Understanding Trees

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.

van Helmond

Jan Baptist van Helmont (1580 – 1644)

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.

Weeping Willow

Weeping Willow

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.

Wood cross section

From carbon dioxide to carbon in wood…

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.

Tackling Large Problems

Large problems can be daunting, and even once they are fully comprehended, the scope of required action filtered through the imagination may sustain inaction. Sometimes there is a certain comfort in apathy; we do not desire to commit ourselves emotionally to an uncertain outcome. Nor does the ego enjoy feelings of helplessness where one’s activity appears to be ineffectual or inconsequential. There are often easier thoughts to attend and the mind has a fickle nature.Tidal Wave

The way we live on this planet and feed off its resources is unsustainable. This is a large problem. But let us not stand in a stupor, after all, to quote system’s theorist Ervin László, “Today’s economic, social and technological environment is our own creation, and only the creativity of our mind – our culture, spirit and consciousness – could enable us to cope with it. Genuine creativity does not remain paralyzed when faced with unusual and unexpected problems but confronts them openly, without prejudice. Cultivating it is a precondition of finding our way toward a globally interconnected society in which individuals, enterprises, states, and the whole family of peoples and nations could live together peacefully, cooperatively, and with mutual benefit.”

We are connected with the state of

We are connected to the state of the planet – let us not remain paralyzed

To put it simply, what we see about us we created, and we have it within us to create something different. This cognition will take some existential responsibility, but it is only in working together that significantly different creations can occur. This does not deny individual rebellious action against the status quo, but leadership is needed and especially leadership that can harness the imagination of many.ficus

To return to the root is often necessary in clarifying problems. This I see as our relationship with nature and our relationship with ourselves. This does not need to be in an exercise in navel-gazing; first can come action, and with action we can re-awaken our genetic imperative that can provide our species with its forgotten context.

With Teratrees, action will take the form of planting a tree and/or supporting those who do, and to try and influence these dynamics through economics.

Online and Connected?

As of 2010, more than half of the planet’s population lived in cities. This will continue to grow (although at a slowing rate) and is driven by rapid urbanization in large modernizing countries such as China – from 1950 to 2005 their urbanized population grew from 13 to 40 %. By 2030 it is estimated that 6 out of 10 of the world’s citizens will live in cities.

New York

New York

What does this mean for the natural environment? Well there is the positive result of a higher concentration of humans in cities meaning more ‘space’ for Nature, although this is not found to be consistently true around the planet as areas of natural environment get smaller due to resource pressure. But what it also means is that there are generations of humans growing up with less contact with Nature, and with a potential decrease in empathy and understanding of the other organisms that share this planet and how they interact in a marvellous ecosystem that has taken 3.8 billion years to evolve.

Green Forest

Social connection and education is higher in cities, which at least offers a potential offset to this disconnection from the wilderness, provided the education is of a holistic nature. The internet and spread of social media is also a positive for the survival of Earth’s organisms, with environmental campaigns and awareness being easier to promote and organize. The Teratrees project will be part of this direction, with goals to increase human-nature interaction and the creation of a nature-minded community not constrained by geography. Trees are a universally recognized feature of landscapes and a common symbol in human consciousness.Internet

However, there is still no substitute for being outside in green spaces. This does not solely mean in the wilderness; a local park or your own garden give benefits to the psyche and facilitate a connection which is natural and fundamental to our physical being. Teratrees hopes to increase this interaction and the sharing of this activity with others. Fundamentally, our relationship and understanding of Nature will determine our role on this planet, as partners or as parasites.

13 Reasons to Plant Trees and the Psychology of Tree Planting

Beautiful Tree

Why plant a tree?

