One of the subjects that I am most drawn to when I create my photographic artworks in nature are trees, in all their glorious shapes, colors and sizes. And as it turns out, fine art tree photographs oftentimes end up being the bestselling artworks here in my Seattle gallery.
And so I started to wonder: Why is that? Why do you and I feel so connected to trees? Why do people like trees and tree photographs? What is it about the spiritual energy of trees that lifts us up? And what’s the reason that now researchers are actually able to measure and quantify how much happier we are when we are around trees, how less stressed and less anxious you immediately feel?
In short: What’s the magic spell of the tree? (I love this kind of deep, spiritual exploration.)
As I started to read about human’s intimate relationship with trees, I came across a collection of recurring themes — some of which I had anticipated, like the aesthetic beauty of trees, and some of which I did not expect. Sure, there’s the obvious: Trees literally provide us with breathable air, food, water and other material necessities. But that’s not what this essay is about. I dug deeper. It’s like Marvin Bell said: “A poem containing a tree may not be about a tree.”
Each of the reasons I uncovered for our love affair with trees all comes back to one undeniable truth: Tapping into our bond with trees to feel more calm is no longer just for tree-huggers and new-age hipsters. As we search for meaningful connections in our lives and ways to slow down our busy days, trees emerge — once again — as the friend and ally we need to feel more grounded, to feel at ease, to feel happier and healthier… And isn’t that what we all long for both when we go on a hike in the woods and when we think about creating a home that feels like a sanctuary?
“When we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.” — Hermann Hesse, “On Trees”
Reason #1 why we love trees: They comfort us with their roots
There is a wide variety of qualities in trees that we treasure: They are complex like you and I, they are beautiful, they are fragile and strong at the same time. They give us a sense of longevity, and they symbolize growth. Already, I would assume that this would be enough for any one of us to say, Yeah, trees are pretty great!
But I want to take this to a more personal level, because it’s one of the main reasons that I long for any amount of time spent among trees: I’ve always been most comfortable around them.
I grew up following my untampered curiosity into the forest behind my family home in Northern Germany. There, I found a quiet space where I was comfortable being myself, where the stresses of conforming to what others expected of me disappeared.
Ever since those days, the woods have become an escape. When I close my eyes, I can still see the stately elms and the creaky bridge over the babbling brook that seemed like a crossing into another world. Those woods are the place where the seed for my deep love for nature was planted.
These days, I rediscover that sense of homely security every time I venture into the mystical old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. Though vastly different in their outward appearance, their spell remains unchanged: Among the trees, I return to the person who I grew up to be. Having uprooted my life and moved frequently across oceans and mountains between my childhood days and finally settling in Seattle, trees were always the companion that helped me make sense of and connect me to the place where I lived at the time.
Trees, I now understand, help us feel a sense of rootedness when roots are what we long for. That sense of arriving, that sense of comfort, maybe even more than the roof over our heads that they provide, is their real gift of security.
The forest that calls to me as deeply
As I breathe
As though the woods were marrow of my bone
I myself were a tree, a breathing, reaching
Arc of the larger canopy
Beside a brook bubbling to foam
Like the one
Deep in these woods
That whispers home.
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Reason #2 why we love trees: They store our memories
Nostalgia is an incredibly powerful emotion. It’s both a bridge to our past and a connection to the world at large. I mean… just writing the above lines about the woods behind my childhood home got me incredibly nostalgic. Trees don’t just store the oxygen we need to breathe. They also store the memories we need to live.
Native Americans have long spoken of the idea that there’s memories in the rocks, the swift-flowing rivers and the magnificent forests. That belief is central to their identity and their connection both to the earth and to those who walked it before them. In more recent times, planting trees to memorialize the dead has gained popularity in most cultures around the world, including our own.
This essay is all about our connection to trees. But it turns out, trees also connect us to others, and to the memories that make us who we are today. The British scribe Richard Mabey in his wonderful book “Nature Cure” called the forest an “immense private library of experiences and encounters.”
I invite you to think about your own memories that may be brought back by looking at a tree.
When I asked Bobby Bienvenue, a dear collector of my work, why she keeps choosing my artworks, and why she is so drawn to fine art tree photography, her response nearly moved me to tears: “These pieces are about memories and the potential of being a kid in the woods, of laying on the ground looking through the canopy to the sky. They are reminders of time shared with family. And they signify a calm longing for feeling the love of being nestled in the arms of comforting green. These pieces are a memory of warm embraces.”
