May 19, 2019
Fifty-five years ago, in 1964 Shel Silverstein published The Giving Tree,which eventually became a classic children’s book, selling more than 9 million copies. I remember reading it to my children numerous times. The story recounts the give-and-take in a lifelong loving friendship between a boy and an apple tree.
The little boy loved playing in, under, and with the tree and the tree loved being with the boy. Over the years of the boy’s life, he comes repeatedly to the tree asking for help: asking for apples to sell for money, asking for timber to build a house, asking for a trunk to fashion a boat, until finally the boy, who by then is an old man, asks simply for a place to sit in peace and quiet on the tree’s stump. At each stage in the lifespan of the boy and in the lifespan of the tree, the tree is pleased to give whatever the boy wants and takes. Throughout this parable, their roles are consistent: the tree gives and the boy takes.
Although the story is fiction, is make-believe, the story speaks the universal truth about trees, and to some degree, a truth about boys, and probably girls, for that matter. Boys and girls tend to buy, consume, and take what we need or want to get on in each stage of life. Trees, however, tend to give at every stage of their lives. Whereas it would seem odd to speak about a giving shrub or a giving vine, it is natural to speak about a giving tree. For, as the Bible and science both assert, trees are continually giving.
The first trait we learn about trees from the Bible is that trees give fruit, fruit for food. We read in Genesis 1:11 that God designed trees to yield fruits which God later (1:29) designated as one of the healthy food groups for the first humans. In the following sequel, when the LORD designed an idyllic home in a lush garden estate for the lovely newlyweds, Adam and Eve, the LORD stocked their backyard with all kinds of lush fruit bearing trees. Admittedly the fruit from one of the trees was toxic, but there were plenty of other fruits to pluck and eat.
We enjoy a cornucopia of fruits from trees whenever we enter the produce department of any grocery store. We can eat apples, plums, apricots, nectarines, pineapples, oranges, grapefruits, bananas, mangoes, kumquats, peaches, cherries, tangerines, pears, to name only a few. The Bible also mentions a variety of fruit trees, including sycamore, quince, mulberry, date, citrons, fig, olive, and pomegranate trees, as well as trees bearing nuts such as almonds, walnuts, and pistachios.
Money doesn’t grow on trees, but nourishment does. One healthy apple tree can produce from 15 to 20 bushels of fruit in one season. That is why in some underdeveloped countries, governments urge homeowners to plant a fruit tree or two on their property. A handy source of food is vital. For many of us fruit is luscious and tasty and nutritious, but for others trees give food for daily living.
Another benefit that trees give according to the Bible and science is shelter. We read in Daniel chapter four, one evening the notorious Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar had a dream in which he spied a massive tree. As he described the tree, “Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit abundant, and on it was food for all. Under it the wild animals found shelter and the birds lived in its branches” (Daniel 4:11). Because Bible students tend to focus on how the king’s dream prophesied his downfall, they overlook how well the king’s dream described the giving nature of trees.
Trees provide shelter for thousands of animals. Ten years ago a Bavarian scientist, Dr. Martin Gossner, wanted to know how many animals can be housed in a tree. He went to some drastic measures, which means that you should not try this experiment at home. He sprayed insecticide on a large tree, 170 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter in the Bavarian Forest National Park. Then he counted all the insects and spiders that fell dead upon the forest floor. He tallied 2,041 animals from 257 different species. Scientists estimate that one half of all the animals on the earth find homes in or on trees, including dead trees. The nature of trees is to give, even after they die. For nearly twenty percent of all creatures, some 6,000 species, live in or off decomposing trees for food and shelter.
In addition to giving shelter for animals to dwell, trees give shelter to our dwellings. The ancient Israelite prophet Hosea had a dim view of trees because he sensed that his contemporaries idolized them and used them as hiding places for their illicit affairs. In spite of his ill feelings toward hugging under trees, he admitted in 4:13 that under the oak and poplar trees the shade is pleasant.
On hot summer days we relish the shade under a tree. The temperature in downtown Bridgeport or Stamford can be as much as 9 degrees warmer on hot summer days than in areas along the Connecticut shoreline with heavy tree cover. Growing as few as three large shade trees around a house can lower the air conditioning needs from twenty to fifty percent in the summer.
The leaves on deciduous trees not only absorb or deflect the sun’s radiant energy, they also deflect noise. Living beside the New Canaan Railroad, I am glad when spring arrives and the foliage returns, because the leaves absorb some of the noise from the train horn before it blasts into my eardrums. A hedge of trees 100 feet wide and 45 feet high can cut highway noise in half. The nature of trees is to give and I, for one, am especially glad that they give relief from heat and noise.
Another benefit that trees give according to the Bible and science is healing. In the final chapter of the Bible, Revelation 22, where the prophet John recounts his vision of eternal bliss coming somewhere in the future, he sees a crystal clear river flowing from the throne of God and on the river bank stands a great tree, the legendary tree of life, “bearing twelve crops of fruit, giving its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2).
