While previously dismissed, recent articles have now given this idea some further credence. Through analysing spare ground on which trees could grow, researchers estimated 1.2 trillion trees could be planted. This amount would make a significant difference to the carbon present in the atmosphere, which is in the form of CO2. The name of Teratrees was originally inspired along these lines, with one tera of trees needed!
Trees enjoy summer to their utmost producing full growth up until August. Light is a precious commodity and leaves will maximise their absorption as they compete for space and light in the forest. Even while this growth is going on Nature is planning ahead with the formation of buds for the next spring. Trees lie dormant in winter and preserve their energy stores.
For winged pollinators, the window of flowering is short. One can go past most trees with blossoms at this time and hear the buzz of bees. Famous in Japan are the sakura trees (cherry blossom) which bring in many tourists.
One can see how they inspired Japanese artists e.g. Hokusai.
It was great to see an organised bunch of students plant 30 silver birches in Roundwood Park as part of The Challenge (NCS). This will be a future grove of trees in the park and this species grow supporting each other and enriching the soil. A number of locals walking in the park stopped by and issued words of encouragement!
Life began on this planet about 3.8 billion year ago, starting precariously as single-celled prokaryotes. It took a further billion years for photosynthesis to develop, producing oxygen as a waste product which was absorbed by the oceans. The moon was much closer then and huge tides washed the Earth. A billion years passed and more complex cells appeared in the form of eukaryotes, and about 600 million years later simple multi-cellular organisms appeared, such as red algae. With the passing of another 700 million years the first phyla of animals appeared during the Cambrian explosion, with great diversification happening in the seas.
This preamble leads up to the Devonian period, 350 to 420 million years ago. The Earth was arid and warm, and most likely lacked glaciers with ocean temperatures of 30 °C. In the midst of this period an interesting event occurred. The first plant with a woody stem appeared – the first tree. Wattieza grew to a height of around 8m with frond-like leaves and reproduced by spores. This was a momentous occasion for the planet as now plants could compete for light both vertically and horizontally, and convert CO2 at higher rates. The first forests developed and were buried over time, removing CO2 from the atmosphere in the form of wood. This caused cooling of the planet and altered soil chemistry, while leaf litter fed streams – it is no surprise that there was an explosion of fresh water fish at this time.About 200 000 years ago Homo sapiens (Latin for “wise person”) appeared on the planet in East Africa, a species which has now been around for 0.004 % of the Earth’s history.
In September this year, Yale researchers reported in Nature that the planet has approximately 3 trillion trees, which is about half since the spread of human civilization began. This very young species has now drastically altered the planet, and is decreasing tree populations by 15 billion per year via deforestation, forestry and land-use practices. Not only in our ‘wisdom’ are we making space for ourselves, but we are decreasing the ability for the planet to process carbon dioxide, produce oxygen and control warming, as seen during the cooling of the Devonian period. This is also ignoring the ecosystems and habitats that trees and forests provide, which is significant.
This loss is very worrying, but in that Nature article is also a green shoot of hope. Humans are planting approximately 5 billion trees per year, so although a net loss of 10 billion trees, it shows that there is potential to plant trees in large numbers. This is something entirely capable by our species, and there is no reason why we should not be able to produce a surplus each year. While protection of forests is vital and areas such as the Amazon are an international concern, on the individual level in our green spaces and spare land, many trees can still be planted. It is not argued here that planting trees is the solution to our problems, but rather a solution, one of many that we need to enact.
Life has come a long way from this planet being a molten ball of rock 4.5 billion years ago. Ironically, it is only our species on the planet who can comprehend this. At the current rate of tree loss there will not be a single tree in 300 years. Last year we lost acres of trees equivalent to the size of two Portugals. It is up to us to live up to our species name as ‘wise person’ and get on with the job that lies before us.
This article appeared in SALT magazine
President, in Sequoia National Park in California, stands 241 ft (73 m) tall, with a circumference of 93 ft (28 m). It is the 3rd largest sequoia in the world and is believed to be 3,200 years old!
Three hundred and seventy years ago a Belgian alchemist and physician was exploring ideas that there were other gases in the atmosphere, as well as the idea that the substance which makes up plants and trees did not come from the soil, which was thought at the time.
This man, Jan Baptista van Helmont, was the first to do these experiments on a willow tree in a pot over a 5 year period. He took accurate readings of the mass of the soil, the tree and the water added, using modern experimental ideas of science introduced by the likes of Galileo, William Harvey and Francis Bacon.
After 5 years he checked the mass of the soil and found it had not changed by much, and so it could not explain the mass of the willow tree. He therefore assumed incorrectly that all the mass came from the water added during its lifespan. It was only until 160 years had passed that Nicolas-Théodore de Saussure, a Swiss chemist, repeated van Helmont’s experiments along with analysis of the gases given off by the tree, and concluded that carbon dioxide contributed significantly in explaining the mass of the tree.
Today we know that about 98 % of the mass of a tree is made up of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorous and sulphur, with the first three of those elements contributing mostly to its mass (dried wood is about 50 % carbon).
