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14th Anniversary Edition, Live Encounters Magazine, Volume Two Nov-Dec 2023.
Behold the sacred tree(s),
Within Every Living Tree Trunk our Planet’s Soul Watches over Us
by José Truda Palazzo, Jr.
It stood tall and lonely for hundreds of years, its undulating yet firm branches saluting travelers who went through the rolling hills of Northumberland in England, near Hadrian’s Wall. The sight of the magnificent sycamore tree never failed to inspire awe. That is, until modern barbarians decided to cut it down for “fun” a short while ago. In the blink of an eye, for no reason other than a crave for vandalism, it was gone.
The immense feeling of sadness that feel upon many people across the United Kingdom with the news of the sycamore’s murder reached my heart too, thousands of kilometers away at my home in Brazil, where most people couldn’t care less about trees, as the continued devastation of the once mighty Amazon rainforest so horrendously exemplifies. From the old sycamore vandals to the genocidal thugs felling rainforests for short-term profit across the entire tropics, our species has reached the 21st century without properly understanding the importance of these living entities to our own lives. And yet we should, especially in times of a warming planet.
Trees have been around for at least 400 million years in one form or another if we define a “tree” as a plant with a solid trunk. First evolving into conifers and other pine- and cypress-like trees, they sprouted flowers probably like many other plants around 70 million years ago, and never stopped diversifying into an unfathomable array of forms and living habits, constituting forests that once spanned entire continents and becoming incredibly diverse at the tropics, where a single hectare might contain more than 450 species as in the critically endangered Atlantic Forest of Brazil.
They have become self-sustaining, with the Amazon trees growing largely on a poor soil but enriching it with their own fallen leaves and branches (cut down the forest and in a short time the land becomes an impoverished, barren tract); a haven for wildlife, offering shelter, food in the forms of fruits, flowers, leaves and saps; and a rainmaker and thermal regulator for vast regions and even the entire planet, creating atmospheric moisture by their transpiration and nurturing springs and streams that become rivers, absorbing excess carbon from the atmosphere and releasing oxygen – all in all veritable life-givers to every other creature on Earth.
All these aspects of the truly sacred nature of trees, their intrinsic biological generosity towards the planet and ourselves, is magnified when we look at the urban environment where, for good or evil, most of humankind now lives. A single mature tree in a city can lower the temperature around it by a few degrees by shadowing the pavement; it can cut on your air-conditioning bill if placed smartly in front of the afternoon sun that hits your building. It can harbor a stunning diversity of animal life, from birds and mammals to insects and other arthropods, and it helps catch, slow down and infiltrate rainwater in the soil in a way that effectively reduces flooding.
Why is the vast majority of humankind, then, so indifferent – if not vigorously agonistic – towards trees then? Is it because we evolved into large societies heavily dependent upon agriculture and cattle ranching, both demanding extensively cleared lands to make (huge) profits? Or was it the biblical order to subjugate the Earth the absolution for our widespread environmental crimes? Or both, and more?
Whatever the reason for our species’ ingrained dendroclastic tendencies, it is time for us to abandon these. We must recognize that humankind can only survive on a planet with widespread, pristine and restored forests, including urban ones. And while we do need Amazon-sized green canopies to act as great repositories of biodiversity and planet-sized refrigerators and humidifiers for the Earth, we desperately need to reclaim green spaces in our cities and towns for our own individual health’s sake and that of the creatures that insist on surviving around us.
And although most landscape architects (what a pompous and technocratic term!) keep insisting on anachronistic rows of separate trees and geometrical gardens, what our urban environments need most is more “bush”, more “scrub”, more “piled up” trees! Yes, for creating these aggregations of native or mostly native tree and shrub species is the way in which we can accrue more benefits of urban tree planting.
This has been proven around the world thanks to the initiative of Japanese Professor Akira Miyawaki, whose Miyawaki Pocket Forests are now being reproduced even in very small urban corners, highway roundabouts, and in every available space among the built landscape. Miyawaki-type forests are the best way to ensure biodiversity conservation and restoration in the urban environment, also raising the potential of all other benefits I already mentioned above.
Trees need a revolution. A revolution in our minds. Not only we should care about the fate of the distant, remnant tropical rainforests and temperate woods, using our power as consumers to stop buying products from deforestation (timber, meat, palm oil, whatever – invest a few minutes of your time learning where your daily consumption items come from and making better decisions!) but also, we need to realize that each and every one of us can do something meaningful by planting trees around our homes, workspaces, urban parks.
Be it individual native tress from our own regions or creating little Miyawaki pocket forests with several species at every available corner. There’s nothing as generous as planting trees; I am fully aware that I will never see most of those I plant reach a mature age and splendor. They are gifts for the future generations, and one of my great pleasures nowadays is to plant trees with my grandson, who fortunately already recognizes the sacredness of trees, the sacredness of planting. For each and every tree that survives our species’ ravage is a miracle in itself, harboring so many other miracles in its daily churning of oxygen in the atmosphere by photo-synthesis, in its underground internet of roots talking to other plants by means of fungal hyphae.
In its capacity to touch the hearts of at least a few of us in a manner as to make its felling a sin. To make the huge banyan trees, sycamores, oaks, kapoks, but also the slender palms, bignonias, and fruit-bearing myrtaceae more important than the moldy stone temples that illegitimately have taken their place both physically and mentally over time.
Perhaps it is time to abandon the heresy of worshipping so many unseen deities that over thousands of years have led us to war and chaos, and at last, at least for those of us who can see, find the sacred, the divine in the humble yet truly miraculous shadow of a garden tree. And don’t be ashamed of hugging it – it deserves every day a hug, a prayer, and a thank you.
© José Truda Palazzo, Jr.
José Truda Palazzo, Jr., a Brazilian writer and environmental consultant, has spent most of his 45-year career working for marine conservation initiatives, but is also a gardener with several books published on the subject of wildlife gardening, and an avid tree planter together with his grandson João Pedro. A former government delegate to international environmental treaties, he now serves as Senior Conservation Officer for IBRACON, the Brazilian Institute for Nature Conservation, and as Institutional Development Coordinator for the Brazilian Humpback Whale Institute, as well as an elected Member of the National Environmental Council of Brazil. A Life Member of both the Australian Conservation Foundation and the National Wildlife Federation of the United States, he also collaborates with task forces and specialist groups of IUCN, the World Conservation Union.