Long before pharmacists manufactured drugs to cure our ills, people sought healing from leaves, fruit, and even the bark of trees. In Bible times people drank extract almond-milk and chewed olive leaves to reduce fevers, swallowed citron oil for an antidote from snakebite, ate figs for laxatives (just try a handful of fig Newton cookies to see how that works), applied sycamore leaves onto wounds, and prescribed pomegranate seeds and quince to combat tapeworm. We carry on the same ancient therapeutic traditions in seeking healing from tree leaves when we drink tea for relaxation, drink ginger beer for an upset stomach, and indulge in chocolate bars for, well for any reason we can find. I can’t attribute any specific medicinal value to maple syrup, but I know it makes me feel so good, which I assert is good medicine.
Studies have shown that simply the sight of trees can help hospital patients recover from surgery faster. Patients with views of trees allegedly heal faster, with fewer complications, voice fewer complaints, and use fewer pain killers. Studies have also shown that green spaces with trees in cities can result in lower blood pressure and more relaxed brain waves. Scientists in Korea measured vital statistics in older women as they walked through city streets and at other times as they walked through woodlands. When the women were strolling under the trees, their blood pressure declined, their lung capacity enlarged, and the elasticity of their arteries improved.
Another benefit trees give according to the Bible and science is sustaining life. The first tree to be named, according to the Bible in Genesis 2:9, was called the tree of life. After Adam and Eve made the fateful and costly decision to eat the poisonous fruit from that other legendary tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, after they ate that toxic fruit, God expelled them from the Garden of Eden, lest they eat fruit from the tree of life and live forever in their forlorn state (Genesis 2:22). We infer, therefore, that the benefit of the tree of life was granting immortality, eternal life. But I think that we shortchange the legendary tree of life by limiting its effect to elongating life. The tree of life may have more immediate benefits applicable to all trees, for we could not live without trees. Trees can live fine without humans, but humans cannot survive without the amazing life of trees.
Trees are the lungs for our planet. Without those lungs we could not breathe for trees generate the oxygen we need to live. Humans, and all living animals, inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Trees do the reverse. In trees, the leaves, as well as the roots, breathe. As trees photosynthesize, they suck up carbon dioxide, produce hydrocarbons, and release oxygen. A person breathes about two pounds of oxygen per day. According to the United States Department of Agricultural, in the course of one year one acre of mature trees in a forest breathes in six tons of carbon dioxide and breathes out about four tons of oxygen, which is enough oxygen for the annual needs of 18 people. In smaller terms, one large tree can supply a one day supply of oxygen for four people.
Trees also act as huge air filters. Similar to the way filters above stove tops collect grease and particles from our cooking and frying, the leaves and needles on trees collect air-born particles on their surfaces. Small particles, such as dust and pollen, cling to the surface of leaves, needles, and bark. One square mile of woodland can collect nearly 20,000 tons of pollutants over the course of one year, which the rain periodically washes onto the soil. The amount of dust on the windward side of a tree can be more than two-thirds lower than the amount of dust on the other side, on the sheltered side of the tree.
Trees also function as huge air purifiers. Trees absorb odors and pollutants, such as ammonia, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide. In our era of rapid climate change due to increasing levels of carbon dioxide which causes the “green house” effect in the atmosphere to heat up the earth more and more, trees protect us by capturing and storing carbon dioxide. Over the course of one year an acre of healthy trees can absorb the amount of carbon dioxide a typical gas engine car generates traveling 26,000 miles.
Trees are also natural air conditioners. When moisture collects on the bark and leaves of a tree and evaporates during a hot day, it produces a cooling effect. So much so that the cooling effect from one sizeable tree can give the same cooling effect of ten room size air conditioning units running for 20 hours.
It is in the nature of trees to give. They give food, shelter, healing, and the life-giving oxygen that all animals need. Besides these benefits, I could add that because wood fibers conduct sound waves so well, trees are used to make musical instruments: guitars, violins, recorders, harps, and pianos. We build houses and adorn church sanctuaries with wood from trees. We read books and publish worship bulletins printed from tree pulp. Property values are higher for houses with landscaped trees than properties with no trees. Apartment complexes with ample green spaces and trees have lower crime rates than apartment complexes surrounded by concrete. We become so attached to trees that when someone cuts down a tree on our property, we feel heartsick. Trees could easily live without us, but we could not live without trees.
The American author Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The wonder is that we can see these trees and not wonder more.” Seeing trees ought to make us wonder how much we are dependent on them. Wonder more about how indebted we are to them and how foolish we are to mistreat them. Wonder more about how ingenuous God was in designing them. Wonder more about how trees give us reflections of what God their designer is like: feeding, sheltering, protecting, healing, purifying, and always giving, giving, giving.