  1. Trees provide the oxygen that keeps us alive. One mature tree provides enough for 10 people to breathe per year.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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”.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Trees cool the streets and the city, reducing the urban heat island and the evaporation of fuels within your car parked outside.
  8. 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.
  9. Trees help conserve water through reducing evaporation and run-off, allowing underground aquifers to recharge.
  10. 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.
  11. Socially and communally they provide a sense of identity and communities often band together to protect significant or historic trees.
  12. As playmates for children and places of rest and spiritual retreat for adults.
  13. Trees can form an effective sound barrier to noisy streets, providing more peace to one’s home.

    An oak tree in Wales (John Haynes)

    An oak tree in Wales (John Haynes)

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:

  1. Improving Your Living Space: The serenity of trees in one’s garden adds natural beauty
  2. Financial: A mature tree increases the value of your property
  3. Helping the Planet: Understanding the environmental condition of the Earth and why trees are needed
  4. 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!

Bohinj Lake, Slovenia (http://www.slovenijaturizem.com/)

Bohinj Lake, Slovenia (http://www.slovenijaturizem.com/)

Who is the Green Man?

Green Man at Rosslyn Chapel (Johanne McInnis)

The symbol of a face of a man surrounded by leaves, or with leaves coming out of his mouth or other facial orifices is prevalent in old churches. These faces are often fearsome in appearance with eyes glaring and vital, as if they be silent witness to our actions. While frequently found in abbeys, cathedrals and churches, carved into wood or stone and sometimes surreptitiously in later buildings, it is a pre-Christian symbol, and one that masons adopted.

Masons drew on many pagan themes and the symbol has been variously interpreted as relating to the Greek Pan; the neo-pagan Horned God; Nodens – a Celtic deity associated with healing, hunting and the sea; the Mesopotamian Tammuz who symbolized the triumph of life over winter and death; Osiris; Odin; Viridios, another Celtic deity of things green and flourishing; the Holly King and even Robin Hood. It is better understood, however, if it is seen relating not just to a person of myth or particular deity, but rather as an archetype.

Green Man from church in Kilpeck (12th century)

William Andersontheorises “An archetype such as the Green Man represents will recur at different places and times independently of traceable lines of transmission because it is part of the permanent possession of mankind. In Jung’s theory of compensation, an archetype will reappear in a new form to redress imbalance in society at a particular time when it is needed. According to this theory, therefore, the Green Man is rising up into our presence awareness in order to counterbalance a lack in our attitude to Nature” 

Hopetoun falls, Australia. (Photo by David Iliff)

In this light, the symbol can be seen not only as a symbol of Nature and the vigours of growth, but an awareness in human consciousness of the connection or lack thereof, with the Wild, the regenerative and creative forces of the biosphere, and in a broader sense, life on this planet. The question that arises is one of realisation –  can the human species recognise on a conscious level that our bond with Nature is troubled, and take heed?

A Brown Pelican from the Louisiana coast in the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill (Charlie Riedel)

Let us remember the words of poets2 – those who play with images and symbols, and who are no strangers to archetypes:


He is made one with Nature: there is heard

His voice in all her music, from the moan

Of thunder, to the song of night’s sweet bird;

He is a presence to be felt and known

In darkness and in light, from herb and stone,

Spreading itself where’er that Power may move

Which has withdrawn his being to its own;

Which wields the world with never-wearied love,

Sustains it from beneath, and kindles it above.


“The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature.” ~ Joseph Campbell



1. William Anderson  (1990). Green Man: The Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth, London.

2. Adonais: An Elegy On The Death Of John Keats by Percy Bysshe Shelley


738 days in a Californian Redwood

What does it take to prevent ancient forests being cut down? Emails? Petitions? Placards? Or direct action to offer one’s body as collateral? There are not many who wish to consider this possibility – some would say it’s too extreme, irrational or unreasonable, while forgetting the irrational act itself of the destruction of natural habitat. For Julia Butterfly Hill the decision to live 738 days in a 1000 year old redwood to prevent its destruction was not only a rational decision, but a decision based on her heart and her connection to an ancient form of life on this planet.

