All summer the leaves of the maples have taken in my breath (carbon dioxide) and given me theirs (oxygen). Now their photosynthesis grinds to a halt, the chlorophyll unmasked, and the leaves turn sunset colors before they fall. Turns out that those vivid colors are their true colors, revealed, like for so many of us, after the mass conformity of adolescence abates. What do we owe these trees for their beauty? It’s more than we can say, much less keeping account of all else they do.
Trees in New York City in 1994 removed about 1,821 metric tons of air pollution, absorbing and processing the gases with their leaves, at an estimated value to society of $9.5 million (according to the EPA). Ecologist Yvonne Baskin wrote in The Work of Nature: How the Diversity of Life Sustains Us, “Most industrial societies tend to disregard and devalue ecosystem processes, opting instead for a technological fix whenever environmental services falter. Lost services are replaced not with natural mimics but with engineering solutions: dams, reservoirs, waste treatment plants, air scrubbers, air conditioners, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and water filtration systems.” Economists have tried to put a value on species and natural processes as commodities. Baskin states, “None of these categories, however, gets directly at what it is worth to have species work together within ecosystems to generate the life-support services that make the earth habitable.”
Now the maples take my breath away, not to give me oxygen, but to open my senses to the many shades of orange, the smell of the earth, and the crunch of leaves underfoot. As a canopy climber at http://www.treeclimbing.com said about being with trees: “All your senses come alive.”
I can thank the maples in person, in my own Evanston neighborhood, after a breakfast involving delicious maple syrup. Other trees I have to go find. For instance, I happen to love Paul Mitchell’s tea tree shampoo. It smells minty and wonderful and is somehow refreshing and soothing at the same time. Tea tree oil (Melaleuca) is a natural disinfectant and has been used for centuries by Aboriginal people of Australia to treat skin ailments. Luckily I found some tea trees at the University of California Santa Cruz Arboretum a few years ago. I inhaled their mintiness and told them what they meant to me.
Another oil I use a lot is tamanu from Tahiti. Pacific Islanders use its wood for the keels of their canoes and its nuts for oil. In order to meet those trees in person I would have to travel to the Tropics. Hmmm… that would be crazy, right? Crazy or not, I am getting old enough to show my true colors as an incurable, tree-hugging nature-lover who talks to plants. I tell them thank you.