The Legacy of Trees: Human Nature and Mother Nature Are More Intertwined Than We Often Realize

By Gangloff, Deborah | American Forests, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

The Legacy of Trees: Human Nature and Mother Nature Are More Intertwined Than We Often Realize


Gangloff, Deborah, American Forests


As an anthropologist, I am fascinated by the role of trees in our culture. Even before we knew the science of oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange, the symbiotic dependence between trees and humans gave us a close, reciprocal relationship.

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People like trees. Oh, a few don't like to rake leaves, or complain about fruit staining their side-walks, but overall, people like to have trees around. I have my own theory about why.

Humans come into contact with living things all the time. We have gardens of plants that may live a year, pets that may live to be decades old, and of course we have other people, who may live to near 80 or so. But trees are different. They are the oldest living things that people see and touch every day.

Trees put human life in perspective. Trees planted by our grandparents can provide shade and beauty in our lives, and those of our children. A tree you plant today could clean the air and water for your grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They were here long before us, and will long outlive us. They are our living connections to both past and future.

This connection defines the nature of forestry, both as a science, and in practice. Years ago, I read about the Oxford University entomology class that discovered extensive insect damage in its dining hall ceiling beams. After university officials fretted and argued, the university forester was brought in. He then announced, to the surprise of all, that university foresters down through the ages had been protecting

and maintaining a grove of trees for the express purpose of replacing the beams in the dining hall. Who but foresters would think that far in advance?

We also plant trees as memorials that will live far beyond those we commemorate, and even beyond those of us who plant them. They are the long-living, natural reflection of us; they change and grow, thrive or whither, live then die. Just like us.

This past September, I attended a commemorative event in Shanksville, PA, the town near where Flight 93 crashed on the morning of September 11, 2001. Plans by the National Park Foundation and National Park Service are underway for a permanent memorial to honor those heroes. …

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