I like trees. For some reason I’ve never lived in a place where trees are the most conspicuous feature which is strange to me because I really like trees.
Trees don’t move. When I first started hiking I had a friend who could name birds that he spotted. I found this too difficult. The birds never stood still long enough for me to compare them to the little pictures in field guides. So I switched to trees. Trees just stand there passively while I match pictures of their leaves, bark and size to the pictures and diagrams in the books. I remember being on a back-packing trip puzzling over a towering specimen when a passerby noticed my confusion and said “Pseudotsuga macrocarpa, Big-cone Douglas Fir.” He turned around and named the other trees around me “white fir Pinaceae Abies concolor, and that one is Ponderosa Pine, Pinus ponderosa” I was amazed. I decided he was Mr. Tree. I found them in my guide and can usually identify them still.
Holland, where I used to live, is a densely populated country. It has the same population density as Japan. As a result there are precious few wild forests there, none that are original growth. The majority of trees are planted in orderly rows and rarely so big that one can’t easily wrap arms around them. I hated this and it’s one of the reasons I wanted to return to the U.S.A. Just to find trees I couldn’t wrap my arms all the way around.
Trees tell time by opening and closing their leaves or flowers with the sun, changing the color of their leaves with the seasons, and recording the weather from year to year in their growth rings. The leaves change color because as the green chlorophyl departs it leaves behind other pigments in the leaves. Trees practice chemical warfare dropping poisoned leaves around themselves to thwart competition. Poor trees can’t go anywhere so they do whatever they can do to defend themselves. Trees are home to hundreds of animals and tons of CO2. They reduce global warming by storing that CO2 and they increase global warming by absorbing solar energy that would have otherwise been reflected back into space.
Trees store solar energy. Trees are made of hydrocarbons that are comprised of water from the ground and CO2 from the atmosphere. The energy stored in these hydrocarbon bonds comes from the sun and is released again when we burn the wood. Compress the wood very hard for a few million years and it turns to coal which releases more CO2 but also more energy than wood simply because it is made of compressed trees.
Decidious or broad leaf trees are very slowly taking over for coniferous or needle trees. Leafy trees appeared much sooner, but began replacing coniferous trees in the Eocene (about 36 million years ago) so we have plenty of time before we lose pines and firs alltogether. You can see what looks like evidence of this, though, in the fall in Colorado when stands of Aspens spread out in yellow blotches in huge seas of dark green Douglas Firs.
The bark of Ponderosa’s smells like vanilla or butterscotch. It’s better when the bark is orange and warm and whether it’s vanilla or butterscotch depends on the person, but it’s great fun to stick your nose on the bark of tree and breath deep. Piñon pines grow at higher elevations in the southwest and yield the famous pine nut which is a nearly complete food offering fats, carbohydrates, fiber and protein in a tiny convenient package. Squirrels usually horde these before hikers get a chance. The Bristle-cone pine is one of the worlds oldest living inhabitants. Methuselah, in the white mountains on the border between California and Nevada is the oldest living tree at more than 4700 years. The oldest Bristle-cones live in the harshest environments where they receive very little water and grow incredibly slowly. The idea that starving makes one live longer has been demonstrated in mice and rats too. Bristlecones look like our krumholz trees, the stunted firs that live at the edge of inhabitable space for trees at around 12,000 feet in Colorado. Krumholz which means bent wood in German is apt description for these twisted old trees.
A tree once cured a post-teenage depression of mine and I don’t think I’ll ever forget the moment when I realized how simple and beautiful a spreading California Black Oak could be and decided at that moment that being sad wasn’t really necessary for me any more. Trees mean even more to others. In the sixth century a man sat under a Bodhi tree and vowed not to move until he found enlightenment. The Buddhist religion is founded on his experience and teachings. I visited that tree in Sarnath, India.
So, yes, I am, in fact a tree-hugger, although I like it better when they’re too big to even get your arms around. I am not saying we should place trees above humans in our priorities, but before you decide; hug a tree and see how nice it feels. Except if you live in Arizona, where the state tree is the beautiful saguaro. I wouldn’t hug one of those. Ouch.