Feeling the Heartbeat of (woodland) Trees

Can a tree improve our health?

Can a single tree in your backyard or even a city-owned tree in the front yard make a difference in your life, in your health, in the health of your family?

Most of us tree lovers would say, ‘yes’. But do we really know, or are we simply using our belief systems to justify our desire for more trees?

Sleep easy my friends, there is evidence that a single tree in your front yard, even if it is a lonely “city tree” can make a difference – a big difference.

In his book, The Heartbeat of Trees, Embracing our Ancient Bond with Forests and Nature, author Peter Wohlleben cites a large-scale study conducted in Toronto, Canada by scientists at the University of Chicago that showed a single tree planted by a front door improves health and well-being.

Scientists apparently gathered data from about 30,000 Toronto residents – and from about 530,000 trees the city had already mapped.

The results are certainly eye opening.

The Heartbeat of Trees follows up on the success of The Hidden Life of Trees.

The study found that “ten more trees in a residential neighbourhood improved the health of the residents as much as an increase of $10,000 in income a year ( including the improved medical care that comes with such an increase.)”

Wohlleben adds that this is not just about mental health.

If you are interested in this book or other gardening books be sure to check out the impressive selection at Alibris (link).

“The liklihood of heart and circulatory diseases, the leading cause of death in North America these days, dropped measurably. Eleven more trees in the neighbourhood was an improvement in cardio-metabolic health equivalent to an additional $20,000 a year or, measured another way, it reduced a person’s biological age by 1.4 years.”

This is just one of the gems found in this New York Times best-selling author’s follow-up to The Hidden Life of Trees, a book that not only revealed to the world the incredible importance of trees in our climate-threatened world, but was also made into a critically acclaimed movie by the same name. Go here, to check out my earlier article on this ground-breaking book.

(Dr. Nadina Galle has taken her inpspiration from The Hidden Life of Trees and The Heartbeat of Trees and used it as a building block in her groundbreaking work to use smart technology to monitor the health of the urban forest. Read about her outstanding work here in my recent article The Internet of Nature.)

Pocket Forests are an intriguing approach to creating miniature forests. Check out my post on creating a mini-forest.

A forest prospers as a family group

The author is quick to point out, however, that although a single tree is a great thing, a forest is much better.

The Hidden Life of Trees was clear about the benefits of forests over singular trees planted on a front yard surrounded by non-native grass and facing the world – the beating sun, the cold winds, freezing temperatures – on their own. He compares the “street trees” that are found in most urban environments, to “street kids.” These lone trees face difficult and almost always shortened lives compared to trees that share resources as a family group in a proper forest or woodland.

The new book places more of the human element into the equation.

Wohlleben is convinced that ancient ties linking humans to the forest remain alive and intact. The test so many of us face is whether we are able, in an era of cell phone addiction and ever-expanding cities, to allow ourselves to rediscover nature, to reconnect with the forest and feel its heartbeat once again.

Whether we feel this connection or not, he points out with scientific evidence how our blood pressure stabilizes near trees and how the colour green calms us, while, the forest, especially at night sharpens our senses.

The 264-page book published this past June by Greystone Books is the perfect follow up to The Hidden Life of Trees, a book that introduced the world to a form of communication between a family of trees in the forest and their connection to the “Mother Tree.”

His new work takes another step into the forest and introduces readers to a host of revelations about our relationship with trees, forests and especially those who are left to care for the earth’s remaining trees.

“The Heartbeat of Trees reveals the profound interactions humans can have with nature, exploring the language of the forest, the consciousness of plants, and the eroding boundary between flora and fauna,” the book’s promotional material states. "The author “shares how to see, feel, smell, hear, and even taste your journey into the woods.”

“Above all, he reveals a wondrous cosmos where humans are a part of nature, and where conservation is not just about saving trees – it’s about saving ourselves, too.”

Forest bathing: Is it a new trend?

Nowhere is this more evident than his chapter on “Forest bathing.”

I doubt this is a new term to readers, but if it is, the act of forest bathing involves submersing yourself into the quiet, soothing sounds, smells and spirit of a natural forest.

Today, in Japan, a doctor can write a prescription for their patient that includes a “walk in the woods – a sick note, as it were, that gives you permission to spend time in the forest.”

This trend in natural medicine is making its way to Western medicine in the form of forest bathing.

For my comprehensive post on Forest Bathing, please go here.

Wohlleben points out that “with the longing for natural spaces forest bathing has spilled out of Asia, Called shinrin-yoku in Japanese, the whole thing sounds like ancient wisdom. However, it isn’t at all. Quite the opposite is true, in fact. Japanese forest agencies came up with the idea and the name in 1982 as a way to make people more aware of the health benefits of the country’s forests.

According to Dr. Qing Li of the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, Japan, Forest Bathing is simple. In is 300-page book published on the subject, he explains how it works.

Turns out it is very simple. “Choose a forest you like (it could even be in a city park) and you go there to relax,” Wohlleben explains.

“Then you gather all your senses and dive into all the smells, sounds and sensations. According to Li, all you need to do is accept the forest’s invitation to slow down. Mother Nature takes care of the rest.”

Although he admits some skepticism over the whole “forest bathing” phenomena, he tells the story of a family walk in the forest. After some time resting and talking after a long walk in the wood he maanges, the author remembers how he and his family slowly began to relax as they enjoyed their company and the sights sounds and smells of the forest to the point where they were more relaxed than they ever could be at home.

It’s a relaxed state only the forest can help us achieve and one that takes us back to our ancient roots.

The Heartbeat of Trees is, by no means, all about natural remedies and how we can discover ourselves in the depths of ancient forests.

Ancient forests are under threat

In the final chapters Wohlleben warns readers about the threats our natural forest face and the efforts by small groups to save these critical remaining old-growth (or at least important) forests.

Unfortunately, these challenges are world wide.

He talks about his experience hiking up to a tiny ancient spruce tree names “Tjikko” that has lived for 9,550 years in a national park in Sweden. He talks about his fears for its future amid tourists trying to capture selfies with the highly threatened piece of natural history that for so many is nothing but an opportunity to stumble around it and its ancient roots for nothing more than a quick selfie for social media.

He tells the story of the Kwiakah First Nation in British Columbia, Canada that is fighting to save its forest in The Great Bear Rainforest from the timber industry. Clear cutting is threatening their traditional hunting and fishing grounds, not to mention the unique ecosystem that Mother Nature has created.

Of course, Canada is not alone. He tells of similar stories in Germany, throughout Europe where old-growth forests are non-existant and on the border of Poland and Belarus where an important forest (the Bialowieza) of oaks, lindens, hornbeams, maples and spruce is being threatened.

Wohlleben’s conclusion leaves plenty of room for optimism for our future and the future of our children.

He concludes: “… people have sown the seeds of hope across generations so that now a complete change in direction is being ushered in. A change that is taking place in not in our minds but in our hearts.”

Words well spoken, but I prefer to leave the last word with Richard Louv, author of “Our Wild Calling and The Last Child in the Woods. (See my earlier article on why children need more nature in their lives)

“As human beings, we’re desperate to feel that we’re not alone in the universe. And yet we are surrounded by an ongoing conversation that we can sense if, as Peter Wohlleben so movingly prescribes, we listen to the heartbeat of all life.”

Vic MacBournie

Vic MacBournie is a former journalist and author/owner of Ferns & Feathers. He writes about his woodland wildlife garden that he has created over the past 25 years and shares his photography with readers.


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