Trees store our memories, maybe our most cherished possession — and because of it, they store a part of ourselves. Connecting with trees means connecting with ourselves.
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Reason #3 why we love trees: They remind us to slow down
Nalini Nadkarni is known as the “Queen of the Forest Canopy.” Nalini is a National Geographic Explorer and biology professor at the University of Utah and has studied the plants that live in rainforest canopies on four continents for decades. To say that she loves trees would be an understatement. Don’t believe me? Well… Mattel has honored Nalini with a “TreeTop Barbie” doll.
Nalini is the real deal. Of course I had to talk to her for this essay. So I called her, and she was gracious enough to share her expertise with me — both during that call, and in her book, “Between Earth and Sky — Our Intimate Connection to Trees”. It’s one of the books I highly recommend you pick up if you want to read more about why we love trees (you’ll find more book recommendations at the end of this essay.)
“Trees, rooted as they are in the earth and reaching ever skyward, exemplify a sort of grounded connectivity,” Nalini says. “Often, people under stress are pulled from task to task and conversation to conversation, never finishing one before another demands attention. It is rare for them to be still. Rarer still for them to simply be. Trees can provide inspiration to be silent and still.”
Stressed… pulled from task to task… Nalini wasn’t just talking to me. She was talking about me. But not just me. And therein lies yet another gift of the trees. “When I walk in the forest, silence is the companion I most avidly seek,” she says. “There, I experience both physical and spiritual peace amid the tumult of my noisy everyday existence.”
Zen Buddhists revere that kind of silence. The Buddha found enlightenment after sitting under the spreading limbs of a Bodhi tree and meditating silently for 49 days. Now, I wish I could do that, but I don’t have that kind of time… There’s got to be a more practical, faster way to slow down my racing mind. There is.
Growing up, Nalini took modern dance lessons. It was then, she recalls, that she first learned about the idea of “still points” — moments in a dance that are choreographed to be utterly still. The music continues, but the movement stops, “like punctuation in a short story or line breaks in poetry.”
“Still points provide a striking counterpoint to the movement that goes on before and after,” she explains. “Lately, I have become more aware of the excessive speed with which I live, and have consciously tried to slow myself down. I find myself looking for still points in my days and years, stopping to pause amid the tasks and tugs of a busy family and professional life. Happily, there are silent, yet vivid, reminders all around me.” Most of these reminders, she says, are — in typical Nalini fashion — trees, or descriptions and pictures of trees.
“When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
‘and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.’”
Mary Oliver — "When I am Among the Trees"
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Reason #4 why we love trees: They challenge our combative attitude toward time
“In the woods, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever in life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth.” So wrote Henry David Thoreau in his transcendent masterpiece, “Walden.”
Trees express time with a precision and beauty that are unmatched in nature. We are inspired by the relationship of trees with time, how old they can grow amid often fierce disturbances. Trees, Nalini says, give us a comforting sense of continuity, of longevity.
Evergreen trees connote immortality, for example. “Deciduous trees, meanwhile, which lose their leaves in the fall and sprout new foliage in spring, often are taken to represent rebirth, and trees, seeds and fruits suggest not just fertility but immortality,” she writes.
In Japan, cherry blossoms are seen as a symbol of new beginnings, the excitement of a new start. Oftentimes, we also associate trees with the most significant transformations in our lives. In Israel, it is customary to plant a tree when a child is born — cedar for boys, cypress for girls, in case you were wondering.
And then there are the ancient redwood trees that seem to defy all laws of logic and time. Leave it to a literary master like John Steinbeck to describe these marvels of nature. “The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always,” he writes in “Travels with Charley.” “From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.”
But maybe the most potent way that trees take some of the worry out of our combative relationship with time is how we see them deal with change. Doing internet research for this essay, I came across a beautiful reflection on a tree leaf written by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, zen master and poet:
“I asked the leaf whether it was frightened because it was autumn and the other leaves were falling. The leaf told me, ‘No. During the whole spring and summer I was completely alive. I worked hard to help nourish the tree, and now much of me is in the tree. I am not limited by this form. I am also the whole tree, and when I go back to the soil, I will continue to nourish the tree. So I don’t worry at all. As I leave this branch and float to the ground, I will wave to the tree and tell her, ‘I will see you again very soon.’ … That day, there was a wind blowing and, after a while, I saw the leaf leave the branch and float down to the soil, dancing joyfully, because as it floated it saw itself already there in the tree. It was so happy. I bowed my head, knowing that I have a lot to learn from the leaf because it is not afraid - it knew nothing can be born and nothing can die.”
