I realised the importance of trees to my own mind and wellbeing when one was taken away from me. I was recovering from a period of ill health when a pear tree outside my bedroom window in a flat in Hackney, East London, was concealed for six months by thick, ugly scaffolding. It was a beautiful tree – incandescent in spring, glowing green like kryptonite. The branches would bud and they’d burst into curds of blossom, short-lived like a Perseid. When the winter days lost their bite and the world stretched and yawned, I would check back each morning for new nubs soon to crack open, push forward and begin again.
You see, the tree had become a symbol of hope and change. It filled the sash window I slept next to and I loved to watch its changing raiment and activity. I found a kind of emotional stability in its routine and fastened my hope to it.
I only understood quite how much I had grown to rely on it when the tree was blocked from view. What happened next made me realise the extent of my psychological need for the natural world. Within days, I felt a rising tension. I tried to peer around the lattice of metal bars to glimpse its vital green, to see how it was getting on, as if it were a drink that could quench my thirst. My emotional reaction freaked me out. Could a tree – or the lack of one – really have such a strong psychological impact?
“It is incredible to think how much we don’t yet know about these intelligent, beautiful beings.”
After years of disconnection from the natural world – living a typically urban life in London, moving from one building to another, with little time or interest in my wider environment – I suddenly found that spending time with the rest of the living world, with trees and birds and insects, became a powerful therapy during recovery from an episode of clinical depression.
I began to research the mechanism by which feeling connected with the living world can affect our mental health which turned into my book Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild. Trees, of course, were major protagonists in many studies I came across. In short, the evidence shows that the nearby presence of trees is associated with better psychological health.
Today, I live in a town in the countryside, and my favourite nearby place to sit is underneath a huge, sprawling beech tree in an urban cemetery. I have grown to feel a kind of kinship with this tree.
Following my years of research, I now know some of the reasons why I am drawn to the beech and always feel restored and calmer after visiting it. I often sit at the root, watching my young children make houses for fairies in the roots, or scratch into the soil with sticks. I pick up handfuls of soil and roll it around my hands, sniffing the humus and wondering whether I might be ingesting M. vaccae, a bacterium found in the soil, that stimulates the brain to create more serotonin (the happy chemical) and increases stress resilience. I breathe deeply, knowing that studies show that phytoncides, the chemicals released by trees, decrease production of stress hormones. I spend some time looking at the leaves, beautifully lined, and starting to yellow, and consider their fractal nature. Fractal, in this context, means a selfrepeating pattern of a shape that varies in scale, and the pattern is found everywhere in nature, from ferns to lightning, pineapple to snowflakes. Scientists have found that viewing fractals provokes brain activity which suggests a relaxed and focused state which could reduce stress levels. These days, I do not consider it a luxury or simply a ‘nice’ activity to hang out with my beech. Instead, it is an essential part of staying sane and well, just like taking exercise or eating a balanced diet.
As the years pass, I find I want to spend more time in the presence of old trees. The effect of this is hard to explain through data or in a lab. It is, shall we say, the metaphorical or even mystical potency of a relationship with beings that are hundreds years old. Recently, I have become interested in looking for visible root crowns, and thinking about the subterranean depths of the human mind mirroring that of the outside world. I’m learning to look underneath leaves for spangle galls, or caterpillars, or butterfly eggs. The more I watch and look, the more wonder and awe is revealed.
There are few beings more awe-inspiring than an ancient tree. The relatively new science of awe tells us, again, that experiencing awe and wonder has measurable effects on our bodies and minds. A study from the University of Toronto, Mississauga, found that awe promotes healthier levels of cytokines, an inflammation biomarker. Research from California, has found that people were more ethical, kind and generous after feeling awe. Is it possible that we need ancient and awe-inducing trees to be a compassionate and caring society?
We are just starting to scratch the surface of understanding how trees communicate with one another, and how they live social lives. I am only just scratching the surface of my own treeblindness, finding ways of getting to know my favourite trees more deeply. It is incredible to think how much we don’t yet know about these intelligent, beautiful beings. Which, of course, makes it all the more urgent that we move into a new world where trees are properly protected, conserved, respected and loved.
Lucy Jones is the author of Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild (Allen Lane).