What We Humans Can Learn from Trees

“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” (Chief Seattle, 1854)

DSCN3070I try not to make it a practice to write about things of which I know nothing. That just seems common sensical. But sometimes, there are things that are so grand and so mysterious that writing about them is how I can get closer, how I can touch the magic.

Recently, Bill and I spent a few days in the Olympic National Forest with some dear friends. After so many months of pandemic isolation, it felt wonderful to get away and to socialize among our fellow vaccinatees. When we move up to Seattle forty years ago, the place I wanted most to see was the Hoh Rainforest in the Olympic National Park. Life had other plans for us, however, and it took four decades for that expedition to take place.

It was worth the wait.

In anticipation of that adventure, and since our return, I’ve been reading about trees and forests. What I’ve learned has both inspired and disheartened me. There is so much we are only recently beginning to understand about forest ecology, or as some are calling it, the “Wood Wide Web.” What scientists are discovering is a game-changer for planetary health, but human action—or inaction—puts us in a race to heal the earth before it’s too late.

When most of us look at trees, we see only what is above-ground: the trunk, the branches, the leaves, maybe some of the creatures inhabiting it. We may notice that this tree is growing very closely to that one, or that mosses, fungi, and other smaller vegetation cluster in their vicinity, but we tend to see everything as separate—just as we view people as separate from one another.

attribution: Donna Cameron

A Mother Tree, nurturing seedlings and providing nutrients for its neighbors

Evidence from science now clearly indicates the interrelatedness of all these living florae. Trees and plants and fungi are not only intertwined physically, they communicate in complex and sophisticated ways. They protect one another, they share essential nutrients, they warn of danger from insects, weather, or chemicals. If a tree is ailing, other trees—regardless of species—send nourishment its way. If a tree is dying, it “wills” its remaining vital nutrients to its neighbors. And even in death, a “mother tree” continues to nurture the forest, providing sustenance for the next generation of seedlings.

The beauty and complexity of these ecosystems is staggering and our ignorance of them is contributing to their demise, which may, in turn, contribute to our own. These essential forests help sustain our breathable atmosphere. They cool the earth by reflecting sunlight and providing precipitation; they capture and store carbon emissions and help regulate climate; they contribute to rich and fertile soil. Yet in much of the world, sustainable logging practices have been superseded by clear-cutting and other destructive practices that jeopardize land, soil, water, atmosphere, and living organisms across the planet.

Even now, as we are beginning to understand the critical importance of forests—especially old growth forests—we struggle to communicate it. Somewhere I read that most of us don’t even have the vocabulary to comprehend the complex bionetwork that has been evolving for as much as 600 million years into a vast and intricate symbiotic community. And we puny human newcomers pretend to have all the answers…. Our adorable arrogance may be our ultimate downfall.

In his extensively researched novel, The Overstory, Richard Powers explores the parallel world of the forest, revealing its magnificence and interconnectedness, and the potential catastrophe awaiting us if we fail to learn from it. The novel’s characters, settings, and stories are as interwoven as the forest itself, making for a read that is dense, breathtaking, and unputdownable. The book is well-deserving of its 2019 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. I recommend it highly.

There are plenty of non-fiction explorations of forests, as well. A good place to start is Ferris Jabr’s recent article for The New York Times Magazine, “The Social Life of Forests,” which follows Professor Suzanne Simard, ground-breaking forest ecologist and pioneer who is leading the way in this new  field of research. Her own recent book, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, is also a page-turner. Another book I just finished and absolutely loved was Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s Rooted, which talks extensively about trees, but also explores other amazing and complicated ways humans are connected to our wild and mysterious natural world.

There is still so much I want to learn and understand about forests and trees. They have a lot to teach the human community—if we would only listen. I feel blessed to have had a recent opportunity to see one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring places on the planet. I hope what I saw and felt in the Rainforest will help me become a better and more responsible citizen of the earth.

“I do not think the measure of a civilization is how tall its buildings of concrete are, but rather how well its people have learned to relate to their environment and fellow man.” (Sun Bear of the Chippewa Tribe)

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Don’t Settle for Nice

“Mean is easy. Mean is lazy. Mean is self-satisfied and slothful. You know what takes effort? Being kind. Being patient. Being respectful.” (Jake Tapper)

[In the six years I’ve been blogging about kindness I’ve sometimes strayed to other topics, but kindness remains my North Star. Usually, I feel confident that kindness will surmount the evil, greed, intolerance, and disregard that threatens the world, but sometimes I am stunned and baffled by the meanness of many of my fellow humans. As we approach the most important election America has ever faced, amidst a global pandemic, I am periodically going to revisit and reexamine some of my earliest thoughts about kindness and explore them in context of today’s circumstances.]

Since the publication of A Year of Living Kindly: Choices That Will Change Your Life and the World Around You, I’ve been blessed to have many opportunities to talk about kindness—at bookstores, libraries, service organizations, conferences, radio shows, and podcasts. The question I am asked most often is, “What’s the difference between kind and nice? Aren’t they the same thing?”

To some, the difference may be wholly semantic, but I believe there is a vast difference, and the times we are currently living in require that we choose kindness.

It’s fairly easy to be nice. Nice is polite. It’s doing what is expected: smiling at the cashier, holding a door, speaking courteously, not offending. Nice is safe. It doesn’t ask me to take any risk or to make a connection. I can be nice and still make judgments about people. I can be nice and still merely tolerate others, with an insincere smile on my face. I can be nice and remain indifferent, not caring if the person I’m interacting with is getting what they need.