I am going to try to remember this the next time worry about the onset of winter pierces my soul.
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Reason #5 why we love trees: They help us connect with our spiritual selves
If you have made it this far in this essay, you have hopefully gained a solid understanding by now of just how deeply spiritual our connection with trees really is, of how trees nurture our minds and support us emotionally — whether you’ve ever consciously realized it or not.
In her book, “Myths of the Sacred Tree,” Mora Caldecott writes: “For our health, we have to preserve our physical world - the environment our bodies need to survive on this earth. But we also must preserve the environment our spirts need to survive in eternity. The tree is essential to one, and the symbol of the tree is essential to the other. The physical tree sustains our bodies with its fruit, its shade, its capacity to reproduce oxygen and to hold the fertile soil safe. The mythic tree sustains our spirit with its constant reminder that we need both the earth and the sunlight. - the physical and the spiritual - for full and potent life.”
As you and I both together and individually explore our relationship with trees, we explore the most basic questions that humans ask: Who am I, and what is my place and purpose in this world?
Take, for example, the concept of the Tree of Life - an image symbolizing how all life forms are connected. It is a central tenet of many religions and philosophies. It dates all the way back to ancient Egypt, where the Tree of Life symbolized creation itself and represented the chain of events that brought everything into existence, as Nalini explains in her book.
She writes: “Because of their iconic form, their persistence through time, their rootedness in the soil, their skyward-extending branches, trees constitute for us a connection between Earth and the heavens that is both physical and spiritual. In important ways, trees allow us to expand our sensibility beyond the mundane."
Indeed, trees lend gravitas to and serve as the guideposts for our perennial search for meaning and direction in our lives. Theirs are spiritual qualities that we so cherish: longevity, serenity and resilience.
Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, confirmed as much, when he wrote: “Trees in particular are mysterious, and seemed to me direct embodiments of the incomprehensible meaning of life. For that reason, the woods were the place that I felt closest to its deepest meaning and to its awe-inspiring workings.” Or, as Hermann Hesse put it: “Trees do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.”
From the minds of Carl Jung and Hermann Hesse to the woods behind my family home, all the way to the artworks in my Seattle photography gallery… everything is connected. And isn’t that what spirituality is really all about — connecting to something larger than ourselves on a deeper level?
“The spiritual teachings of trees are universal,” writes Nalini, who lived in Olympia here in Washington for 20 years, studying trees on the Olympic Peninsula. “We should strive to connect the mundane with the heavenly, produce things that are useful to others, be rooted in our home places, accept the inevitable changes of life, live mindfully, be joyful. Opening up to something as simple and pleasurable as climbing a tree - or sitting silently beneath it - can make humans feel at home with the world, and with themselves.”
FOREST FLOWER | Del Norte Coastal Redwoods, California | Highly Collectible Limited Edition of 99
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Reason #5 why we love trees: They teach us that we are much stronger than we think we are
So far, I have kept my promise to refrain from asking you to hug a tree, right? A fair warning: In this section, we are cutting it close. There’ll be some touching, if you’d like. Yes… touch a tree, place your hand gently on its bark, and tell me you are not feeling its strength.
Trees, especially those giants inhabiting the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, are titans of resilience and durability. A Douglas fir can withstand fire temperatures of up to 1200 F and live up to 1200 years — a remarkable feat of stability, constancy and permanence. The word “tree” itself is a declaration of strength: It emerged from the Sanskrit word dāru, which means both “wood” and “to be firm and solid.”
“Trees embody the intriguing paradox of being strong and fragile at once,” writes Nalini. “On the one hand, they exemplify longevity and hardiness. They endure storms, wind, disease and fragmentation of their environment. On the other hand, they can be extremely sensitive to disturbance. People struggling to deal with emotional problems - whether stemming from dark events of the past, an unlucky roll of the genetic dice, or some other burden - embody the same strength and fragility. Trees provide solace and the assurance that we are not alone in our struggles.”
