Like a Tree: How Trees, Women, and Tree People Can Save the Planet

Like a Tree: How Trees, Women, and Tree People Can Save the Planet

by Jean Shinoda Bolen

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This book is a poetic and educational, inspirational, spirtual, and down to earth, covering the subject of trees from anatomy and physiology to trees as archetypal and sacred symbols.


This book is a poetic and educational, inspirational, spirtual, and down to earth, covering the subject of trees from anatomy and physiology to trees as archetypal and sacred symbols.

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Red Wheel/Weiser
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Like a Tree

How Trees, Women, and Tree People Can Save the Planet


Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC

Copyright © 2011 Jean Shinoda Bolen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57324-488-6



I often walk among the ancient soaring coast redwood trees in Muir Woods, the national park close to where I live in California. I have to crane my neck to look up at them, much like a toddler who would otherwise just see kneecaps or legs of adults. Though in proportion to the height of these trees, I'm not even at toenail level. These tall conifers are descendants of the green leafy tree ferns and first trees, without which Earth would not have breathable air, soil, or rainwater. As the BBC documentary Planet Earth succinctly said of our biological relationship to trees, "If they didn't live here, neither would we." My study of trees began with looking up specific information about the Monterey pine (Pinus radiata), which is how I learned why it had been particularly suited to where I live. About the same time, I had begun a practice of taking early morning walks in Muir Woods. Both led me metaphorically deeper into the trees.

My wonder of trees keeps growing as I learn more about what they are and do. It has also been learning for the sake of it. Trees seem so ordinary and familiar and unmoving: they just stand wherever they took root and, until we know better, don't seem to be doing anything much. Those with the oldest lineage are members of the conifer family. The conifers do nothing showy—no autumn colors, spring blossoms, or glorious fruit—but when they are noticed and we understand how wonderful they are, a depth and poetic appreciation can result. Out of their wonder and love of the trees they study, naturalists have written about them with poetic sensibility. John Muir, America's most famous and influential naturalist, for example, described a juniper as "a sturdy storm-enduring mountaineer of a tree, living on sunshine and snow, maintaining tough health on his diet for perhaps more than a thousand years" (Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra, 1911, p. 146). Muir's ability to describe what he saw in the high Sierras and Yosemite Valley, to write of the awe he felt in the presence of the ancient redwoods, and to influence others had a significant role in preserving them, including Muir Woods.

In The Tree, a comprehensive book on the subject, the English author and naturalist Colin Tudge compares the building of a beautiful cathedral with how a tree grows, a comparison in which the tree comes out ahead:

[A] cathedral or a mosque is built; it does not grow. Until it is complete it is useless, and probably unstable. It must be held up by scaffold. When it is finished it remains as it was made for as long as it lasts—or until some later architect designs it afresh, and rebuilds. A tree, by contrast, may grow to be tall as a church and yet must be fully functional from the moment it germinates. It must fashion and refashion itself as it grows, for as it increases in size so the stresses alter—the tension and compression on each part. To achieve hugeness and yet be self-building—no scaffold or outside agencies required—and to operate for good measure as an independent living creature through all phases of growth is beyond anything that human engineers have achieved. (2006, p. 75)

What Exactly Is a Tree?

Trees are arboreal perennials: they have a columnar woody stem with branches growing from it. The height varies according to the specific species, environment, and various other factors, though normally they reach a height of twenty feet (six meters) or more. The shape and general development of a tree are so characteristic that the category also includes species of lesser size, such as dwarf trees.

In the delightful way that the English have with words, Colin Tudge begins his answer with what every child knows: "A tree is a big plant with a stick up the middle" (The Tree, p. 3) and proceeds to be eloquent and scientific, a small part of which I paraphrase and pass on here.

Some two to three billion years ago, a layer of vegetation grew upon barren rocks—a slime perhaps no thicker than a coat of paint, made of bacteria, molds, mosses, lichens, algae, and fungi. Chlorophyll in algae made the slime greenish and photosynthesis possible: the energy from sunlight (photons) was used to make sugars and stored by algae. This was the significant first step. Stalks formed slowly, slowly over many, many millions of years, grew from nubbin to matchstick to become ferns that proliferated and grew to enormous size in the Carboniferous period, which began about 350 million years ago. This was a time when giant forests of huge tree ferns covered the Earth. These tree ferns removed prodigious amounts of carbons from poisonous gases, storing it in their leaves and stalks. After millions of more years went by and layer upon layer fell into decay, pressure and time transformed these vast fern forests into coal. Removing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, these giant tree fern forests made the air breathable. They also made it possible for more sunlight to reach the surface of the Earth through the clearer air.

