The View From The Treehouse
Dr. Lorin Swinehart
“Men will become poor because they will not have a love for trees….If you don’t love trees, you don’t love God.”
St. Nikephoros of Chios
It was actually more of a tree platform than a treehouse, a plain square board nailed into the fork of a huge box elder in our backyard overlooking the neighbor’s cow pasture. There were three trees in a row alongside the line fence, and we neighborhood kids had similar tree houses in all three.
Yet, my treehouse was a place of solitude most of the time. It was perhaps ten or twelve feet above the ground, but somehow I took smug satisfaction in my belief that nothing could get to me up there. When you are up in a tree, you can enjoy the companionship of other trees. Treetops become your neighbors. A good, serene place to while away summer hours while watching cows grazing contentedly in the adjoining pasture and the wind wafting across nearby fields of wheat and oats, creating waves that resemble those on large bodies of water.
I was free to indulge my boyhood fantasies of living a wild free life in a tree like Tarzan or Bomba the Jungle Boy. Bomba was accompanied by a friendly monkey and Tarzan had his simian buddy Cheetah, a loyal chimpanzee. I had to be satisfied with my terrier Buddy, whose dog house was beneath the next tree. Of course, Cheetah and the monkey could swing on lianas among the treetops with their human companions, while Buddy could not.
My dad worked as a shipping clerk for a local manufacturer of pumps. Sometimes, he brought home large numbers of surplus narrow leather rings called pump suckers that were no longer being used by the manufacturer. Those, he wove together into pump sucker whips, which we could go around cracking like Indiana Jones. One lengthy pump sucker whip was knotted onto my favorite limb, enabling us to swing about as though in a rainforest.
For communication purposes, we had tin can telephones strung from tree to tree. We imagined that we could actually sense sound waves running along the lengths of the attached kite string as we dispatched secret messages back and forth. It would never have occurred to me that the trees themselves could transmit messages to one another
It has been said many times that two lovers recognize themselves in one another. In a similar sense, we may recognize our kinship with our fellow creatures. DNA analysis has enabled us to better comprehend the relationships between all living things. We now know that we humans share 98.9% of our DNA with our nearest mammalian relatives, chimpanzees and 98.7% with the chimps’ lookalike bonobos. In his latest publication Four Fifths Grizzly, biologist Douglas Chadwick reminds us that humans share 80-90% of our DNA with Ursa arctos horribillis. He goes on to point out that we share 84% of our DNA with man’s best friend, the dog, 85% with pesky mice, 85% with cattle, 7% with bacteria and 18% with bakers’ yeast.
Turning from fauna to flora, how closely related are we to trees and other plant life. The difference between a molecule of chlorophyll and a molecule of hemoglobin amounts to only a single atom, one of magnesium to provide chlorophyll for plants and one of iron for animals. Atoms of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon and hydrogen coalesce around each. We humans are biologically akin to all living things, even trees.
The world’s great religions teach that all men are brothers. Biologically, all living things are related, even those creatures we would rather not think about, the black mamba and the brown recluse, for instance. We share DNA with those fell creatures as well as with more friendly puppies and bunny rabbits.
The writings of German botanist and forester Peter Wohlleben have shaken up the scientific world in recent years, causing sometimes uncomfortable questions to be asked, such as whether or not plants feel pain. Wohlleben suggests that trees communicate with one another, a groundbreaking view in itself. In his book The Hidden Life of Trees, Wohlleben goes on to say that trees warn one another of impending threats and share nutrients with ailing or wounded others nearby, a bizarre concept to many, but not surprising to the ancient Celts or to some Native American cultures such as the Ojibwe or the Potawatomi, those much wiser for living lives in close proximity to nature.
A recent article in The Science Times reports on research with plants conducted at Tel Aviv University. The results are, to say the least, startling. Plants emit high frequency sounds when subjected to stress. Plants that have been denied water or that have had stems severed emit ultrasonic noise, between 20 and 100 kilohertz, and send out distress signals to other plants. When, for instance, a tomato plant’s stem was cut, it sent out 25 stress sounds per hour.