Julia Butterfly Hill (www.juliabutterfly.com)

While adopting ‘Butterfly’ as a name in childhood after a butterfly landed on her finger during a day hike and which stayed with her the rest of the journey, she underwent her own metamorphosis after a serious car accident at the age of 22. After a year of intensive therapy she regained the ability to speak and walk again, while contemplating her life “…the crash woke me up to the importance of the moment, and doing whatever I could to make a positive impact on the future.”

Julia speaking from the platform on the giant redwood (www.findhorn.org)

This change led her to Humboldt County in California where ancient redwood forests were being cut down by the Pacific Lumber Company. Not affiliated to any organisation at the time, however, she was the only one who volunteered to stay up for a week, 180 feet above the ground. On 10th of December 1997 Julia ascended ‘Luna’, the giant redwood and only came down the 18thof December, 1999. She lived on two 6 x 6 foot platforms and used Luna’s trunk for exercise, while hoisting up supplies and surviving 40 mile/hr winds and icy rain from El Nino, logger intimidation, helicopter harassment and a siege by the logging company security guards. The final agreement resulted in the protection of Luna and all trees in a 200 ft buffer zone, while money raised by Earthfirst! went to the logging company which donated the money to Humboldt University for research into sustainable forestry.

Giant redwoods (Crd637 – wikicommons)

While this story is significant and raised awareness to the only 3 % remaining ancient redwood forests, there were also powerful personal insights during this time of seclusion. “Initially I was just angry, but that anger was killing me. After a while I came to realise that I was up there because I love – I love the forest, I love this planet, I love the world.” And while listening to an argument by fellow protestors “I thought to myself, how in the world do we think we can end the clear-cutting on the planet if we’re so effective at clear-cutting each other? I realised in that moment that the outward landscape is a reflection of the inner landscape. It’s the wounds in ourselves that perpetuate the wounds on the planet.” And during one powerful storm her connection with the trees yielded “The trees that are too rigid are the ones that break, it’s the ones that are flexible and go crazy with the wind that make it through the storm. They told me, you need to bend like the trees in the storm. From then on I embraced life because I embraced death.”

Julia spreading her message (Gary Mattingly)

Julia has continued with environmental activism, while writing a book and speaking to audiences around the world. She has been the subject of several documentaries while also inspiring several musicians to write songs about her story and her activism.

Britain’s Trees

A land covered by ice and glaciers

Britain’s native trees have not always been present and rooted – they were scoured clean from the earth during the last ice age 20 000 years ago. Species migrated southwards until reaching the physical barrier of the Alps. As the ice retreated about 10 000 years later, trees recolonised the landscape. This was easier due to the land bridge connecting mainland Europe that was not yet covered by rising sea levels. After a few thousand years of growth, Britain would have been covered by magnificent woodland.

Ariundle Nature Reserve (scotland.gov.uk)

A few thousand years later, so about 5000 years ago, ancient peoples cleared small sections of forest for agriculture and livestock farming. These people had religions connected with nature and it is around this time (4000 to 5000 years ago), that Stonehenge was erected. Later, during the Iron Age, the Celtic priestly class or druids played a strong role in determining the inhabitants’ connection with nature and trees. It is thought the word ‘druid’ is derived from Indo-European roots meaning ‘oak-seer’ or ‘oak-knower’. Especially important trees in Celtic mythology and tradition were the oak, ash, apple, alder, elder and yew. Trees were sacred and had spirits, while forests were ruled by a single goddess.

Systems of thought connected to nature were more prevalent in ancient Britain (Wigulf)

The Romans brought more organized agriculture and farming, as well as increased deforestation. Roman expansion had already led to deforestation of the Mediterranean basin and resource pressure turned their eye towards Northern Europe and Britain. Naturally there were also political reasons for expansion, including punishment of the Britons for their aiding of the Gauls.

Deforestation continued and in 1086 William the Conqueror with his Domesday census found that less than 15 % of the natural forest remained across England. However, he did enact forest laws in order to sustain hunting grounds. During the middle ages Vikings also burned sections of forest as part of their campaigns.