The fern forests became the womb and the nursery of the first trees. As John Stewart Collis, another English author phrased it, "In these glades was matured the idea of not falling down" (Collis, The Triumph of the Tree, 1954, p. 10). The ferns rose and fell, over and over again, producing stalks and branches that grew eventually to be the size of trees. In their midst, some 290 million years ago, a more energy-efficient form of plant life, which had woody trunks and branches, appeared. Wood tree trunks are structurally stronger than stalks, and they have roots that anchor the tree in the ground. Tree trunks provide a two-way conduit of water and nutrients from roots to leaves, and from leaves to the whole tree. As a tree grows above the ground, its root structure grows also. In good, deep soil, some species of trees can have as large a circulatory root system below ground as the visible branches and leaves.

The root system of trees continues to have a key role in transforming rock into soil. This process began when the planet was lifeless rock, with a thin layer of algae, mold, lichen, and fungi. Soil is made from rock that disintegrates into dust and releases minerals, plus decaying organic matter, oxygen, and water. Trees draw from and contribute to making more soil. Their roots break up and aerate rock and hard clay. Dropping leaves provide organic matter. Their leaves release water vapor and oxygen into the atmosphere, drip water into the ground below, and provide shade that prevents evaporation. Trees create the conditions for ground-covering plants to grow under them. Tree roots hold the soil down, preventing runoff after rain and keeping strong winds from carrying it away. Trees create watersheds, the source of water to feed streams and rivers. When huge areas of forests are clear-cut for timber or burned down to raise cattle, the ecological systems supported by trees—from roots to leafy canopies—are also destroyed, affecting all forms of life that once thrived there, as well as the quality of the air, soil, and water in the immediate area and far downstream.

Every large tree has an ecosystem of its own, a sphere of influence in its immediate environment. I began to think about this after my Monterey pine was cut down. There were observable consequences, beyond its absence. The resident squirrel got displaced. More direct sun instead of partial sun and shade changed what would thrive in the half dozen terra-cotta planters that I planted with annuals. Direct sun in spring and fall, morning fog in the summer had been ideal for the bright, colorful impatiens that I had planted for years, exchanging them for cyclamen as autumn approached. The tree had also sheltered many plants from the wind, which I next discovered. For the first time, in the absence of shade, I planted sun-loving petunias, which initially grew very fast and had to be watered often. Then came the summer fog, and the petunias became immediately pathetic, the blooms overnight becoming limp and mildewed. A slow-growing vine went into overdrive, sending out waving tendrils by the foot that now needed to be cut back often, before they could cover or strangle nearby rhododendrons. Now unprotected from the direct sun, rhododendron and camellia leaves became sunburnt in unusually hot weather. The side of the hill on which this particular tree had thrived for forty or so years has very poor soil; the dirt is mainly gravel and sand and very hard. Yet the ground cover and established shade-loving flowering plants and a maple tree did well, with virtually no watering. The pine needles had been a water-dripping system. Not just for itself, but also for its tree neighbors. So much so that when I went out to get the morning newspapers, the walk beneath its branches often looked as if it had rained during the night. The pine tree had been the center of an ecologically sustainable little island, which now requires watering.

Invisible to me was the ecosystem underground. Trees are part of a mutually beneficial community in all directions. Trees are a habitat for the plants, insects, birds, and animals in their vicinity, but an even closer bond is formed with the fungi and bacteria that are intimately connected to the metabolism of the tree. They eat the sugars that the tree makes and bind the hydrogen that the tree needs. Bill Mollison, the originator of permaculture, a sustainable ecological design inspired by observing rain forests, described how bacterial colonies on the leaves of trees are carried aloft by the wind high into the clouds, where ice crystals form around them, and as they get heavier and fall, they seed the clouds and cause rain to fall on the trees. The rain that falls through the tree canopy is now rain-bath water, a rich nutrient soup that washes off the minerals that were left on the leaves by evaporation, providing these nutrients for the ground cover, the little plants under the trees, and soaking into the soil, from which it will be pulled through the roots, the ends of which are covered by bacteria that are a two-way selective filter, and up the xylem of the tree to the leaves. Forests of trees keep the rain going, which is why all huge forests, whether in the tropics or on the northernmost edge of the continents, are rain forests.

Two Kinds of Trees

My tree was a conifer (conifer means "cone-bearing"), in the tree family lineage that began 290 million years ago. Conifers are familiar trees, known to us as firs, spruces, pines, cedars, redwoods, cypress, podocarps, yews, and junipers. They originated in and continue to survive in poor soil, with extremes of weather from tropical to desert, to almost arctic. Among the conifers in California are coast redwoods, the tallest trees in the world, and the bristlecone pines, which are the oldest. They comprise the vast boreal forests in Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia, Russia, and Siberia. They thrive in places where conditions are difficult, including in areas where fires are common. They are survivors and pioneers—trees that move into devastated areas and grow where other trees do not.

The conifers are one of the two large tree categories that make up 99 percent of all trees: trees without flowers (conifers) and trees with flowers (the angiosperms). Angiosperms differ from conifers in their sexuality. The female ovule is completely enclosed within the ovary, and the male gamete must be carried to it via pollen tubes. Uniquely, angiosperms practice double fertilization. This is a very brief summation; left out are definitions and explanations, the various means of union and procreation, and how this contrasts with conifers. Suffice it to note that the obstetrics and gynecology of the two categories differ. The angiosperms are a huge universe of flowering plants (300,000 species), among which there are trees. The surmise is that flowering trees with woody trunks evolved from flowering plants, with missing links. Also not known are when, where, and how angiosperms originated.

