By Aaron Byer
It was springtime in North Carolina. I was twelve years old and bored out of my mind.
My mother, desperate for some peace in the house, was eager to offer any solution. “You know, when your dad was bored as a kid, he would go outside and spend time in the woods and build trails.”
I, even more bored at that point, accepted the challenge to wander outside and see what this trail building was all about. After all, I enjoyed being outside, and I would try almost anything to help distract me from the depression that loomed over my head.
My father, deteriorating from cancer and now confined to his bed, was six feet two inches tall and the strongest person I had ever known. Distraction was a necessary component of my daily routine to keep my mind from reality and cope with the impending loss of the one person I had always known as indestructible.
These times spent in the woods are the first moments of my life that I can remember feeling a deep connection with trees, the first sense of a symbiotic relationship between myself and the forest around me, and my first experience with the healing powers of these beautiful giants. I would not realize the profound affect that trees would have in my life until many years later.
I have spent much of my life in and around trees – climbing them as a child, getting lost in the vast spread of them as an adolescent. I’ve spent years hiking and biking in the wild forests of the Blue Ridge Mountains and living among giant hemlock groves for months at a time. In my twenties I found myself climbing them again as a career tree climber. At times, it was just myself, my two dogs, maybe a black bear or two, and the trees. Looking back at these times, I realize that during some of the most stressful and downtrodden moments in my life, I headed to the forest to find shelter beneath the canopy. I always thought it was to escape this or that, to just clear my head before my return to the “grind”, but it turns out it was much more than that. I was healing.
Authors, scientists, doctors, and theologians have often referenced the healing power of trees dating back hundreds of years. Yet most of us, including myself, take our majestic neighbors for granted on a daily basis, often having not a single thought of the impact they have on our daily lives and physical well-being.
Studies show that even with no direct interaction with trees, simply walking past street trees has a significant impact on both physical and mental health. The research tells us that by adding as few as ten trees to a particular neighborhood, the residents felt 1% healthier. These results are equivalent to making those residents seven years younger. The gains from the installation of the trees is both psychological and environmental, as trees work nonstop to drastically improve air quality.
From 1990 to 2007, data was collected across 15 states to measure the effects of the decimation of ash trees due to an infestation of emerald ash borer on the health of the population in those areas. Astonishingly, they discovered there were 6,113 human deaths from respiratory complications and 15,080 deaths from heart disease. This study speaks to the immense capacity trees have to remove pollution from our air.
I spend at least 50% of my time on this earth looking at trees. At times my wife and kids accuse me of “geeking out” over trees, like an amazing Post Oak spreading out across a field. They may not fully grasp my grief when I see a tree that has been improperly cared for and is declining due to a lack of education or understanding. These moments serve as a reminder of the tremendous responsibility I have as an arborist and caretaker of the urban forest for my community and future generations to educate and to care for the trees.