What this means, is that simply by using a small amount of surface area of arable land, and by adding water, we have a mechanism of removing carbon from the atmosphere. And this resulting creation not only provides a habitat for a multitude of life ranging from the microscopic to larger mammals, it also provides us with oxygen and is most pleasant in appearance. And I have not even mentioned fruit trees here.
I challenge you to think of a similar mechanism which can remove carbon from the atmosphere with the same cost, efficiency and environmental impact.
Why plant a tree?
- Trees provide the oxygen that keeps us alive. One mature tree provides enough for 10 people to breathe per year.
- Trees absorb carbon dioxide, removing and storing the carbon as they grow. This should be reason enough as the global CO2 concentration surpasses 400 ppm.
- Strategically planted trees can reduce home energy use by as much as 30 % (Arbor Day Foundation). Planting deciduous trees on the east and west sides of the home provide shade in summer, while coniferous trees planted on the north and northwest sides can shield properties from cold winter winds.
- Trees raise property values for the entire neighbourhood: A 2010 US Forest Service study concluded that a tree planted “growing along the public right of way added an average of $12,828 (£8,500) to the combined value of all houses within 100 ft”.
- In 1985 the US Forest Service estimated the value of an individual tree at $273 annually (£180), well over $57,000 over its life time (£38,000). This value comes from its contribution to climate control, soil erosion, stormwater management, wildlife shelter and air pollution reduction.
- Trees improve biodiversity and improve habitat for local wildlife. Trees and large shrubs in your garden can make a real difference to butterflies, bees and birds.
- Trees cool the streets and the city, reducing the urban heat island and the evaporation of fuels within your car parked outside.
- They help the soil by reducing soil erosion by slowing run-off and holding soil in place with their roots, and also by remediating the soil and breaking down harmful chemicals.
- Trees help conserve water through reducing evaporation and run-off, allowing underground aquifers to recharge.
- Aesthetically, these organisms provide beauty to residential and urban areas and research has shown their presence decreases hospital stayover times of patients who had a view of them from their window.
- Socially and communally they provide a sense of identity and communities often band together to protect significant or historic trees.
- As playmates for children and places of rest and spiritual retreat for adults.
- Trees can form an effective sound barrier to noisy streets, providing more peace to one’s home.
The Psychological Motivation to Plant a Tree
If the above reasons are known and understood this should provide some rationale for planting a tree in your garden or local area. To summarise key motivations:
- Improving Your Living Space: The serenity of trees in one’s garden adds natural beauty
- Financial: A mature tree increases the value of your property
- Helping the Planet: Understanding the environmental condition of the Earth and why trees are needed
- The Feel Good Factor: The sense of satisfaction that comes from providing value or help
As seen, there are already powerful human drives present in these reasons. However, with the Teratrees project I hope to add to these motivations. This project shall be launched in the near future and updates shall follow!
We take the ideas of conservation and reforestation for granted, and putting them into practice varies around the world. These ideas have not always been present and they did not arrive spontaneously. One man whom we are indebted too is Richard St. Barbe Baker.
Returning to Britain after working as a missionary in Canada, he started studying divinity at Cambridge, but was interrupted by the Great War to serve in the Royal Horse Artillery regiment in France and was seriously wounded twice. Perhaps this changed his perspective, as well as his observations of the soil loss resulting from deforestation, as upon returning to Cambridge he took up a Diploma in Forestry. After graduation he joined the Colonial Office and was sent as a Forestry Officer to Kenya. There he witnessed centuries of land mismanagement from the wheat farming of the Romans to the grazing of goats introduced by the Arabs. Determined to halt deforestation he formed an organisation called ‘Watu wa Miti’ with the local Kikuyu people – this translates as ‘Men of the Trees’, and would form the basis of an international organisation.
He joined the Bahá’í Faith after Kenya and continued to do forestry work in Nigeria, Australia and Palestine, uniting different faiths to work on the common goal of reforestation. He crossed the U.S. and toured the Redwood groves of California, and in the 1930’s he worked with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to establish the Civilian Conservation Corps. He was a popular speaker now and continued to grow chapters of his organisation, which became known as the International Tree Foundation. After World War II he toured through Europe and launched the idea of an international Green Front to promote reforestation, and ambitiously launched a project to reclaim the Sahara desert after a 25 000 mile journey around the perimeter.
His organisation and those he assisted planted many millions of trees and he was seen as one of the fathers of the organic agriculture movement.
His autobiography entitled “My life, my trees” was published in 1970 and in 1972, the board of directors of Friends of Nature (USA) awarded Dr Baker their Conservation Award, for “being the foremost world citizen to stress the importance of maintaining tree cover for the continued existence of life”1. He was presented an OBE by the Queen in 1978 and up until his ninety-third year he was still travelling the world and died on 9th June 1982, whilst visiting Canada.
“Planting and growing increasing quantities of trees is the scientific solution to Earth’s environmental dilemma.” ~ Richard St. Barbe Baker