Columnist Henry Lappen: Many ways that trees enrich our lives 

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Trees are beautiful in all seasons. In winter, one can see the shape of the tree. Imagine looking up at the silhouette of bare trees on a full moon winter night.

Then imagine the arrival of spring, the pussy willow and red maple blossoms, and the big blooms of magnolias, progressing to that first flush of green as young leaves slowly unfurl.

Now, remember the cool dappled light coming through the full summer foliage. And, finally the colors of fall, yellow, orange, and red at the peak of the season, fading to the warm red-browns of the late oak foliage season. Year-round beauty!

But trees give us more than beauty. They also provide oxygen and shade, food, fuel and materials. Let’s explore just how much of our lives depends on trees, or at least how much richer our lives are thanks to these living giants.

Take a breath in. Right now your body is converting the oxygen in that air to carbon dioxide. Now breathe out. Again: In. Convert. Out. There is now less oxygen on the planet and more CO2! Fortunately, trees take in this CO2, extract carbon, and release pure oxygen back into the atmosphere. And so we can continue breathing.

Shade. Who hasn’t escaped the heat relaxing under a tree in July? Do you know how much cooler our towns and cities are because of trees? Tree-lined streets can be as much as 15 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than bare streets. Fifteen degrees! Would you rather walk in downtown Amherst in 90 degrees, or 75?

Trees give us food. How many fruits can you think of? Apples, apricots, cherries, grapefruit, lemons, limes, nectarines, oranges, peaches, pears, persimmons, plums, tangerines. And also, avocados, breadfruit, carambolas, dates, figs, jackfruit, lychees, mangos, olives, papayas, sapotes and….

Most nuts we eat also grow on trees: almonds, brazil nuts, cashews, chestnuts, hazelnuts, hickories, macadamias, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios and walnuts. And also bopple nuts, candlenuts, deeknuts, karuka, kola nuts, kurrajong, mongongo, and don’t forget acorns!

Delicacies come from all parts of the tree: spices from cinnamon tree bark and the seeds of clove and nutmeg trees; root beer from sassafras roots; bay leaves from bay laurels of California; gin from juniper berries; and of course, syrup from the sap of sugar maples. And where would we be without chocolate?

We also use trees for fuel. We heat our houses with wood, boil water with it, barbecue our chicken wings and tofu with it. Wood is also burned to create electricity. Before the invention of internal combustion, wood fueled steam-powered locomotives and tractors.

And of course we use wood for building materials. Imagine how many trees it took to build your house, and also consider how many items in your home and yard come from trees. Tables and chairs. And beds. And barrels, baseball bats, boats, canoes, clothespins, ladders, musical instruments, pencils, paddles, shelves, trellises, toys, utensils, even coffins. And don’t forget toothpicks!

We also take this hard, hard stuff to create soft materials. We make it into paper for books, bags, cards, calendars, cardboard boxes, coffee filters, egg cartons, envelopes, magazines, newspapers, notebooks, packaging material, tissues, toilet paper, towels and even wallpaper.

We make cellulose for blankets and insulation. We make rayon for clothing. We use the fibers for twine. We use the inner bark of certain oak trees for cork — to seal our wine bottles, to create floor tiles, and even to throw darts at!

The chemical industry creates products from trees. Although more prevalent before modern synthetic materials, we still get dyes, oils, pitch and turpentine from trees.

Other chemicals extracted from trees are used in the manufacture of adhesives, cellophane, cleaning products, cosmetics, crayons, deodorants, explosives, fungicides, furniture polish, hair spray, insecticides, perfumes, plastics, shampoos, shaving cream, shoe polish, soap, tanning agents, tape and toothpaste.

Even some drugs are made from trees. Aspirin originally came from the bark of willow trees. Current tree-based medicines include Taxol for cancer, Aldomet for hypertension, L-Dopa for Parkinson’s disease and quinine for malaria.

These, of course, are what trees do for us humans. If we include animals, we’d be here all day reciting trees’ benefits.

Trees provide so much of what we need — especially true in this 21st century. Planting trees is one of the best ways to counteract global climate change, to protect us from floods and erosion and to make our neighborhoods more beautiful.

So what are you waiting for? April 27 is Arbor Day. Go plant a tree!

Henry Lappen, of Amherst, is an environmental educator and the chairman of the Amherst Public Shade Tree Committee.