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into the woods: part one

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

The forest was our childhood Las Vegas: What happened there, stayed there.

Part of a family of five children, my two older siblings and I were a threesome separated by several years from the younger two. During the summer, no matter where we happened to be on holiday, our parents often dispatched the Original Three, as we later came to call ourselves, into the woods. "Vamoose, have fun, don't bother us until lunch or suppertime," came their directive.

We had to occupy ourselves, and so off we would go to build another GeSaraDa – the name, a compilation of our given ones, for the forts we liked to build with sticks, broken branches and logs, layered and mud-packed into place, leaning against a tree trunk to provide a damp, earthy home.

Entering a forest is "almost like leaving land to go into water, another medium, another dimension," John Fowles wrote in his meditation on nature and creativity, The Tree. "When I was younger, this sensation was acute. Slinking into trees was always slinking into heaven."

And so it was for us. You could do anything in there, have your own rules like Robin Hood, think anything – imagine enemies in the trees or fairies, believe that you were a lost family Robinson or that your brother was a hunter and you Pocahontas, able to communicate with animals and hear whispery voices of trees in the swish of their branches.

It's no wonder J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis situated their fantastical children's fictions in forests, a place, like the inside of a creative mind, that's secret, overgrown and interlaced with vines of this and branches of that, thrumming.

As a retreat, a forest is a cocoon. You can lose yourself yet feel safe. Sheltered on the soft floor of a lush, green enclosure that towers high into the air, you're not exposed as you are in other landscapes, a desert or mountains or water.

And with the presence of trees, standing there, straight and tall, their arms outstretched, you don't feel alone in the way those other places can make you feel. They're loyal guardians. Hours would slip by unnoticed when my siblings and I disappeared into a forest. Then, at the end of our day, we would emerge, calmly prepared to once again take our place at the table of the adult world of manners, expectations, duties, rules.

Now, let me make a little clearing here in the woods of my words. I like high heels, okay? I don't wear hemp. I resist ponytails. I would never ride a bike in the deep downtown no matter what the carbon-footprint police say. Too dangerous. Besides, I need to be in a car bubble, air-conditioned, with music, floating down the avenues, untouched by the throng. I have never hugged a tree in my life.

I make that little clarification because even a philosophical love of trees can feel earnest and New Agey, not the sort of conversational fodder for the cool, ironic denizens of urban centres, which is where more than 80 per cent of Canadians now live.

While the variety and abundance of trees help to form the identity of a place – the cedars of Lebanon are featured on that country's flag, Florida would not be Florida without its iconic palm trees, and Canada is the land of the boreal, the last intact forest on the planet – we are disconnected from them.

Tree people (as those who love them like to call themselves) don't tend to broadcast their interest. They keep it to themselves, secretive as the forest itself, communicating it only among themselves, like collectors of esoteric art or cultish members of a lost Druidic tribe.

Richard Louv, the American author of Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle, writes about "nature deficit disorder" in children of the technologically immersed generation. But we have all made nature a reduced, pencilled-in, occasional-weekend appointment.

And because of the abundance of trees in Canada – the country has 397.3 million hectares of wooded land, 58.3 per cent of Canada's land surface that makes up 10 per cent of the world's forests – we take them for granted, as we might a spouse who remains present despite disinterest and lack of respect.

We can read that this is the United Nations International Year of the Forests and wonder why that should capture our attention. There has been tree news this summer – the conservationists' outcry over logging in British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest; vicious forest fires; the threat to Toronto's urban forest from an infestation of the emerald ash borer – but many digest it as they might reports of famine in Somalia, held at a distance, as though none of it affects daily life.

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.

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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