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Ancient redwoods tower in the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in northern California. (Josh Jackson for The Globe and Mail/Josh Jackson for The Globe and Mail)
Ancient redwoods tower in the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in northern California. (Josh Jackson for The Globe and Mail/Josh Jackson for The Globe and Mail)

INTO THE WOODS: PART ONE

The enduring power of trees Add to ...

Marianne Karsh, a trained forester who runs spiritual retreats at the Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph, Ont., has seen people respond to trees as a healing, psychological aid: “People might look at a tree, and see part of it that has broken off, and think, ‘I thought my life was ending or that I am broken,' and then they see a branch that's sprouting up from the trunk, which is renewal, life going on.”

Deeply rooted in human existence, forests play out again and again in folklore, literature and popular culture as benign, magical or fearsome. There are the dark misadventures in the forest of Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel. Snow White finds refuge in the dwarfs' cottage in the woods. Rumpelstiltskin reveals his name in the forest to help the heroine be free.

In Shakespeare's plays, the forest is the antithesis of court life – apart from normal human experience, a place of transformation and resolution.

Consider modern children's books such as Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree, movies ( Avatar, The Tree and, most recently, The Tree of Life) and the artistic obsession of painter Robert Marchessault, who depicts trees as solitary, powerful experiences of light and colour and mood, set against a moving sky.

Even from an environmental point of view, trees are wizards of transformation and purification techniques. They've long been called the lungs of the Earth because of their function in absorbing and storing carbon dioxide and exhaling oxygen.

Earlier this summer, in the most comprehensive assessment yet of the global forest, published in the journal Science and co-written by the Canadian Forest Service, scientists concluded that forests suck up a third of the carbon pumped into the atmosphere each year through the burning of oil, gas and coal and lock it away in soil and wood.

A lack of attention to their importance in preventing climate change spells disaster, the scientists warned. From 1990 to 2007, fire and insect infestations have reduced the carbon sink in Canada's managed forests by half.

This magic is not limited to their effect on the air. Roots of trees such as poplar and willow act as hydraulic pumps to contain, degrade or eliminate pesticides, solvents and explosives in contaminated soil, experiments with phytoremediation plants around the world have shown. Trees trap water in the ground, which can help to prevent river-flooding disasters. As participants in ecosystems that include the bodies of water they border, they can also help to restore healthy marine chemistry. In northern Japan, a recovery in fisheries productivity has been credited, in part, to coastal reforestation efforts.

“We haven't taken the time to understand forests,” says Diana Beresford Kroeger, an Irish-Canadian botanist and author of The Global Forest, among other books. “They're like the oceans years ago. People didn't pay attention to them. But I think that's starting to take place. The culture of trees, the culture of nature, is starting to be appreciated. It's like a ghost in the minds of people.”

Maybe so. But maybe not. On a recent trip to northern California, I visited a tourist spot on the scenic Redwood Highway outside Eureka, near the Oregon boundary. Called Trees of Mystery, there was little magic in the presentation. The centre housed a large collection of aboriginal artifacts, but mostly it was given over to the brightly lit religion of consumerism – obligatory T-shirts, trinkets, toy fairies and gimmicky $7 vials of redwood seedlings that would surely wither in most backyards.

A giant, almost 50-foot, figure of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox sidekick beckoned visitors inside from the parking lot. (Bunyan waved and talked.) That their mascot is the mythological axe-wielding lumberjack suggests that the history of logging the giant redwoods – an epic struggle of man's dominance over nature – is just as celebrated as the idea that a tree that still stands could have started its life before Christ was born.

Ancient trees are treated like celebrities. Gaze upon them, slack-jawed; paparazzi them; and move on.

Still, there's a gondola ride that takes visitors up into the canopy, stopping periodically in the green silence so people can take in the beauty.

At the top, there's a neatly groomed trail down through a portion of the 130-acre private property of old-growth forest that has been operated as a tourist site since 1946. If you get off and walk, the reward is a free piece of fudge in the centre. But you don't have to, so for that 30-minute gondola-ride adventure in the heart of a redwood forest, high heels can be worn, no problem.

Sarah Hampson is a writer for The Globe and Mail.

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