John Muir while growing up.

This conservationist, naturalist, writer and explorer was born in a small stone house in Dunbar, East Lothian, Scotland, one of eight children. His father was a strict disciplinarian and expected the young boy to buckle down to his religious studies (it is said that by age 11 he could recite by heart all of the New Testament and most of the Old Testament of the Bible), but John had a restless spirit and preferred to wander the coastline and countryside of his native land.

Eleven years after immigrating to Wisconsin with his family (they moved there in an effort to appease his father’s religious fervor), he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1860, which he attended sporadically. In the end, his studies in sciences like geology and botany spurred him to explore the wilderness rather than finish college.

Over the years this wanderlust took him to such varied places as Alaska, Australia, South America, Africa, Europe, China and Japan, but, most often, Sierra Nevada in California.

And it was as a consequence of these travels and resulting writings (300 articles and 10 major books), that his readers from all walks of life, including notables such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Roosevelt, were inspired by his spiritual quality and exuberant love of nature.

In 1890, after writing influential articles about the devastation of mountain meadows and forests by sheep, an act of Congress created Yosemite National Park, as well as Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon national parks. No wonder he is known as the “Father of our National Park System.”

He also founded the Sierra Club in 1892, now one of the United States’ largest and most influential environmental organizations.

In the 1980s, my family visited Muir Woods National Monument in California, the home of the giant sequoia trees, whose similar fossils were first formed in the Jurassic period in China. Some of the trees in Muir Woods can weigh more than 2,000 tons (4 million pounds), have lived more than 2, 500 years, and are 360 feet tall. These trees truly reveal the inconsequence it is to be human; they were humbling.

It’s been said that the earth’s trees are important to its survival. Why is that?

Trees are some of the oldest living organisms on earth. It is theorized in a North Carolina Cooperative Extension site that the “beginning and growth of tall woody trees in forests” may have played a key role in the extinction of certain dinosaurs. They played an important role in our evolution and continue to do so.

Throughout time, trees have provided value; they help soil remain healthy by stopping soil erosion and creating an environment for the growth of microorganisms.

They also improve the quality of life. A 40-year-old tree can absorb as much as a ton of carbon dioxide a year. A larger tree is able to lift up to 100 gallons of water out of the ground and discharge it into the air in just one day.

Furthermore, as one site professed, trees “trap more of the sun’s energy than any other group of organisms on earth.” They account for 50 percent of all energy trapped by organisms. In short, they provide cooling, to which anyone who has been in a structure situated in a wooded area on a hot day can attest.

One of the most interesting facts about trees is that their leaves are composed of many colored pigments, but they are hidden during the spring and summer by green chlorophyll. When there are shorter days and cooler temperatures at night, the chlorophyll breaks down and the pigments can be seen. To put it simply — the colors of leaves that are seen in the fall are the tree’s true leaf colors.

These woody perennials provide inestimable beauty and homes for wildlife and insects.

Trees also are responsible for hundreds of foods (think fruit, nuts, coffee, etc.), as well as food additives that are used in things such as ice cream and chewing gum.

Because trees provide so many benefits to improve quality of life and the environment for all of us, what are some ways families can help protect trees and conserve forests? The following are a few ideas:

Print less and recycle paper by using the other side; go digital with bills. All of this helps save paper.

Borrow, share and donate books, which creates less paper demand; switch to e-readers and use the library to help with this, also.

Recycle paper products to use for toys like forts, for example.

Plant trees to replace those lost to disease and other problems. Renew.

Use reusable silverware and plates rather than paper, as much as possible.

Use hand dryers in public restrooms rather than paper towels. Buy tree-free or recycled paper towels instead of those made from tree pulp.

Buy used wooden furniture to pay less and help prevent deforestation.

Support government actions that help in the conservation and management of forests.

Educate others about how critical forests are to life on earth.

Finally, visit our local, state and national parks and spend time with trees to see and appreciate their value up close. I highly recommend a visit to see the giant sequoias when visiting California.

As John Muir expressed so well, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” Everyone needs forests.


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