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Tree sanity.


In an unscientific survey, I've discovered that if teachers, politicians, and government bureaucrats--guardians of public opinion--are asked trees are so nice to have around, the majority will reply something like this:

"Oh, trees retard erosion, convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, give wildlife shelter and food..." If the replier's lifestyle is somewhat nonconformist, he or she may add that trees also contribute to our aesthetic environment.

In short, though most people claim fervent pro-tree status, they tend to back up their positions with reasons that are bland and technocratish.

This is troubling. In fact, though I'm sensitive about my privacy and am generally a calm, introvertish sort of man, this discovery impels me to an action that is both unfamiliar and uncomfortable. I find myself obliged to publicly declare that without trees, I'd go nuts. I need trees for my sanity ! Don't get me wrong. I'm not claiming that all people can stay sane by hanging around trees, or even that I, to maintain my equilibrium, always need a tree within hugging distance. It's just that being around deeply rooted, graceful, generous trees produces in me a feeling of being deeply rooted in life. Trees cause me to feel less awkward than I really am; around trees, I seem to possess a tree-like, magnanimous spirit. In New Age phraseology, trees provide my paradigm for a healthy and beautiful spirit.

Of course, I can imagine other paradigms capable of nurturing a sane human spirit. For instance, in certain ethnic neighborhoods with honored traditions and extended family ties, sanity might result simply from the sensory-rich, identity-crystallizing, supportive environment. Or it might flow from robust melodies in Beethoven symphonies, or the overpowering spirituality of Bach's fugues.

I myself, however, am no honored babushka on Chicago's East Side, and I don't even own a good sound system. Trees provide my sanity-paradigms.

The other day I picked up a thin volume of writings by Ralph Waldo Emerson. To enhance the contemplative, insighfful impact of the book's messages, the publishers interspersed among the printed pages artful prints of finely veined tree leaves, moody winter-tree silhouettes, bouquets of twigs with leaves and flowers on them.

This book's publishers and I agree with Emerson's claim that "the best part of every mind is not that which he knows, but that which hovers in gleams, suggestions, tantalizing, unpossessed, before him." And we also agree that such insights make more sense--in fact, create pure magic--when accompanied by images such as willow leaves scattered across a smoothly worn streambed.

Thing is, "magic" generally isn't recognized in our world. In fact, in our technological society most of us relegate whatever can't be scientifically confirmed to the garbage heap of superstition. This trait has served us well by keeping us skeptical about Ouija boards, telekinesis, and weird cults. However, this same leeriness has blinded us to too many of life's other unprovable but potentially enriching phenomena. Phenomena such as the way trees can sustain us by offering profound paradigms reinforcing our emotional stability.

Therefore, let me count a few of the magical ways in which trees help compose my spirit:

Being around old, gnarled trees that continue to leaf out year after year allays my own sense of being temporary, ephemeral. More than in any other activity, when I plant a tree, I feel that I'm buying into a tangible sort of immortality.

The variety of pleasing tree forms (lithe willows, scraggly oaks, towering redwoods) increases my admiration for the bounty and diversity that permeate all of nature. This reinforces my basic belief in an ultimately charitable God-force that takes joy in tinkering with variations on a theme.

Wood: To my ears, nothing resonates with solidness and friendliness more than a knuckle-knock on well-cured wood. To my eyes, nothing shines more congenially than wood well planed. To my nose, nothing smells more promising than wood being tooled. To my aesthetic sense, nothing weathers more nobly than wood that long has offered service to mankind, and nothing decays in a more earth-friendly manner. Yes, I should like to live, die, and revert to humus like wood.

Winter trees' dead-looking, black silhouettes bear buds that soon will burst with spring's bug-buzzed flowers and expanding leaves. In summer, trees fill with bird and squirrel nests, cool shadows, raucous cicadas, and stridulating crickets. Trees reach autumn decked with succulent fruit, and the season culminates with October's dazzling and good-humored leaf-swirls. Seeing all this, I'm sensitized to my own awakenings, maturing, and the coming of my own silhouette-winter.

Deeply rooted in the earth, trees occupy themselves simply but exuberantly with life's two main businesses: making a living (photosynthesizing) and procreation. Yet these tasks are finessed so elegantly -- with eon-refined photosynthetic pathways, complex pollination strategies, pleasing design, extreme biosociability--that somehow in my own life I'm encouraged to seek higher levels of perfection, refinement, and magnanimity.

I'm not alone in finding metaphor in trees. Our culture speaks not of the "rock of life" or the "stream of life" but of the "Tree of Life." Desert-evolved Judeo-Christian tradition, so rich in allusion to sand, camels, and stony wastes, asserts that as soon as God caused dry land to appear, He (or, surely more appropriately, She) brought forth "... grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree...'" (Genesis 1:12).

Grass to tint the earth a hopeful, pregnant hue. Herbs for healing and basic sustenance. And the tree just for making us happier, and therefore saner, I'd say.

So why don't we tree lovers just say openly that trees are important for reasons that can't always be articulated? Or assigned monetary values? I am a gray-bearded, middle-aged man so reserved that I don't dance or even sing in public. But I do hereby sing and dance this public declaration:

I need trees to keep from going crazy!
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Title Annotation:Essay; the relaxing effects of trees
Author:Conrad, Jim
Publication:American Forests
Date:May 1, 1992
Previous Article:The forests of Central Europe: new perspectives.
Next Article:Outlook for the Earth Summit.

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