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My Turn: The true value of trees

For the Monitor
Published: 8/19/2019 8:00:15 AM

When my wife and I moved to New Hampshire 43 years ago to start a family, our priorities were to live in a place surrounded by trees, with clean air and water, and not a lot of people.

Having found those qualities in abundance in our village of Sutton, we are still happily here. Forest covers 77% of New Hampshire, second most in the country behind Maine.

As I’ve grown older, so has my love of trees.

Long ago I embraced the concept that all plants, including trees, have intelligence. Recent research has revealed that trees communicate with each other in ways not previously understood.

Scientists have found that, far from solitary entities, trees are part of a much larger underground family through their root system. Trees communicate with each other in a variety of ways, including airborne scents and chemical exchanges, above and below ground.

If one tree needs more water, the surrounding trees contribute. When insects attack one tree, an advance warning goes out to others.

Trees are among the longest-living life forms on Earth. Alaskan red cedars live up to 3,500 years, giant sequoias over 3,000 years and one bristlecone pine is estimated to be 5,000 years old. Imagine the accumulated wisdom inherent in these senior citizens.

I no longer look at trees as individuals, but as members of a much larger collective family. One tree cannot be cut down without affecting others. Trees are not isolated entities, but intimately linked together within complex, dynamic communities. And they thrive best when humans leave them alone.

Trees provide mankind with benefits unmatched by any other living thing. They give us food, shade, fuel, lumber and medicine. They absorb carbon dioxide and emit oxygen. Trees provide homes to myriad species of animals, birds, insects, fungi and microorganisms. Mushrooms reside in each tree, waiting to help digest it when it falls.

The circle of life is truly represented by each and every tree.

Yet, despite their importance to the health of the planet, trees are largely viewed as inanimate objects to be harvested for man’s use and profit. Virtually all the great forests of the world have been cut down several times. The remaining Amazon rainforest is disappearing at an alarming rate. Brazil’s new president, known as the “Trump of the Tropics,” on his first day in office encouraged development of previously protected indigenous lands.

I’ve long wondered what inflated sense of entitlement overcame man’s good sense to allow the belief that everything in the natural world belongs to him for his own use and profit.

Human beings alone, among the millions of forms of life, declared their right to own and use every other living thing.

The truth is we are part of an intricate whole, and trees teach us this lesson. If we understood and honored the essential role that trees play in our ecosystem, that understanding would extend into the larger natural world.

My wife and I recently read a wonderful novel, The Overstory by Richard Powers, that explores the world of trees in ways that added immensely to my understanding of the forest that surrounds us in our beautiful state. It is suggested by one of the main characters in the book that a tree should be cut down only when the reason for doing so exceeds the myriad uses the tree already provides.

The more one knows about trees, the less justification there is to kill them.

This is a challenging thought in a state where so many earn a living in the woods. But once we understand more deeply the true role that trees and forests play in our local and global ecosystem, their value as paper and lumber pales in comparison.

(Sol Solomon lives in Sutton.)

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