I’ve read a whole roster of articles in the last decade or so that claim that the picture of a thing is as good as the thing itself, for some purposes. Or, a scent or sound is sufficient. The smell of oranges, for instance, is said to increase alertness. A video of running water has the same soothing effect on the brain as an actual waterfall. Yesterday, a self-proclaimed new-age guru sent me a message with advice about stress relief. In it, he advised that, absent access to the outdoors, one could gather pictures of trees, and thereby connect to nature.
Maybe it’s a failure of imagination, but although I enjoy viewing landscape photography, a snapshot of a tree just doesn’t have any detectable effect on me. It doesn’t make me feel more calm, it doesn’t banish stress.
The above-mentioned guru, however, also said that actually touching trees can lower blood pressure, decrease levels of stress hormones, and dampen anxiety. Now, that I can relate to. To me, there is indeed a sense of awe and an uplifting that comes from direct contact with trees.
When I was a very small child, we had a huge old willow in the backyard, and I loved to stand against its trunk, curtained from view by its sweeping branches, and feel as if I was cut off from the world. A few years later, we moved for a short time to a farm property where there were two towering spruce trees bookending the house. Their boughs reached the ground, but inside their shelter, there was room for my brother and me to play, so we spent hours pretending and making up games. Our family’s last home originally had no trees at all. My father liked the place in general, but the first thing he did was plant two maples in the front yard. By the time I graduated high school, they were probably 30 feet tall. Dad bought an assortment of nut trees for the side yard, while the backyard was reserved for fruit trees. I can’t say that we ever got much in the way of apples or peaches, because the soil was poor, but a quarter acre of bare space was transformed into a miniature grove where I loved to wander.
When my husband and I bought our house, the postage-stamp front yard boasted a small dogwood in the middle, plus one azalea and one rhododendron. Then I set to work. The maple we planted almost 25 years ago is now taller than the house, and under its shade, what used to be lawn is now a carpet of crepe myrtle, thanks to a few cuttings my friend Rosmaire’s mother gave me almost 20 years ago. The showy weeping fig next to the front porch is a fountain of big green leaves most of the year. A weeping cherry and an ornamental plum grace the treelawn, making a tunnel of our section of sidewalk. Now, when my husband gives people directions, he tells people to look for the jungle at the end of the street, but friends have been kinder and said it looks like a woodland glade. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Being outside with our trees and flowers gives me a peace that nothing else can.
A connection to the earth is often missing these days. Through most of our history, we humans have been hard-wired to value trees and plants, in no small measure because they mean life. More and more, though, we’re becoming distant and forgetting our bond with growing things, to our detriment. We desperately need to teach our children an appreciation for the natural world, because we can’t sustain its loss.