ECHO | Steamboat Springs, Colorado | Open Edition
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Reason #6 why we love trees: Shinrin Yoku — The Japanese Art of Forest Bathing
You may have heard of the growing trend of forest therapy. It started in Japan, where it has actually become standard preventative medicinal practice to go for walk on trails officially designed by Japan’s Forest Agency for the purpose of forest bathing. Locals describe it as a greenery shower. There’s even a growing number of physicians that are being certified in the field of forest medicine.
Now, bear with me… I know, we are getting into some seemingly woo woo territory here. But there is a growing body of research that actually proves that forest therapy is effective. Do trees cure cancer? Of course not. But they do reduce blood pressure and stress levels and generally make us feel better. That alone merits exploring this idea a little further, don’t you think?
Shinrin yoku, as the art of forest bathing is called in Japanese, was born out of ancient Shinto and Buddhist practices. “The idea is to let nature into your body through all five senses”, writes Florence Williams in her book, “The Nature Fix — Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, And More Creative”. During her research, Williams traveled all the way to Japan to learn more abut the Art of Forest Bathing from certified local guides.
“The Japanese have good reason to study how to unwind,” she writes. “In addition to long work days, pressure and competition for schools and jobs helps drive the third-highest suicide rate in the world. One fifth of Japan’s residents live in greater Tokyo, and 8.7 million people have to ride the metro every day. Rush hour is so crowded it led to another unique term, tsukin jigoku — commuting hell.”
Out of the commuting hell and into the forest — it is easy to see the appeal, don’t you think?
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Reason #7 why we love trees: Even photographs of trees are proven to lift our moods and help cure our ailments faster
Tokyo and Japan are not the only places where stress-related mental and physical illness and other sicknesses are on the rise. Here in the U.S., forest therapy may not be nearly as common as it is in Japan. But scientists have spent a good amount of time studying the impact of trees on our mental health, and, by extension, on our physical health.
A pioneer in this field was a man named Roger Ulrich, a professor of behavioral psychology at Texas A&M University. In a now famous study back in the late 1970s, he proved that having nature nearby can enhance human wellbeing in measurable ways. The laboratory for his study was a hospital, where fear and uncertainty about an impending prognosis, isolation from loved ones and many other stresses suppress the immune system, dampen our emotional and spiritual energies, and thus impede recovery.
Back then, the psychological needs of patients were largely disregarded in healthcare facilities. “State of the art” hospitals were stark and impersonal, with no real thought given to artifacts that might bolster a patient’s emotional wellbeing during a time of physical distress.
In came Roger Ulrich, who tested the recovery rates of a group of patients with contrasting views from their windows. All those patients had recently had gall bladder surgery, and Ulrich made sure that other influencing factors were similar as well. What was different was that some patients had rooms that overlooked a patch of trees in the hospital courtyard, while others had rooms with windows that faced a concrete wall. The result was clear: Patients in rooms with views of trees spent fewer days in the hospital, used fewer narcotic drugs and registered fewer complaints with nurses.
“Other studies have shown that environments with nature-related imagery such as photographs and paintings on the wall reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure and reduce pain,” says Nalini. “Even the most mainstream administrators, hospital architects and interior designers now acknowledge that environments enhanced by plants and nature imagery empower patients in their healing.”
Ever noticed that photo of a peaceful beach scene hanging in your dentist’s office, the last thing you see before he goes to town with his drill? Well, it’s hanging there for a purpose.
Nalini actually went and took Ulrich’s study to the extreme. She told me about work she did in the Washington prison system a few years ago. She showed half the inmates in a super max prison nature videos for just one hour a day. The other half of inmates did not get to see those nature videos. “What we found after a year, through surveys and interviews, was that the men who saw the nature videos felt more connected to themselves, they felt more grateful for their officers and felt more connected to the outdoors,” Nalini says. “But most significantly, they committed 26% fewer violent infractions. The nature videos actually had an impact on their behavior.”
Now, while this is interesting, Why should I care?, you might ask. After all, let’s hope you are not going to prison anytime soon and hospital design plans are not part of your immediate job description either. Fair enough. But what if you could incorporate some of these findings in your own home, the place you hope will feel like a calming sanctuary? After all, I’d argue most of our emotional healing happens outside of hospital walls but inside the walls of our own homes. Could you harness the healing power of trees and fine art tree photography there to lower the daily anxiety that drives so much of our days now? Food for thought.
