Our guest for today is someone who’s an expert in trees. Our theme will revolve around the magic of trees and their effects on our planet.
Susan Hitchcock is a writer of multiple books and an editor of National Geographic.
She has now written her 14th book, “Into the Forest: The Secret Language of Trees,” where she shares the fascinating science behind the influence of trees on our life and our planet.
How do trees affect our lives?
As I was doing my research for this book, I learned from a pair of botanists, James Wandersee and Elisabeth Schussler, in their 1999 seminal article that we suffer from plant blindness.
They pointed out that we give our children stuffed animals, not stuffed plants. We take them to the zoo, but not the botanical garden. So we grow up unaware of the plants in our lives. I even recognize this in my own life.
Looking back, I wasn’t as conscious of how important the forest and trees have been. So one of the things I’m hoping my book will do and I’d love to encourage your listeners to do is to become more aware of the trees in their landscape and how much they enhance life.
Besides the typical oxygen, is there any other way that trees positively affect us?
Findings on a psychological and physical level showed that a walk in the forest benefits our health. They’ve discovered that there are chemical similarities in the forest air and forest soil to the components of antidepressants.
This just means that trees give off volatile essences beyond oxygen. This explains why you feel good when you walk in the woods.
One of the terms that have been important in that work is attention restoration. Especially in these days of overcrowding and busy streets, traffic, smartphones, videos, and all that sort of thing, discovering a place you can go to restore your attention seems really important.
Another term I’ve just loved in the psychological literature about the benefit of being in nature is soft fascination.
By walking in the forest, you are able to enjoy the experience of soft fascination.
I think many people have also heard of the term “forest bathing.” That’s got a really interesting history in the 1980s and 1990s, as Japan was becoming more and more of an urban country, to the point that now actually 90% of people in Japan live in cities.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and one minister, in particular, came up with the idea of making sure that every city in Japan had a forest bathing park.
So forest bathing became a government-sponsored institution in Japan, and it swept the world as a trend. I think a lot of people are hearing about it but maybe feel like they have to officially do it. The fact is, you don’t have to go to an official forest bathing guide or a forest bathing park; you can have your own experience.
Simply by taking a deep breath, taking a walk in the park, or even just taking a walk down the block and paying attention to the trees and bushes and plants or the weeds coming up from the sidewalk. Just pay attention to the green growing world that’s around you–that can be very helpful in itself.
Are there any problems besides deforestation we should be aware of? What steps can we take to protect and plant trees?
Rainforests in South America and Indonesia are being cut down.
The biggest reasons behind these are grazing cattle for the beef industry in South America and for replanting palm trees for palm oil. What’s happening is just devastating. Some people call the rainforest the lungs of the planet because there is so much breathing and a sense of respiration. This is where we will come back to this topic of oxygen.
If you remember your high school biology, every green leaf in the world is photosynthesizing, which means they take in carbon dioxide and water and let out oxygen.
They’re using the carbon they take in the carbon dioxide to create themselves — to grow, to make the wood of the roots, the trunks, and branches, the leaves, flowers, seeds, fruit, nuts, all of those things are carbon-based.
These days, when we talk about so much excess carbon being spewed into the atmosphere and we’re looking for carbon sinks, we’re devising ways of sequestering carbon.
The fact is that trees are the original carbon sequestration strategy of the planet. As we cut them down, we deplete the planet’s ability to balance out carbon.
So there are very serious and important reforestation processes going on. There’s been some amazing–even at the national level–efforts to reforest or replant trees. For example, I read that in India, in the year 2020, despite the pandemic, there was a nationwide effort to plant 250 million new trees in the country.
An African woman, Wangari Maathai, who grew up and lived in Kenya (she is no longer alive, unfortunately) received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 because of her efforts to tell the world how important it was to plant more trees.
Her mission became known as the Green Belt Movement, and it really swept through Africa. I love the statement that she made when she received the Nobel Prize. She said, “We are called to assist the earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own.”
So planting trees is really important. Any effort that one can make, whether it’s one tree in your backyard or getting into a community tree planting process is good.
The first one is making sure that you’re planting native trees. Two, make sure you’re planting trees in a place where they’re going to survive and thrive. And three, take care of the trees you planted; don’t just plant one and walk away and think you’ve done a good deed — you have to take care of that creature.
Apart from planting trees, you can also support organizations focusing on preserving the old forests of the world. The old forests are the ones that are doing the most important breathing and also sequestering carbon for us. Whether we’re talking about the old rain forests, existing rain forests, or we’re talking about the old Tundra forests up toward the Arctic Circle, the old forests need our help, especially.
How would you recommend people go about finding nonprofits that support old forests?
There are two nonprofits that I like to point people to; one is called the Old-Growth Forest Network, and another is called the Rainforest Alliance. Both of those are very reliable nonprofits working hard to ensure that we can preserve as many of the big old forests that still exist in the world.
Is there any book or resource that you would recommend for the audience to learn more about trees?
A couple of books have come out in the last few years that really harmonized with mine in terms of explaining the new science of how trees communicate with one another.
One is called “The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben. Another is called “Finding the Mother Tree” by Suzanne Simard, a British Columbia forest ecologist. Her work is really interesting.
She works in the forests of British Columbia. She is doing very careful scientific experiments that show that trees use the underground fungal network, the mycorrhizal that keeps things alive in the soil. They send chemical signals back and forth and through that mycorrhizal.
Suzanne Simard talks about the great big old mother trees that, even as they are approaching death, send through this mycorrhizal chemical nutrients to other trees. She even found that it happens between tree species.
It’s not just that the mother feeds her own, but she feeds everyone. Her work is really uplifting in that it shows there is cooperation, communication, and caring between trees.
A lot of times, when people timber in a forest, they go and take the biggest trees. Simard’s work points out that the biggest trees are the most important trees in the forest.
Can trees communicate amongst themselves if there’s a fire nearby?
We are experiencing devastating fires in our forests today.
There’s a really interesting history in the United States because our forest service, early in the 20th century, took up the practice of totally squelching any fire in the forest. But it turned out not to be a good idea. In fact, small forest fires are good for the forest. It’s just that, because of global warming and diverse human development, the fires that we’re seeing are much more damaging and worse to the forest.
I also wanted to mention a really interesting phenomenon. You talked about trees communicating through the air. There’s an example in Africa and the African savanna, the tree, called the acacia tree.
Giraffes love to eat the leaves of acacias. And what has evolved is that as a giraffe eats the leaf of one acacia tree, that tree sends out volatile essences in the air that travel to neighboring acacia trees, signaling to them that there’s danger coming. Those neighboring trees have a way of chemically turning their leaves bitter. So when the giraffe walks over to the next tree, it doesn’t want to eat those leaves.
This is a pretty fantastic story, and it’s often used as a classic story to show how trees communicate through the air and underground.
I hope you enjoyed my talk with Susan and that you took away some value. If you want to listen to the entire interview, click play below or head over to your favorite platform (Apple, Spotify, or Google.)
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