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Weekly Gardening Tips: Lessons that trees teach


By Bob Beyfuss

For Capital Region Independent Media

Headshot of a man named Bob Beyfuss.

I don’t recall exactly when I wrote this originally, but it must have been 20 to 30 years ago, perhaps longer. My admiration for trees has only grown since then.

I feel sorry for urbanites who rarely, or never, get to interact with our wooden neighbors. In recent decades we have learned that trees are much more than passive hunks of wood that simply absorb nutrients, sequester carbon and emit oxygen.

We have learned that trees can communicate with other species of trees as well as fungi and plants. Humans consider other living things that don’t speak words we can understand as “primitive.” The older I get, the more I wonder about what is really “primitive” and what is “highly evolved.”

There are trees alive right now that were growing almost 5,000 years ago. That is roughly when humans were just emerging from the Stone Age and writing was being invented.

Here are 10 lessons in life that trees have taught me.

  1. Be firmly rooted in your particular place. Trees are not wishy-washy, nor are they easily pushed around or moved once they have become established. Some humans have these attributes, too. Together they are referred to as “integrity.”
  2. Be firmly rooted, but learn to bend when necessary.  If trees could not bend from the wind or the weight of the snow, they would blow over or break into pieces. Survival requires the ability to bend. Humans, too, are far less likely to break down if they can learn how to bend a little, yet still be able to bounce back.
  3. It is OK to lean a little. Gravity and sunlight cause trees to grow straight up, but wind and other elements plus time can modify an upright stance. It is certainly desirable to remain firmly rooted in one’s beliefs or principles, but it is also possible to lean one way or the other without compromising.
  4. It is important to grow a little each year. Trees that cease to grow soon perish. Growth need not be linear or obvious or even physical, but it should be as regular and routine as the passing of the seasons. Humans who stop growing also begin to die, whether we know it or not.
  5. Shed a little excess baggage each year. The leaves on trees are not permanent! Even so-called “evergreens” shed their needles after two or three seasons. In order for new growth to occur, trees must shed nonproductive leaves. Humans also need to shed some excess baggage on a regular basis (I am not just referring to the extra pounds we seem to put on each year – especially in our “middle” age). We all carry useless emotional baggage that is better left on the ground.
  6. It is good to have tough bark. The most alive and growing tissue on a tree is just beneath the bark. It is called the vascular cambium. A tough bark protects this vital tissue from damage. Humans also need tough bark (thick skin) to protect our tender souls from all sorts of emotional damage.
  7. Develop an extensive, wide-spreading root system. Roots are not just for anchorage. Roots absorb water and nutrients while forming complex interrelationships with other roots, fungi, plants and animals. Humans are also a product of their immediate environment. If we can reach out far and wide, beyond our arm’s or leg’s length (our dripline?) to absorb or use what is out there, we too will thrive.
  8. Tolerate some shade or provide some shade. Most trees will grow bigger, taller and stronger in full sunlight, but others need some shade from their taller companions to survive, or to become established. Many people, too, need some shade from their taller companions to survive. This situation may switch back and forth many times during a lifetime.
  9. Protect your environment. No area of land on this planet has better stewards than the forests. Trees protect soil from erosion, while recycling essential nutrients. They provide food, shelter and refuge, not only for themselves, but for the countless other organisms that depend upon them. Humans worry much about our own tiny space, while often ignoring the needs of the communities (forests) that surround us.
  10. Be useful, even in death. Forest trees that die due to natural causes or harvest are as important to the health and overall forest community as those that live and grow each year. Trees killed for harvest provide wood for housing, furniture, fuel, baseball bats, violins and a million other things that may last many lifetimes. If an ash tree is destined to become a baseball bat, will you teach a child to hit a ball with it? 

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