ALOHA KAKAHIAKA — DAWN'S EARLY LIGHT | Kapa'a, Kauai | Highly Collectible Limited Edition of 99
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Reason #8 why we love trees: They give us hope when we most need it
These days, as 24-hour bad news cycles spin out of control, as anxiety becomes a public health crisis and a quickly changing climate threatens our very existence, all while global pandemics and worries about inflation ravage our communities, life can quickly seem bleak and hopeless.
I have always looked toward my connection with the natural world in moments when I felt my spirits were in need of uplifting. I am not alone in doing so, of course. The very reason you’ve read this essay all the way to this point gives me a pretty good idea that you and I feel very similar about what we do to escape when life becomes just a little bit too much to bear at times.
Once again, it is the symbol of the tree that is a particularly potent agent of hope in those instances. “Trees offer inspiring examples of recovery and resilience,” writes Nalini in “Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connections to Trees.” “Many can survive in infertile terrain. Their seeds can remain dormant until conditions become stable for growth. They exemplify steadfastness and courage - important qualities in any process of emotional healing.”
After the unspeakable events of 9/11, the Living Memorials Project was founded — and one part of it is the Healing Trees Project. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3000 people and deeply scarred a nation and a world, Congress asked the U.S. Forest Service to create an initiative that would invoke the healing power of trees to bring people together and soothe their sorrow.
The idea was simple, even as the work of recovery remained hard, complex and challenging: Look to the strong tree that is still growing, and feel more hopeful.
“When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life s not easy, life is not difficult.” — Hermann Hesse
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Reason #9 why we love trees: They help us feel a sense of community
Before I moved to Seattle, I spent many years living in Colorado. Back there, my favorite thing to do was to spend time among the vast stands of aspen trees during the fall, when entire mountainsides glowed golden. It was only after dozens of hours spent wandering wondrously through these groves that I learnt that these colonies of aspens actually share one root system. Everything is connected, remember?
If anything, this knowledge made me fall in love with the aspens even more deeply, for now I felt a sense of innate kinship and community whenever I was among them.
“Trees have their own communities and families. They form tribes to help each other out,” writes the German forester Peter Wohlleben in his bestselling book, “The Hidden Life of Trees.” (Apparently I follow a long line of Germans who are philosophically inspired by trees. Who knew?!)
In his book, Wohlleben describes how trees “talk” to each other and share their resources. He goes as far as to claim that trees have friends, feel loneliness and pain, and communicate underground via the “woodwide web.” (Note to self: Spend more time on the woodwide web and less time on the other www.)
Even if the thought of trees developing friendships as we define them seems hard to grasp, there are many lessons of communal life they teach us that we may not even realize. For example, humans have been using the family tree, the mathematical tree and tree-like corporate hierarchies to understand complex relationships forever.
In Japan, the custom of hanami, or literally “flower viewing,” is a centuries-old tradition of gathering with friends and family to admire the cherry blossoms. And a study of over 10,000 Dutch households found that people of similar incomes living near more vegetation experience less loneliness.
We all search for connection and our place in our own communities. Turns out, trees guide us on that path.
“All things share the same breath — the beast, the tree, the man, the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports.” — Chief Seattle, nineteenth-century leader of the Salesian people of what is now Washington state.
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If you’ve ever dreamt of living in a penthouse, you’ve dreamt of a tree, says Nalini. ”Their sky-high cost reflects our desire to look out and over a landscape - a desire born in the tree-studded savannas of our evolutionary cradle.”
Indeed, as I hope this essay has shown, trees are a mirror humans have used since the beginning of time to better understand themselves and all they hold dear.
As I invite you to think about how trees fit into your own life’s story and explore my fine art photographs of trees, I want to leave you with this poem by Karen Shrug, called “Think Like a Tree.”
Soak up the sun
Affirm life’s magic
Be graceful in the wind
Stand tall after a storm
Feel refreshed after it rains
Grow strong without notice
Be prepared for each season
Provide shelter to strangers
Hang tough through a cold spell
Emerge renewed at the first sign of spring
Stay deeply rooted while reaching for the sky
Be still long enough to hear your own leaves rustling.
RECOMMENDED READING LIST:
- Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connections to Trees — Nalini Nadkarni
- Forest Bathing — Dr. Qing Li
- Nature Fix — Florence Williams
- The Hidden Life of Trees — Peter Wohlleben
- Myths of the Sacred Tree — Moyra Caldecott
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