The healing power of trees

I am still recovering from a bad bout of pneumonia.  I spent a month in bed with little energy to do anything but look out the window.  Fortunately, that means that I was looking through the branches of my Coast Live Oak all day.  As the sun moved in the sky from the East to the West, the illumination on the tree branches changed the perspective.  In the late afternoon, when the light comes from the West, the deeply creviced bark of the tree was high-lighted.

The view from my bed:  Coast Live Oak
The view from my bed: Coast Live Oak
Robin and chicks
Robin and chicks

The birds are busy this time of the year, finding their nesting partners, staking out the territory for their nest and building it, then hunting for the insects that their nestlings require when they are young.  Even birds that will be primarily fruit and seed eaters as adults are fed insects as babies because they need the high quality protein.  Their activity in the tree contributed to my peaceful view.

I don’t know how much of a role this scene played in my recovery.  What I know is that it was the only source of pleasure in what was otherwise an unpleasant episode in my life.

“A Year in Trees”

I hadn’t planned to tell this personal story until reading an op-ed in the New York Times on Sunday, April 6, 2013, entitled “A Year in Trees.”  The author, Bill Hayes, tells us about the important role that the trees surrounding his apartment in New York City played in his recovery from his grief from the loss of his long-time partner in life.

Tree of Heaven is a handsome tree.
Tree of Heaven is a handsome tree.

The species of the trees that were visible in the windows of his apartment was Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), a non-native tree that is despised by native plant fans who consider it an invasive weed.  This judgment did not influence Mr. Hayes’ appreciation for the trees, though he acknowledges that opinion.

Mr. Hayes watched those trees through their seasonal changes for the year he spent in that apartment, just as I watched my tree during the month I spent in bed.  He called it “Tree TV.”

One particular episode in that year of those trees illustrated the role they played in the healing of his profound grief: 

“…during a ferocious thunderstorm, I’d just managed to escape, I found the boughs being tossed about like rag dolls.  The branches thrashed violently—whipping back and forth, slamming against the windows with a thud, sliding down slowly before being lifted aloft again.  I was riveted.  The trees, clearly overmatched by the combination of winds, rain and lightning were not fighting this storm but yielding to it.” 

The trees were a metaphor for the final stage of grief, acceptance or a yielding to the sorrow that incorporates it into your life.  They were also a reminder of our resilience.

Scientific verification of the healing power of trees

These anecdotal stories are probably only meaningful to those who have had the experience.  However, there is much scientific evidence that these experiences of the healing power of trees are in fact universalWe have reported several such studies in an earlier post.

Now there is a new study which used a different technique to test the affect that trees have on people:

“New research out of Edinburgh [Scotland] supports the idea that spending time in green spaces with trees reduces stress and brain fatigue.  What makes this study different from earlier research is that it looks at real-time data from the brains of people while they were actually outside, moving through the city and the parks.  The study makes use of a recently developed lightweight, portable version of the electroencephalogram, a technology that studies brain wave patterns.” *

The loss of our urban forest will be the loss of our peace

Our urban forest shields us from the noise and visual chaos of the densely populated city.  It also protects us from the wind.  Destroying our urban forest will expose us to more noise and wind.  The landscape that native plant advocates wish to substitute for the urban forest is native grassland and dune scrub.  These landscapes will not provide a shield from the noise and chaos of the city.  In losing our urban forest, we will lose some of our peace.




4 thoughts on “The healing power of trees”

  1. Yes, indeed it is a moving article, which resonates on so many levels. Sorry to hear you were sick, but glad you have healed. Certainly we all know about Anne Frank’s tree, but few of us stop to think about the restorative power of trees to help us through illness or other personal challenges. Thank you for writing this piece.

  2. This is SO beautiful. And true. A friend told me that she just read that Ailanthus altissima fossils have been found here, so is it truly introduced, or an old friend returned? Many introduced species were once native here, including horses.

    When almost all old growth forest has been destroyed why would anyone want to kill any tree?

    1. Interesting news about fossil evidence of the Tree of Heaven in the Bay Area. However, we have heard that there is fossil evidence of Monterey pine, which native plant advocates want to eradicate in the Bay Area. Given that our climate is very similar to the home range of Monterey pine, we shouldn’t be surprised. And since the Monterey pine is almost endangered in its home range, shouldn’t we make a home for it here? We think so.

      The ranges of native plants and animals are changing and will continue to change until we do something about climate change. If we don’t let them move in response to changes in the climate, we doom them to extinction.

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