But kind asks more of me. Continue reading

What a Wonderful World

“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” (Chief Seattle, 1854)

Attribution: Donna CameronIt would be unkind of me to refer to the governor and bureaucrats of a certain Southern state (think orange juice and Mickey Mouse) as nincompoops.

What is the kind response in the face of people who say or believe things that defy reason?  In Florida—a state critically susceptible to the effects of rising sea-levels—state officials have banned the use of the terms “climate change,” “global warming,” or “sustainability” in any official communications, emails, or reports.  How does one engage in intelligent discussion about weighty issues if forbidden to use the vocabulary of the subject?

It’s not just Florida.  There are countless policy-makers and bureaucrats who deny an overwhelming body of evidence that our planet is in jeopardy.  Who still express opinions along the lines of: “climate change hasn’t been proved,” and the oft-repeated Ronald Reagan statement, “Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do.”

What’s the kind response?  It isn’t to call the politicians and bureaucrats idiots, or portray them as ostriches with their heads in the sand.  That further polarizes the issue.  Those who hold opposing positions on environmental issues dig in their heels, and those who are still neutral don’t want to align with either side—zealots being exhausting companions.

Civil dialogue is essential.  Dialogue that explores the issues, assesses evidence, examines options and outcomes, and respects disagreement.  Dialogue where we assume one another’s good intent.  It’s not going to work if participants engage in name-calling, hyperbole, or insolence, or if essential words or concepts are disallowed.

I’ve deliberately avoided being political on this blog, as tempting as it can be at times to take a cheap shot at a clueless politician (and there are so many of them—of all political stripes).  There may be some who interpret a posting focused on the environment as taking a political stand.  Well, heck, tomorrow is Earth Day and if my kindness can’t extend to the planet that sustains me then I’m blogging on the wrong subject … or maybe the wrong planet.

Earth Day-Dreams

The first Earth Day was held on April 22, 1970, to address rising concerns about air pollution, pesticide use, water quality, and endangered species.  Forty-five years later, we face many of the same concerns.  Some problems have improved, many have become more complex and more dire.  The world’s population was 3.7 billion people in 1970; today it’s estimated to be 7.2 billion—almost double.  And we don’t always tread lightly.

That first Earth Day led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts.  Those acts have achieved a lot.  But not enough.

On an individual level, millions of people have changed their habits since 1970—we recycle, we avoid pesticides, we compost.  It is making a difference.  But it’s discouraging to see that corporate pollution is still brazen, many policy-makers still deny the problem, and many of our fellow humans just don’t seem to care.  Some scientists warn that we are approaching a tipping point—a point of no return—if we continue to pretend that human activities can’t hurt our planet, and if we continue to pretend it’s not our problem.

The Earth Day Network estimates that more than a billion people in 192 countries will participate in Earth Day activities tomorrow.  This year’s Earth Day theme is “It’s our turn to lead,” encouraging everyday citizens from all walks of life to use their voices to encourage global leaders to take action on climate change, the environment, and the connection between poverty and climate change.

As I explore kindness, I have to think about more than just kindness to people, or to myself, or to animals.  It feels like the ultimate unkindness to ignore the Earth and allow our short-sightedness to damage the planet beyond repair and put our own species—as well as countless others—in jeopardy.  If there’s anything we owe the generations that follow us, it’s a healthy planet and sustainable practices.  Shouldn’t every day be Earth Day?

I believe that at least part of the solution is to be found in kindness.  Acknowledging where there is disagreement and agreeing to seek solutions without name-calling, histrionics, or political posturing.  If we adults cannot do it, let it be a children’s crusade.  On this subject, they seem to be far more rational and tolerant.  Who better to educate adults about the consequences of their actions than those who will suffer or benefit from the decisions we make now?

Lest I get too preachy, I want to conclude by thinking about ways to celebrate Earth Day—perhaps activities that can extend beyond a day and become standard practices or habits.  Here’s what comes to my mind—what else can you think of?

  • Sign up for a volunteer project—cleaning up a stream, planting trees, beautifying a park….
  • Check with your waste management company to be sure you know everything you can recycle and how best to do it—a lot of those rules are changing.
  • Spend some time outdoors—walk along the beach, hike the hills, go to a park (and pick up any trash you encounter) … or just enjoy your backyard.
  • Register with dmachoice.org or catalogchoice.org to reduce the unwanted catalogues you receive—it saves trees and you won’t be inundated with catalogues that insist you need stuff you really don’t need.
  • Think before you print out emails or unnecessary reports at work.
  • Remember to bring your reusable bags when you shop.
  • Make plans to plant a vegetable or herb garden this spring.
  • Look into composting if you aren’t already doing it.
  • Reduce or eliminate pesticide use in your garden.
  • Plant a tree. Or two.
  • Do some of your shopping at your local farmers’ market.
  • Make a donation to an environmental cause you feel strongly about.
  • Take shorter showers—or, better yet, shower or bathe with your sweetie.
  • Ride a bike, walk, or use public transportation in place of driving when possible.

We don’t have to do them all.  Just pick one or two, and when they become habits, pick another couple.  Everything we do or choose not to do—large or small—makes a difference.

Extending kindness to the Earth is the same as extending it to our friends, our families, and ourselves.  And while kindness is something we give with no other motive, and no expectations of return, the kindness we offer our planet will come back to us ten-fold: in clean, healthy air, clear and refreshing water, the shade of stately trees, and the bounty of our food.  Like so many other things related to kindness, it only requires that we be mindful.

What are you doing for Earth Day?  Have a fabulous day.  It is a wonderful world.

“I do not think the measure of a civilization is how tall its buildings of concrete are, but rather how well its people have learned to relate to their environment and fellow man.” (Sun Bear of the Chippewa Tribe)