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The Importance of Trees

“Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky.” ― Kahlil Gibran

“The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth.” — Charles Darwin

The Ecology of Trees

Trees are the longest living organisms on Earth. Today there are approximately 3 trillion trees standing with around 15 billion lost yearly due to deforestation. Humans have destroyed around 46% of forest cover on the planet. It can take hundreds to thousands of years for a healthy forest to evolve. But it can only take a short period of time, sometimes just days, to cut one down.

Trees are integral to the health of our planet. They provide nourishment and shelter to many creatures, including humans. Through photosynthesis, trees take in carbon dioxide and produce the oxygen and biomass we need to survive. Trees shade us from the heat, protect us from the rain and wind, conserve water, preserve soil, clean the air of pollutants and absorb carbon, helping to keep the world cooler.

Each tree is its own majestic ecosystem, a vast web of pollinators, seed dispersers, predators and prey. Large stands of trees are healthier together, attracting more species. When a forest or tree becomes isolated, the movement of plants and animals is compromised, often leading to a long-term decline in population.

What Has Been Done So Far?

The Sentience of Trees

Trees have evolved to protect other fellow trees, which in turn protects the whole forest.

How do they do this? Scientists now know what many indigenous groups have known for ages: trees are sophisticated, communal organisms that live in families connected by fungal networks that share water and nutrients. The oldest “grandmother” trees are critical for the health of forests. Their deep roots share nutrients and water with nearby struggling trees or shallow rooted seedlings. Amazingly, cutting down mother trees can greatly affect and compromise weaker neighboring trees.

Trees also communicate with each other through the underground web and the air via scented pheromone signals. Distress signals related to drought, disease, or insect attacks are sent by trees to their neighbors to warn them of an imminent intrusion. An imperiled tree can alter its behavior and, in some cases, release toxic chemicals to stop or deter the attack, as is the case with the Sub-Saharan African Acacia Tree. When giraffes eat their leaves, they will warn one another and collectively release tannings into their leaves, which can sicken and even kill animals.

The Culture of Trees

No story is as ancient and universal as the tree of life. Since time immemorial, trees have shaped the way people see their society and the physical world.

In Nordic myth, a great tree called Yggdrasil connects the nine worlds of the universe. In Iroquois legend, a pregnant woman creates the world on a turtle’s back by planting a heavenly tree. In Abrahamic religions, a tree of eternal life grows in the Garden of Eden. In his theory of evolution, Darwin conveys the interconnection of all organisms by drawing a tree of life.

Trees

Trees in the Amazon

The largest rainforest on earth, the Amazon contains around 390 billion trees, three times more than stars in the Milky Way.

Incredibly, these trees produce about half of the Amazon’s rainfall. Trees in the Amazon and elsewhere act as giant pumps, sucking water up through their roots and releasing it through leaves, a process known as transpiration. One tree can lift approximately 100 gallons of water out of the ground and release it into the air each day! Every day, trees in the Amazon release 22 billion tons of moisture, seeding the clouds with rain.

Forest giants like the Brazil nut tree or the shihuahuaco also play a crucial role in carbon dioxide absorption. By itself, a mature shihuahuaco sequesters almost one third of an average hectare of rainforest. As a whole, the Amazon rainforest absorbs about 2 billion tons of CO2 per year, about 5% of global annual emissions.

From the Blog: Trees

Caring for the Land of the Amazon

Caring for the Land of the Amazon

Having recently moved to the city of Detroit from central Virginia, I’ve been thinking a lot about land: who owns it, how it’s valued, and what it’s used for. Vacant lots in the city are golden opportunities to rebuild ecosystems that can serve people in a healthy...

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Cloud Forests

Cloud Forests

Cloud forests: how magical they sound! I picture tall trees swirling with clouds, or perhaps trees floating on clouds…My curiosity has percolated long enough that I simply must find out about these forests. As I learn about the many rainforest ecosystems and their...

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Leaders Push for Forests at UN Climate Summit

Leaders Push for Forests at UN Climate Summit

The recent UN Secretary-General’s Climate Summit in New York City has come out with the New York Declaration on Forests, which takes a firm stance on deforestation and repopulating the world’s forests. The declaration, which is endorsed by 27 countries, 8 subnational...

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Mysterious Amazon “Rings” Predate the Amazon Itself

Mysterious Amazon “Rings” Predate the Amazon Itself

It has always been assumed that the Amazon Rainforest was a pristine environment before we began major mining and logging practices in the 19th century. However, new research is showing that mysterious ditches found scattered within the rainforest pre-date the...

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The Start of the Amazon as a Rainforest

The Start of the Amazon as a Rainforest

Two thousand years ago, the Amazon Rainforest was a different landscape than it is today. John Carson, from the University of Reading in England, described the past landscape of the Amazon as “more like a savannah than the rainforest we see today”. This shift was...

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Wanna Change the Music?

This video from Arbio, the Association for the Forest Resilience to the Inter-Oceanic Highway in Peru, uses the sounds of deforestation to drive home an important message of the need to keep forests standing. The Amazon is the world’s largest tropical forest and...

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