In the fourth grade my class had to memorize and recite Joyce Kilmer’s beloved poem, “Trees.” To this day it still rolls off my tongue like the Pledge of Allegiance. In parody and tribute to Kilmer’s sentimental masterpiece, Ogden Nash wrote, “I think that I shall never see a billboard lovely as a tree. Perhaps, unless the billboards fall I’ll never see a tree at all.” So what’s all this fuss about trees anyway?
Having grown up on a farm in rural Missouri, you would think I might take trees for granted – but not so. Even as a young child I learned the importance of several roles played by our local varieties. On the spectrum of importance to the biosphere, trees are right up there with phytoplankton and bees. They play so many important roles in the health of our planet and humankind that it would be impossible to recognize and recount them all.
One of my first lessons in environmental science was taught by my dad, who enlightened me on the importance of using tree rows as windbreaks to reduce erosion of top soil in our corn fields. Another lesson on the value of trees was perhaps learned even earlier, as we grew most of what we ate on our farm. Walnuts, apples, peaches, plums and pears were staples on our small farm, and kept our family in canned fruit most of each winter. In other parts of the world, trees provide life-giving, economy-saving harvests. Many tropical nations would perhaps not be able to exist without palm trees, which provide everything from medicine to building materials to fruit.
You can’t look out the window at a tree for long without observing another benefit first-hand. Trees provide food and shelter for many types of wildlife. Birds, insects, reptiles and even some mammals depend on trees for their very existence.
The root systems of trees help stabilize soil and reduce erosion, especially around water sources. Trees shade our homes and allow us to cut back on electricity we would otherwise use to cool them. When trees drop their leaves they biodegrade and replenish the soil with valuable nutrients, allowing the cycle of life to continue.
Today, as we contemplate solutions to the onset of accelerated global warming, trees are perhaps our strongest defense. According to NASA, as much as 45 percent of the carbon dioxide stored on land is absorbed by trees.
So, in appreciation of their endless service to our planet Earth, I’m obliged to add my own tribute to those of Kilmer and Nash:
I think that I shall never see a law as righteous as a tree. Our forests process all our strife and give us back the gift of life.
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