If We Were Like Trees

Tree TabooIf trees could read, would they? Or would the fact that books have been printed on mulched up tree guts for centuries be a barrier to literary exploration? And while books may last for years, what would trees think of magazines? As silly as personification is, this line of questioning leads us to the real topic of today’s discussion: If we were like trees, would we live our lives differently?

Most of who we are is invisible. Humans are visual creatures with as much as two-thirds of our brains associated with vision. We use this ability to observe our three dimensional world, yet there’s a fourth dimension—time—that makes up the majority of who we are. Our experiences, our long years of life—the more diverse these are, the larger we “grow.” But it can be difficult to sense the enormity of a large life.

If we were like trees, we could stand in awe of the expansive lives of one another. We could marvel at the large trunks and broad canopies of our elders. We could see one another—our branching, our scars, our history carved into the physical embodiment of our years.

As much as we try, the material world does not provide an accurate representations of who we are. The cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the jobs we have, the photos we post—these are poor substitutions for the real thing. Even our bodies don’t tell the whole story. Wrinkles, blemishes, thinning hair—these might give away our age, but to accurately tell our life story? Impossible.

Unable to directly observe the experiences of others, we settle for sensing the shape of a person’s life through indirect measures—their demeanor, their stories, their stuff. Material wealth is often (mistakenly) used as a proxy for life worth. If we were like trees—if our bodies were a physical representation of our experiences—there would be less need for ancillary metrics. Just by looking, we would see the complexity and worthiness of even the poorest among us.

Also, unlike humans who reach a mature size a fifth of the way into our lives, trees continually grow larger over time. And not only that, they actually accelerate their growth as they age, meaning older trees are better at being trees (i.e. removing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere). Imagine a life where your years of “peak performance” are always ahead of you, a life where you’re always getting better.

As humans age, our bodies become frail, small, and insignificant. There is no visual representation of all that a person has accomplished, all the people they’ve influenced, loved, and touched. The vastness of their experience is easily overlooked and under-appreciated. Yet the lives of our aged population are like the trees—enormous amounts of time and energy to be marveled.

We must be careful not to under-appreciate our elders—those people we call parents, grandparents, or great grandparents. We may not be able to see the immensity of their time here on earth, but we should be able to sense the scale of their lives and what they provide us.

When an old tree dies in the woods, it falls to the ground. It lies there like a giant among new growth, leaving a large space for smaller trees to fill. It decomposes providing nutrients for the next generation. That’s the circle of life. And the larger a tree’s life—the larger, physically, that tree was—the more it provides after death. To quote Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Perhaps humans too can embody the grand scale of a long life. We cannot see it directly, but it is still there, like the massive size of a fallen tree.

Many of us fear death, because it represents the end. We are afraid of regret, afraid of not having done or experienced enough. But what if we were like trees? Perhaps death would be seen as just the beginning—our large lives giving back to the small, the young, the future.

Stephenson, Nathan, et al. “Rate of Tree Carbon Accumulation Increases Continuously with Tree Size.” Nature 507.7490 (2014): 90-93. (Source)