We revere ancient trees, in awe of their size, their age, their beauty and the stories they may have told us if only they could speak, but do we consider trees as teachers, even healers?
As a child, I saw ancient baobabs in Africa, and the famed oak of Sherwood forest, estimated to be over 800 years old. I have walked in the Tingle forests of Western Australia – the world’s oldest Eucalypts – amongst the gnarled and stunted 1000 year old trees of the high mountain Aletsch forest in Switzerland, looked up into the branches of the towering redwoods of Vancouver Island. Every tree has its story and I will always remember my mother telling me of the strings of palm trees that marked the slave trading routes to the coast, and the Bodhi trees of Bodh Gaya that are said to be direct descendants of the tree under which the Buddha meditated. All of our trees mark the history of the environment in which they have stood for so long and the changes they have experienced.
Trees are vital to human life, to the human psyche. I travelled in Malawi where so few trees remain because population pressure means they have been cut for firewood; there is no shade under which the old men can sit and yarn, and women walk miles to collect even the smallest of twigs for kindling. I have felt the heart ache of looking at the denuded landscape of Queenstown in Tasmania where the forest had been cut to feed the mine smelter or died because of the fumes.
We feel a deep connection with trees yet our history has been one of destruction, not conservation. Perhaps it is the human paradox that we are now researching into the healing power of the forest, recognising the need to green our urban environments where once natural stands of trees stood for aeons. Recent discoveries about how trees communicate with one another, and the Wood Wide Web can only leave us in awe of the magic of nature.
Tending to our own trees
When we first arrived in Australia and bought our land it had been a dairy farm, the earth compacted and few trees on site. Before it was settled by Europeans, this was a land of magnificent rainforest with many red cedar trees, of which few trees remain. On our farm, we have found the remains of tree trunks, still magnificent in their decay. It became obvious to us that what our land needed was trees; trees for soil improvement, trees for carbon fixing, trees for shade, trees to bring back the birds, trees to start to bring the land home to itself. Now our trees, grown from seed 20 years ago, are 25 metres tall and we have the beginnings of a forest. The soil has been tested and is rich in nutrients quite different from the soil under our macadamia trees or in the cow paddocks. We see a greater variety of birds, flocks of fruit bats, possums and the occasional koala roost in the branches, and wallabies and bandicoots use the undergrowth for shade and protection.
When you collect seeds, nurture seedlings and watch trees grow, you develop a deep respect for them. They are resilient, they are wise, they work together with one another and with the forest’s other living beings. They have much to teach us about sharing and about community, about the weathering of life’s storms and droughts, about living in harmony with the rhythm of the seasons. Science once again is catching up with nature and we are slowly expanding our knowledge about the miracle that is the forest.
Ecologist, Suzanne Simard explains that forests across the world are cooperative systems. While we are so familiar with the above ground forest, beneath the surface of the soil there is an amazingly busy network. Tree scientists fondly call this the wood wide web, where tree roots work symbiotically with below ground fungi which send out a mycelium all through the soil, picking up nutrients and water for the tree and in return receiving photosynthate from the plant. The plant is fixing carbon and then trading it for the nutrients that it needs for its metabolism. It works out for both of them.
The system is not only about exchange of nutrients but also about exchange of information. “The temperatures are soaring, there is no sign of rain, the seedlings to your east are struggling, beetles are attacking.” The tree responds to this “conversation” by making the changes needed to conserve water, by sending nutrients to smaller tress and by excreting beetle deterrents. What examples of cooperation, adaptation, and information transfer!
So, when I walk around our young forest I ponder on trees and all they have to teach us, of how each species is adapted to the north coast of NSW and yet how individual trees adapt to the unique environment they are growing in, the climate, the soil quality and the other trees around them. I ponder on what they have to teach us in life and in Medicine, about how to develop awareness of inter-relatedness, how to disseminate information, how every living being holds knowledge and purpose, none more or less important than another, rather all working cooperatively for the betterment of the whole, and how to listen deeply for who or whatever is saying, “I am here, how can we support each other?”
More than this, each time I walk around our emerging forest I have an opportunity to feel restored. I know if I am troubled that my busy mind can take over with thoughts and imagined conversations fighting for space. However, if I walk deliberately conscious of visuals, sounds, smells, energy, if I take time to more closely observe leaf shape and colour, to listen for specific bird calls, feel the different textures of tree bark, if I slow down and feel my feet on the dead leaves and spongy forest floor, then the busy mind settles and in the spaciousness life comes into perspective.
Trees as medicine
Japanese physician Qing Li, chairman of the Japanese Society for Forest Medicine and author of Forest Bathing calls this “outward listening” to “tune into the forest’s frequency by slowing down, listening in all directions, and even closing your eyes to hear more keenly.”
He has researched the effect of forests on the human psyche and indeed on physical health. The results have been so confirming of the healing power of the forest that the Japanese government has invested in further research, set aside areas of woodland and encourages its people to visit forests. Amongst other things he has found that ‘forest bathing’ reduced stress cortisol production, reduced blood pressure, heart rate, stress and anxiety, and improved sleep and creativity. It was even suggested it had an effect on depression and cancer. In addition, the aromatic oils trees use as germicides, essential oils termed phytocides, may have an effect on human immune systems. A small study of natural killer cell activity before and after forest bathing, showed a sustained increase in killer cell activity. I always feel very excited when simple sustainable activities can have a profound effect on the human body, possibly preventing illness and reducing the need for pharmaceuticals.
Even if you are not blessed to have a forest in your backyard, science has shown nature’s benefit to health. In a simple study looking at recovery from cholecystectomy, patients with a view over trees from their hospital bed were compared to those looking out over a brick wall, and it was found that patients even connecting remotely to nature had shorter post-operative stays, fewer negative evaluations and took fewer strong analgesics.
Studies suggest that connecting with nature in hospital gardens reduces stress and improves clinical outcomes in patients, and increases wellbeing of staff. Even indoor plants or images of plants can affect healing. There is potential for hospital gardens to improve medical outcomes, patient and staff satisfaction, and even hospital economies.
Writing recently about biophilia – the effect of nature on human health – Balaji Bikshandi who works in Tasmania, home to stunning natural wilderness, says:
“while waiting for such robust studies, we could open our hospital windows to the magnificent views that Australia is blessed with – or design future health care spaces with biophilia in mind.”
Sometimes, it seems to me, that modern man has lost connection with nature. It is no longer necessary for us to be so aware of seasonal changes, tides or moon cycles. Many of our urban developments fail to recognise the beneficial effects of nature within the built-up environment. Our urban hospitals, perhaps in particular psychiatric hospitals, fail to embrace nature as therapy. Yet I believe all of us have a deep innate need to connect with nature, and may feel this more strongly when we are physically or emotionally troubled. A walk or a swim in nature can be calming and revitalising, helping to bring us back to our centre, and restore our connection with our essence.
Take a moment to look at the trees around you. Consider what they may have to teach us and how they can be healing. Gentle walks in nature, observing the beauty and harmony around us, give us the opportunity to connect more deeply with ourselves, reminding us of our own beauty, and inspiring us to bring it out and live it more in our everyday lives.