Lessons from Nature: Learning from Trees

31st March 2021

During the past year, I have been forced to slow down and nature, in particular trees, have been where I have found solace. I found that If I started the day outside in nature, I felt much calmer and happier. Whenever I could, I went for a walk in the nearby woods. I noticed how still the trees were on some days when there was little breeze to move them and how much their branches moved in the wind on other days, but their trunks stayed still, anchored into the earth by their roots. Just sitting in the woods for 10 minutes and noticing the beauty around me, my mind became still and the busy thoughts that were circling in my head began to subside. Being still has helped me to think more clearly, make better decisions and feel less stressed and overwhelmed by small things as my brain isn’t busy all of the time. So my first lesson from trees is to be still and slow down rather than rushing around all the time.

Researching a bit about trees, has made me realise how trees have helped us in many ways and yet are really undervalued, as we continue to deforest parts of the world at an alarming rate. They provide oxygen and sustain life on earth, help to combat climate change by absorbing carbon and reducing flooding and erosion, provide food and shelter for many animals and foster vibrant ecosystems and so many other benefits. For example, we have learned how to make many medicines based on naturally occurring molecules.  Willow bark contains salicin which has been used for centuries as pain relief. The active ingredient of Aspirin is based on this and is now manufactured in a laboratory. This is the same for many other medicines that have had their origins in nature and we have copied.

Trees can also help us navigate without a compass. They can help us find out which direction we are facing by looking at the way their branches grow. Tristan Gooley (Natural Navigation) points out that south facing branches of a tree will tend to grow out towards the light, while branches on the darker side will grow more vertically. When viewed from the west, trees in the northern hemisphere look like they have a tick running across their branches. The wind also has an effect on trees.  In very windy areas trees in the UK will bend over from south-west to north-east. So if you’re ever lost and need a bit of help, trees could help you to get back on track.

Trees are also very altruistic. They share nutrients, resources and information via a network of fungi underneath the ground, nick named the Wood Wide Web. Older trees supply shaded saplings with sugars to help them grow, giving them a better chance of survival. Trees that are sick or dying dump their resources into the network, which may be used by their neighbours. They can also send messages by chemical signals through their roots and the fungi to warn their neighbours of attack by disease or pests. This hidden network creates a thriving community between trees.  In addition, they grow in such a way that they share sunlight with their neighbours, known as crown shyness. This sort of cooperation is the way forward for human life. To overcome some of the biggest challenges that we face such as climate change, pollution, poverty and inequality, we need to learn from trees and work together.

by Julia Babbitt