From the oldest tree to the most isolated, from the South American village that "reinvented the world" by planting pine and palm to the Detroit woodshop that uses the wood of an invasive species, from the loss of England's forests to the symbolism of a big oak in the Basque, trees have been the focus on 13.7 Billion Years for the month of November.
Considering that two-thirds of the Earth's terrestrial plant and animal species call forests their home, that millions of people rely on healthy forests to survive and that forests are a critical source of carbon storage, it is hard to overestimate the importance of trees to the overall health of the planet.
The ancients knew it. For the world's earliest civilizations, trees were central to the cycle of life. Isis and Osiris, the first couple in Egyptian mythology, emerged from the acacia tree of Iusaaset, the grandmother of all the deities. Egyptians considered this acacia to be the "tree of life," calling it the "tree in which life and death are enclosed."
Looking to the future, trees are going to be even more crucial as the human population approaches 8.3 billion by 2030. Most of these people will be in cities -- places where trees are not normally the focus of attention. And this could be a problem -- not to mention the ongoing deforestation of the world's forests to supply mankind with food and products.
Currently, the world is undergoing what the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) calls "the largest wave of urban growth in history." The agency notes that in 2008, for the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population is living in towns and cities. This number will reach almost 5 billion by the year 2030, with the greatest concentration of urban growth in Africa and Asia.
And, according to CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, we should "expect it to get worse."
During a November 20 CNN segment about urbanization and health, Gupta noted that the near-constant sensory stimulation that bombards most urban dwellers can cause spikes in cortisol, also known as the "stress hormone."
As a result, it can be difficult for the brain to hold things in memory. High concentrations of cortisol can "reduce your self-control, dull your thinking...it may even speed up cognitive decline, just from living in a city," says Gupta. "Think of it as your brain more rapidly aging." And there you have it: Living in cities is hazardous to your health. In a word: unnatural.
In this sense, "natural" means green. Gupta noted that "recent studies have shown just glimpses of green areas will make huge differences to your overall cognitive function. It makes you less distracted, less stressed and more relaxed." So the key is to "find green spaces in your city and make sure to use them as much as possible." Urban dwellers, it seems, can help keep their brain function healthy just by looking at a tree.
But in the future, how many trees will there be to look at? "Eight thousand years ago, large tracts of ancient forest covered almost half the Earth's land area," according to Greenpeace. "Today, only one-fifth of the original forests remain...The rest have been destroyed, degraded or fragmented by relentless human activity." Indeed, forests have been in steady decline for a long time. Even the collapse of the ancient native American Anasazi tribe was due in part to deforestation.
And while the rate of global deforestation has been showing signs of decreasing, the 2010 United Nations report Global Forest Resources Assessment asserts that it is "still alarmingly high."
"Around 13 million hectares of forest were converted to other uses or lost through natural causes each year in the last decade compared with 16 million hectares per year in the 1990s," according to the report. "Both Brazil and Indonesia, which had the highest net loss of forest in the 1990s, have significantly reduced their rate of loss, while in Australia, severe drought and forest fires have exacerbated the loss of forest since 2000."
Last year's United Nations report State of the World's Forests notes the "potential negative impacts on forest resources could include reduced investment in sustainable forest management and a rise in illegal logging...Land dependence, which had been easing, could increase, raising the risk of agricultural expansion into forests, deforestation and reversal of previous forest gains."
In the Book of Genesis, the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden bears a fruit that gives everlasting life. After eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve were banished from Eden to prevent them from eating from this immortalizing tree.
On Judgment Day, according to the Book of Enoch, God will give fruit from the Tree of Life to all those whose names are in the Book of Life. But God might be handing out hamburgers instead, because by that time the Tree of Life may have been cut down to make room for cattle farming.
- Sign a petition urging the U.S. Forest Service to halt plans for logging in the Sequoia National Monument (U.S. residents)
- Sign a Greenpeace letter thanking Kimberly-Clark for protecting ancient forests
- Download a PDF of "Do I Dare Eat That Banana," a document created by RainforestRelief.org that outlines rainforest products to avoid
- Download the Greenpeace Tissue Guide to find out which tissue brands are sustainably-sourced and which are made from clearcutting ancient forests (PDF download)
- Protect an acre of rainforest through Conservation International
- Support Trees for the Future, a non-profit organization that has been helping communities around the world plant trees
- Download a Rainforest Action Network list of palm oil products to avoid
- Sign a petition urging Food Standards Australia and New Zealand to make it the law to label products containing palm oil so consumers can make informed decisions
- Sign up with Rainforest Action Network to sleuth your local bookstore for rainforest safe books
- Take the pledge to avoid imported shrimp to save mangrove forests
- Support the Mangrove Action Project
- Send a Mangrove Action Project e-card
- Visit the Arbor Day Foundation and get 10 free trees when you join
- Join over 1 million people and sign up for free with Catalog Choice to opt out of postal mail and solicitations you receive to help save trees
- Follow 13.7 Billion Years on Twitter
- Fake or Real Christmas Tree: What Would Jesus Do? (November 29, 2010)
- Moon Trees (November 26, 2010)
- 41 Pounds (November 24, 2010)
- The Tree of Heaven Struggles to Reach the Sky (November 23, 2010)
- The Tree of Gernika (November 22, 2010)
- The Bell Tolls for Anne Frank's Tree (November 19, 2010)
- The Forgotten Forests (November 18, 2010)
- Saving the Garden of Eden (November 17, 2010)
- Last Days for the Ancient Cedar of Lebanon (November 16, 2010)
- For Robin Hood, Nowhere to Hide (November 15, 2010)
- Cracking the Mango of Africa (November 12, 2010)
- And Thus They Clothed Their Naked Villainy (November 11, 2010)
- The Lone Cypress (November 10, 2010)
- The Fertilizer Tree (November 9, 2010)
- Clinging to the Mangrove Tree (November 8, 2010)
- Beware of Guard Tree (November 5, 2010)
- A Million Trees Breathe New Life Into Uganda (November 4, 2010)
- The Most Isolated Tree on Earth (November 3, 2010)
- The Village That Reinvented the World (November 2, 2010)
- Methuselah (November 1, 2010)
- 269 (September 10, 2010)
- To Shade Coffee! (August 14, 2010)
- Mangroves: Why Humans Need Nature (July 19, 2010)
- Plant a Tree (April 30, 2010)
- The World's Rarest Tree (April 28, 2010)
- The Fate of the Tongass (March 9, 2010)
- Nazca Redux (November 12, 2009)
- Exit the Mangrove Dwellers (August 25, 2009)
- The Trees of the Maya (July 29, 2009)
- Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree (July 17, 2009)
- Blowing Noses Into Dead, Ancient Trees (February 25, 2009)
- Trees Are Dying Faster (January 24, 2009)
- Saving Sumatran Forests, Keepers of Carbon (October 11, 2008)
image: An 1847 depiction of the Norse Yggdrasil ("world tree") as described in the Icelandic Prose Edda by Oluf Olufsen Bagge (source: Wikimedia Commons)