Broadleaf trees are angiosperms: they include acacia, maple, elder, baobab, alder, aralia, birch, hickory, hawthorn, laurel, eucalyptus (gum), linden, olive, beech, banyan, fig, sycamore, ash, locust, mulberry, plane, coffee, holly, poplar, aspen, oak, willow, pepper, elm, and many others. Fruit trees, nut-bearing trees, and flowering trees are also angiosperms. There are about fifty times more species of flowering trees than of conifers. They usually grow where the soil is good or adequate, in temperate zones where the weather has predictable seasons, or in the vast tropical forests of the Amazon, central Africa, or Indonesia.

Tropical Rain Forests and Boreal Rain Forests

Both tropical rain forests and boreal forests are being destroyed at an alarming rate by humans for economic reasons. In an article in National Geographic (Wallace, "Last of the Amazon," January 2007), Scott Wallace began with the sentence: "In the time it takes to read this article, an area of Brazil's rain forest larger than 200 football fields will have been destroyed." Industrial-scale soybean producers are joining loggers and cattle ranchers in the land grab. Roads are cut through the forest to make valuable hardwood trees more accessible and transportable. In the Amazon, there are more than 105,000 miles of these roads, almost all made illegally, which then are used by squatters, farmers, and ranchers who clear the land by burning off the underbrush and trees that remain.

As indigenous people intuitively grasp, the benefits the Amazon provides are of incalculable worth: water cycling (the forest produces not only half its own rainfall, but also much of the rain south of the Amazon and east of the Andes), carbon sequestering (by holding and absorbing carbon dioxide, the forest mitigates global warming and cleanses the atmosphere), and maintenance of an unmatched panoply of life. But there haven't been profits in keeping the forest. Money is made by logging and by cutting it down for grazing and farming, not by leaving it standing.

Twenty percent or more of the Amazon rain forest has been cut down so far. When another 20 percent is destroyed, scientific expectations are that the forest's ecology will unravel. This would reduce the amount of rainfall that the forest produces through the moisture the trees release into the atmosphere. To this, add global warming: remaining trees then dry out, leading to droughts and susceptibility to fire. Amazon forest fires burned unchecked for months during the record drought of 2005–2006, followed in 2007 by the worst rain-forest fire in history. Smoke releases tons of carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the air, directly raising the ambient temperature, and further contributing to global warming by the production of more greenhouse gases. The deforestation story is the same in Indonesia, the country with the largest tropical forest in Southeast Asia, which replenishes fresh water and has a key role in weather and climate.

Whether my concern is about one tree or forests, one person or humanity, I learn what I need in order to grasp a situation that affects a species or a class of people (children, women, race, or religion) by paying attention to an individual that is representative. I want to see the forest and the trees, a metaphor that became literal. I learned from my Monterey pine that pine needles condense fog into lots of dripping water. Next I learned from others that trees also send water upward from groundwater; they transpire it from roots through leaves. Colin Tudge wrote that a big tree can transpire 500 liters (528 quarts) in a day.

In Tree: A Life Story, David Suzuki and Wayne Grady explained how one tree adds to the big picture: "A single tree in the Amazon rain forest lifts hundreds of liters of water every day. The rain forest behaves like a green ocean, transpiring water that rains upward, as though gravity were reversed. These transpired mists then flow across the continent in great rivers of vapor. The water condenses, falls as rain, and is pulled back up again through the trees. It rises and falls on its westward migration an average of six times before finally hitting the physical barrier of the Andes mountains and flowing back across the continent as the mightiest river of Earth" (2004, p. 68). This particular description captured my imagination and thereby my understanding.

The North American continent has its own vast, endangered boreal forests of conifers. In the waiting room of my optometrist, I picked up a six-month-old copy of Audubon just after I decided to write Like a Tree. In it, journalist T. Edward Pickens described Canada's boreal forest as "an emerald halo of woodlands, wetlands, and rivers that mantles North America. This is the greatest wilderness on the continent, a 1.3 billion-acre forest stretching from Newfoundland all the way to the Yukon. The Canadian boreal holds a quarter of the world's forests and most of its unfrozen freshwater, and sequesters 1.3 trillion metric tons of carbon" ("Paper Chase," January–February 2009). More than three hundred species of birds breed there, and as many as five billion individual birds fly south from the boreal each autumn. These trees are being clear-cut to make paper, for books, catalogs, paper towels, and toilet paper. There are clear-cut areas measured in square miles. In an issue of National Geographic (June 2002), I learned that boreal forests have more wetlands than anywhere else in the world. Those in Russia and Canada each contain an estimated one million to two million lakes and ponds.

Excerpted from Like a Tree by JEAN SHINODA BOLEN. Copyright © 2011 Jean Shinoda Bolen. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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