Some plants register pain when leaves are plucked. Some release unsavory tasting chemicals when threatened, probably to repel insects. In the King Arthur legend, it is said that the Druidic seer Merlin would converse with the blades of grass while crossing a meadow. In reality, grass that has been recently cut emits chemical distress signals, creating the fragrance we associate with, for instance, a newly mowed lawn or field of alfalfa.
Other research at the University of Missouri in Columbia has revealed that plants respond to the sound of chewing while being eaten by insects or caterpillars. Plants create chemical responses in order to poison enemies or warn other plants of danger. Some emit signal reactions in order to attract beneficial insects.
If a tree is a sentient being, then a forest is a living entity. Whenever we scale a fence to enter a wood, if we are aware, we are immersing ourselves in life itself, inundated with Spirit, much like Emerson’s concept in his essay “The Oversoul”. Given such realities, how, then, are we to live, given that all living things are both eaters and eaten, including humans. With our elevated powers of reason, we are probably the only creatures who can limit our footprint upon the creation, place restrictions upon the amount of pain and destruction we cause, develop a more kindly and sensitive view of the world around us, cliches and platitudes no less accurate for being so.
Our vandalistic treatment of trees stands as horrific affirmation of the dark side of the human character, that typified by cruelty, rapacity, greed, and mindlessness, the obsession with immediate gratification, enthralled by an image of ourselves as special entities separate from the rest of the natural world. Truth be told, we humans could not survive without trees. Trees provide more than lumber, construction materials, firewood, and wood pulp for paper. Trees provide food, carbon storage, energy production, and prevent soil erosion as well as providing places of spiritual peace and renewal.
It is estimated that there may be up to 3 trillion trees existing on the earth today. And yet, an estimated 24,000 square miles of Amazon rainforest have been destroyed by human activities over the course of the last ten years. Other rainforests in the Congo region of Africa and Southeast Asia, even Australia continue to be decimated by humans, while forests in temperate zones in the US, Canada and elsewhere are being tragically and violently clear-cut. Attempts are being made to reforest parts of the world. In 2019, Ethiopia planted 352 million seedlings, while India planted 220 million during the same year. The Trees for Jane program, a UN initiative to plant 1 trillion new trees before 2030, is being fostered by the world-famous primatologist Jane Goodall.
And yet, Goodall quotes an old Chinese proverb that the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. It takes time for trees to grow to maturity, years during which the massacre of the world’s forests continues. Unlike the world of Middle Earth depicted by J.R.R. Tolkien, we have no entities like the giant ent Treebeard to protect trees.
As a boy sitting high in my silvan sanctuary in my parents’ backyard, as fascinated by jungles and the creatures who inhabit them as I was, I am sure that I had no clue as to the fragile nature of the trees we lived among. With age comes awareness, and with awareness comes responsibility. As Dr. Seuss’s character the Lorax warns, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
A few days ago, my wife LaVon and I picked eleven bushels of apples in a friend’s orchard, bountiful gifts of the trees that would otherwise have gone unharvested and unappreciated by passersby. Apples, walnuts, pinion nuts, almonds, pecans, bananas, all fruits and nuts as well as botanicals, perhaps many yet to be discovered, that ease pain and treat serious medical conditions, are manifestations of the generosity of trees.
Over the years, I have inwardly and sometimes outwardly winced at the sight of a living tree being pared back to make room for power lines, sometimes chopped down altogether in the name of someone’s distorted concept of progress, but I did not consider that the horribly dismembered trees had experienced pain.
The old tree that once held my treehouse still stands in the corner of what was once my parents’ backyard. During those carefree summer days of my youth, it would never have occurred to me that the spikes my dad drove into the tree’s flesh may have caused it pain. In fact, such a possibility had never occurred to me until quite recently.
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