The mystery surrounding trees is part of their charm. We repeat questions as old as time: if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? Mainstream media and culture often depict trees as wise, intelligent creatures with a deep knowledge of their surroundings and the effect humanity has. Tolkein’s fascinating character Treebeard famously says, “the world is changing: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, and I smell it in the air.” The all-seeing character, the guardian of the Earth’s health. A common consensus is that they know more than us and deserve respect: a hard point to argue.
As pioneers in tree planting technology, we have a responsibility to understand, learn from and respect the very thing we work hard to plant. Trees breathe in CO2 from the atmosphere, which is why reforestation is essential to what we do at Land Life Company. Here, we believe that planting trees is the single most simple and effective way to restore nature and degraded land. Trees are the key to our climate agenda, so we want to dig deeper into why trees are almost as magical as the fiction suggests.
As children, we were taught to read a tree’s age through the circular markings inside a tree trunk; the tree rings. Less well-known is that these rings are a tree’s fingerprint, reflecting the fluctuating ‘growing conditions’ during its lifetime. Dendrochronology, the study of these rings, reveals an entire library we didn’t know about: every tree’s rings tell a unique story. When a tree has had years of healthy growth and resources, its rings will be thick and clear; thin rings indicate the opposite. The rings also reveal past climate patterns, making them an essential tool for our scientists in understanding the scope and impact of climate change and how to combat it. Over 6,000 trees and their ring patterns have been archived in the International Tree-Ring Data Bank, allowing climate scientists to compare weather records with tree growth and use ring widths to indicate climate changes over the tree’s lifetime. Through this, we can understand more thoroughly natural climate variability and create a reference to measure human-induced climate change.
Trees act as indirect filters. They are once again personified as they cool the air through transpiration, a naturally cooling process comparable to human sweating. They have a distinct effect on water systems, specifically water availability. They improve water infiltration as their roots, and associated soil life increases soil porosity, the small voids between soil particles. In turn, this can help prevent soil from eroding into waterways and reduce flood damage or water run-off from a storm. Our wooden friends increase water retention by increasing the organic matter in the ground. They slow rain as it falls to earth; their leaves and branches intercept and reduce the rain’s erosive energy
Additionally, trees act as air quality and control officers. They work as windbreakers by reducing wind speed, which is why they are planted along shelterbelts, meaning less dust or soil particles are passed on or carried away. Trapped pollutants may also be ‘removed’ when leaves litter, for example, in autumn or a drought, and partly decompose in the soil surface through bacteria and fungi. Often labeled the “lungs” of the earth, we should also dub them earth’s “liver.” They not only breathe in CO2 but also filter harmful pollutants, like nitrogen dioxide, through their leaves, cleaning the air and preventing pollution.
Finally, trees protect themselves. Just as our skin rejects harmful bacteria, a tree’s bark quite literally shields them from harmful insects and pests. Much like our immune system, trees have structures and processes in place designed to protect. Trees can fill leaves with phenolics during the initial attack (compounds often used in antiseptics or disinfectants). If something gets past the initial wall of bark, the internal workings come into play. Damage done will catalyze the tree to convert stored sugars into an array of other defensive chemicals. It will then proceed to make an internal pattern inside the wound to heal itself. When in danger, trees can communicate and work together by signaling this danger to other trees and allowing them to create their defense system. So, perhaps Tolkein wasn’t far off after all!
As their fictitious forefathers suggest, trees are complex, with many magical ways of functioning and protecting. To personify trees is not scientific, but they are incredible living beings that aid and serve us in ways that need acknowledging and appreciating.