The continuous demand for timber throughout history (ukscblog.com)

Deforestation continued with the industrial revolution and the rise of sheep farming, faster growing coniferous forests were planted and the ancient broadleaf forests continued their decline; this has been observed in the pollen record. After the First World War it was realised that Britain had nearly run out of timber, and further fast-growing species were introduced along with the creation of the Forestry Commission. Quick fixes often do not work in natural ecosystems, and this was too late for the wolf, bear, wild boar, beaver, lynx and elk.

Wolves were common in Britain (print by www.martinridley.com)

11.6 % of the U.K is currently covered by woodland, with England at about 9 % and Northern Ireland at 6.4 %. This is significantly lower than the European Union average of 37 %. While there are still pockets of ancient forests, trees in Britain have paid the price of industrialisation and war.

Trees and Humans: Stories in Film and Literature

The tree is a powerful symbol in human consciousness and one that often manifests in our stories. There, they are often used in journeys or as a connection, as a source of wisdom or redemption, or a representation of the mystery and untamed in Nature.

The magic tree of Enid Blyton's enchanted forest

The magic tree of Enid Blyton’s enchanted forest

In Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series, a magical tree in an enchanted wood allows access to different lands, some pleasant and fun e.g. The Land of Birthdays, and others a nightmare for children e.g. The Land of Dame Slap, a horrid teacher. One must also return in time before the lands rotate, or else one waits another full rotation. Here the tree is similar to the conduit envisioned by shamans to access different worlds (The Meme of Trees), as well as there being a karmic concept of cycles, and consequence, if one stays too long in one land.

The Summer Tree

The Summer Tree, by Guy Gavriel Kay, is an important link between humans and nature

In The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay, the tree is a place of redemption and sacrifice, and one that can renew the spirit and allow contact with Nature. One who survives this sacrifice on the Summer Tree, the 3 days of being tormented by one’s self, without food or water, arises stronger, with powers and direct communication with the wildness of the land.

In Tolkien’s Middle-earth, trees, and especially forests, are embodiments of the mystery and power of Nature. Elves, who are more connected with natural magic, do not fear these ancient abodes and some make it their home. There are also Ents, tree-like creatures with a tonal language, having become the trees they herded. Large and incredibly strong, they protect the great forests and provide a face for Nature. The Ents, who are slow, but steady, have their anger roused by the deforestation by Saruman and the orcs, and wage war, showing a limit to their tolerance.

Tolkien’s Ents from Middle-earth

In M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening (2008), people in cities and suburbia inexplicably fall dead leaving people fearful and confused. Terrorism is initially blamed, but the cause is traced to trees releasing a chemical in order to remove a threat (humans). Here, Nature is fighting back and this brings in similar concepts such as those mentioned in Lovelock’s Revenge of Gaia.

A scene from The Happening in Central Park

The Fountain (2006), by Darren Aronofsky, provides a surreal experience with the Tree of Life (inspired by the Kabbalah) an important symbol connecting the three periods (conquistador, the neuroscientist and the space traveller), as well as a paraphrase from Genesis 3:24, that eating from the Tree of Knowledge began human’s experience of duality and limitation.

The tree from Aronofsky’s The Fountain

In Terrence Malick’s visually stunning Tree of Life (2011), there are themes of existence and human suffering in a grand cosmology, while the large oak tree symbolizes connections between generations and the witnessing of family tragedy, while ever growing and being a source of life.

Malick’s Tree of Life: a source of life and connection, and continued existence

Even in ancient stories, The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest surviving works of literature from Mesopotamia, the hero has to overcome many obstacles, including a Great Flood, to reach a garden of jewel-laden trees where he leaves the physical world. In this ancient epic there is the same account of the flood myth as Genesis 6-8 as well as the account of Enkidu and Shamhat, similarly relating to Adam and Eve.

