But trees play key roles in our physical and psychic landscapes. They're closely intertwined with human civilization, identity, spirituality, well-being and progress. And as environmentalists say, we ignore them at our peril.
The symbolic power of trees has ancient roots
In aboriginal cultures around the world, the tree is integral to the flourishing of life. To the Maoris in New Zealand, the Kauri trees hold a spirit, who agreed to serve as a column to keep heaven and Earth apart and in balance after they separated at the beginning of time. The eucalyptus trees of the northern rain forests in Australia play an important role in dream stories of aboriginal traditions. Gum from the pine tree, applied to the forehead, was a protection from sorcery to the Hopi. The Kawaiisu of California hang a baby's outgrown cradle in a Ponderosa pine to ensure that he will grow strong like a tree.
Trees also provided aboriginal people a multitude of natural medicines. Today, many chemicals from trees, including salicin, an anti-inflammatory agent made from willow bark, are used in pharmaceuticals.
In ancient civilizations in Egypt and Greece and the Middle East, trees figured as a powerful force that guided humankind.
In the first city-states of Sumer in southern Mesopotamia, the cedar was known as the World Tree, the abode of Enki, the creator of the human race, who bestowed all the elements of civilization including laws, moral codes, technology, arts and healing. His name was inscribed on the scared tree – the glyph translates as “house of wisdom, of strength, of abundance.” The cedars of Lebanon are mentioned more than 70 times in the Bible.
“The Koran and the Hebrew Bible both deal with warfare and talk about the impropriety, in fact the great sin, of destroying trees in warfare. And part of it is they know the importance of trees for the whole civilization to exist,” explains Stephen Scharper, professor of religious ethics and the environment at the University of Toronto.
The tree in the Garden of Eden both shelters the snake and bears the apple. “The human defies the divine via the snake and the eating of that fruit, and so the tree becomes the conduit to this world of maturity,” Dr. Scharper notes. “It's a growth moment for humans. Now they have knowledge of good and evil.”
Of course, trees propelled human progress in other ways too – providing fuel for fire, material for early shelters, temples and ships that could explore new lands, expand an empire as well as secure the power of a maritime nation. Trees built fortunes and economies.
But anyone who has gazed out a window, any window, to see a tree, any tree, and let his mind swim there a bit, untethered, will know how they serve as a visual form of psychological therapy.
In her famous diary, Anne Frank wrote about the horse-chestnut tree she could see from her family's hiding place in Amsterdam during the Second World War. She would often retreat to the attic to lie in her favourite spot and gaze upon the blue sky and branches of the sprawling tree.
“As long as this exists, I thought, and I may live to see it, this sunshine, the cloudless skies, while this lasts, I cannot be unhappy,” she wrote.
Such was the tree's powerful significance that a Dutch court injunction in 2007 saved it from being cut down, even though it was battling fungus and a moth infestation that made it unstable and a potential safety hazard. (Last summer, it blew down in a storm.)
“Trees provide us with a sense of peace. They're there, and we're sure they're there and we feel that they're always going to be there,” offers Roberta Bondar, astronaut, neurologist, photographer and self-confessed tree person, talking about how her experience “off the planet” increased her reverence for trees.
“When we think of our own mental health, we have to have some structures in our lives that we can count on, some structures that are solid, some structures that really affirm our existence as well.”
Studies have shown that patients who have a view of trees from their hospital windows require less pain medication and experience less stress. One study with patients recovering from abdominal surgery showed a “direct relationship” between having a nature view and a reduced length of stay in hospital. Several hospitals with vistas of trees are under construction in different countries.
In fable, in spirit and in science, trees provide breaths of fresh air
The oldest living things on the planet, trees are powerful metaphors for perseverance and tenacity. Self-engineering marvels, they will always strive, no matter the contortion of limbs involved, to reach for the light.