First of 2 parts

STOCKHOLM: When I was a child, a friend asked me: "How would you describe a tree to someone who has never seen one?" I looked at the trees surrounding us and realized it was impossible, considering their versatility, beauty and utter strangeness. Since that time, I have often wondered about trees, as well as I have worried about the indiscriminate destruction of trees and forests.

Trees are a prerequisite for life and intimately connected with humans' existence. In these times of climate change, many of us are becoming increasingly aware of the life-promoting function of trees. How they produce oxygen, fix the carbon content of the atmosphere, clean and cool the air, regulate precipitation, purify water and control water flow.

Throughout history, humans have been intertwined with the trees. Our shared cultural history bears witness to the fascination humanity has felt when it comes to the power and mystery of trees. Trees are present in many mythologies and religions — Yggdrasil, the cosmic tree of Nordic mythology; Yaxche, the Mayan peoples' Tree of the World; the Sycamore, Isis' (goddess of all feminine divine powers) sacred tree in ancient Egypt; Asvattha, the sacred fig tree in Southern India; the Bodhi tree, Tree of Awakening among Buddhists; the Kien Mou, Tree of Renewal among the Chinese; and the Sidrat al-Muntaha, Tree of the Farthest Boundary in Islam.

The shape of the tree has for the human mind come to represent logical systems and helped us to bring order into chaos. As thought models, we still use trees to depict genealogy, or explain the course of evolution and the grammar and origins of languages. Even our body structure seems to mimic the trees; skeleton, lungs, blood vessels, lymphatic vessels and neural pathways. We breathe through the tree-like network of the lungs — the bronchioles.

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A walk through a forest can, in a mysterious manner, confirm our intimate connection with trees. If we are attentive enough, we might be seized by the feeling of another presence; incomprehensible, though nevertheless mighty and complete. It is as if the forest embraces us, observes us, speaks to us. The wind makes the forest foliage speak. Trees and bushes feed and protect songbirds and other animals. Trees thus contain the miraculous power of music — most musical instruments are made of wood.

There are several indications that our ancestors were arboreal creatures. Something our way of thinking and not least our physical constitution testify to — a flexible spine, extended arms and highly efficient hands. Claws have turned into fingernails and delicate fingertips. Our set of teeth and digestive organs have been adapted to food found among the trees — nuts, fruits, eggs, small animals. We have become omnivores and unlike cattle who feel the solid ground beneath their feet, and whose bodies have been adapted to it, human beings have developed their thinking, hearing, sight and sense of smell to the unstable reality of tree crowns.

The creatures we descended from were constantly at risk of missteps leading to fatal falls, something that sharpened their minds and made them plan for uncertainty, danger and the unexpected. They learned to notice subtle, environmental changes and observe how other creatures adapted to them. They didn't feel safe in open landscapes, feared the void and only felt relatively safe if surrounded by the reassuring enclosure of greenery. We still prefer to walk among trees, rather than along sterile transport routes, filled with noise and air pollution, lined by ugly facades, supermarkets, industries and parking lots.

The presence of trees pleases and calms us. A forest walk, or a restful time spent in a leafy park, invigorates us. Studies carried out in offices and hospitals have proven that people who do not have a view of and/or access to leafy surroundings are more prone to stress and depression, while sick people surrounded by a sterile environment, without an open view to greenery, recover more slowly than those who perceive the closeness of nature. Perhaps one reason why older hospitals and sanatoriums generally were surrounded by tree-rich parks and flower plantations. It is energizing to find oneself within a natural realm, far away from computer screens, plastic and concrete.

Contrary to humans, who generally exploit nature for their own benefit, trees take and give. They receive power and nourishment from the heat and energy of the sun, which through photosynthesis is converted into oxygen and organic matter. The root system connects trees to earth's nutrients, which in the open are converted into leaves, wood and fertilizers.

Trees make up the main part of the earth's biomass, both above and below ground. Through branches and leaves they create a maximum contact surface with the air, and their wide-spread roots provide them with a firm anchorage, while helping them to assimilate nutrients. Trees support and provide for themselves, at the same time as they support and provide for the entire world.

A tree is never alone, it merges with its environment. It adapts to the atmosphere's mixture of gases and the earth's subterranean water. Through a constant symbiosis with its environment a tree contributes to the creation and maintenance of its life-preserving substances.

By Jan Lundius, IPS

To be concluded tomorrow, September 3