A tablet from the Epic of Gilgamesh, about 4000 years old

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.”   William Blake

Visions and Dreams: Natural Hallucinogens

Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a natural molecule (Erowid)

Life, with its never ceasing experiments, has evolved with vast chemical complexity not only in the production of individual molecules, like proteins and alkaloids, but in the way that these messengers, regulators and controllers interact.  Harmala alkaloids are especially interesting as they appear not only throughout the plant kingdom, but are also present in the human pineal gland. Similarly for Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which also induces psychedelic states, powerful visions and immersive experiences in humans. These are chemicals which are more familiar to the body than ethanol in beer, but are treated with the utmost respect (in their raw plant form) by indigenous tribes, especially in the Amazonia region.

Ayuhuasca often induces colourful and ecstatic experiences

Ayuhuasca preparation

These ritualistic brews are created from bark, leaves and vines in the forest, as is the case with ayuhuasca. This is normally under the watchful eye of the local shaman, although  now a dying breed, who manages the process and the interpretation of journeys. While journeys to different worlds in complete 3D environments with music, ecstatic kaleidoscopic colours and interaction with creatures and beings of the forest make good stories and for some, real life changing experiences, what is sometimes forgotten are the remaining questions. Questions such as: how do the shamans know which plants to use in the right combinations and so much about them? And why should these trees and plants cause such an effect on humans in the first place? Do the trees benefit at all from this interaction? Why did trees develop these molecules and why are they also present in humans? And how is it that some dream creatures and their characters are also known to shamans, indicating that experiences are not uniquely random?

The Amazon shaman

If one also thinks from an experimental design perspective, to run enough experiments including inescapable trials and deathly errors, and even considering the known 40,000 plant species in the Amazon region and various combinations thereof, how would one tribal shaman come to this knowledge of plants and trees and their effect on the human body, even considering a long shamanic lineage? Well, when this question has been posed to shamans they have answered quite simply and said “the plants tell us”.

This indicates that shamans have a different world view, one that all beings and living things can communicate with each other and have unique relationships. While this currently may be a fair jump for an urban westerner, what is more obvious and astounding than this shamanic perspective, is that ‘modern’ humans have very little or no conscious relationship with nature. It is this lack, this gaping wound in our awareness, that underwrites our apathy in the face of environmental destruction.

Ayuhuasca inspired vision

A Home in the Trees

A refuge in the garden (source: treehouse company)

Climbing a tree is a universal joy while growing up and constructing a tree house is a further source of fun, especially as an exclusive meeting place barring adults. Schemes for alien defense, gender battles and plots for world domination are often hatched, until we are told to come down or grow up, or when such an abode no longer inspires our imagination.

Nutritious Sago grubs are a delicacy

However, there are some people who are never told to grow up and climb down, and for whom the tree is an endless source of joy, shelter and essential part of family life. These people are the Korowai and Kombai tribes who live in the dense forest of West Papua in Indonesia, and until 1975 had hardly any contact with the outside world. A large portion of their life is spent 20 to 40 metres above ground in tree houses, and on notable occasions eating the nutritious delicacies of sago grubs.

The tree houses are constructed relatively quickly and provide a good defense against warring tribes, floods and biting insects. The pig is the local currency and a sacred animal, while ritual cannabilism was apparently practiced more in the past. However, once dead, the Korowai believe their souls travel to the underworld along a ‘Major Causeway’ and are welcomed by their ancestors. After a while there they can choose to reincarnate back into a child that is about to be born.

Korowai tree house

Home, sweet home

Constructing a tree house is begun by choosing a sturdy Banyan tree and then removing the crown. Thinner poles provide the framework while the bark of the sago palm is used for the floor and walls, and leaves provide roofing. Similar to most cultures, marriage normally initiates a new house.

For these two tribes, the tree is far more than a provision of shade and beauty, but a home and a source of comfort. Contact has been growing with the outside world, but I imagine there would be some confusion when describing current rates of deforestation and the behaviour of more ‘civilised’ humans.

Vistas of the forest: an old Korowai tree house