Trees Are Nice!
Jennifer Scarlott has just read some wonderful stories about trees. After realising just how special these silent giants are, she wants to share her learnings with you. She is sure you will start to love trees as much as she does!
I had NO idea how amazing trees are until I read a bunch of books about them. Of course, trees made the books about trees that I read! It’s great to read about a single species; I have a wonderful book about oak trees… and it’s also a lot of fun to read books about all trees.
People often use trees to represent nature itself. They play such a large part in our thinking, our mythology, and in our economic and aesthetic lives. Children around the world grow up learning about and experiencing the everyday comfort to be found in a tree.
The very first book with which I struggled as a beginning reader was A Tree is Nice by Janice May Udry. Here are a few lines from the book, a copy of which I still have on my shelf:
Trees are beautiful. They fill up the sky. If you have a tree, you can climb upits trunk, roll in its leaves, or hang a swing from one of its limbs. Cows and babies can nap in the shade of a tree. Birds can make nests in the branches. A tree is good to have around. A tree is nice.
Trees are foundational to humans. In the pre-kindergarten class taught in my neighbourhood, the four-year-olds study the seeds of trees. My 16-year-old is spending a few months in Vermont studying environmental science. The first book the students read, in an apple orchard surrounded by tree-clad mountains, was The Man Who Planted Trees. On the bookshelf at my right shoulder is Valmik Thapar’s little gem, Tigers & A Banyan Tree. A tree is planted in memory of my mother in a park near my childhood home.
Have you heard of Wangari Maathai? She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for environmentalism and social activism. Worried about the industrialisation of her native Kenya, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, spending decades mobilising women to plant 30 million trees.
Photograph by Anish Andheria.
Trees were victims and victors of epic struggles in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In Tolkien’s vivid imagination, “ents” were trees that spoke and strode from one place to another. In the “real” world, trees cannot run or hide or swat at attackers. But they do have defenses, from their armour-like bark to chemical compounds they make to repel invaders. Trees can warn their neighbours of insect attack, stimulating them to synthesise their own repellents!
The roots of trees in a community may mingle and even fuse, enhancing the trees’ communication and exchange of materials! David Suzuki explains it poignantly in Tree: A Life Story. “No tree is an island; it is a communal citizen and derives the same benefits from cooperation, sharing, and mutual effort that any living creature receives from participating in a fully-functioning ecosystem.”
Did you know that trees allow fungi to take up residence in their cells, in return for which fungal cells produce substances that defend against bacterial infection? Fungi and tree roots grow into each other until they become almost a single organism, a compound life-form called mycorrhizae, meaning fungus-root. Very few plant species grow without a fungal partner (there are 90,000 known species of fungi!).Here’s the relationship: Fungi are incapable of manufacturing their own food because they don’t have chloroplasts as other plants do. But to reproduce, they must have sugars, so they penetrate the roots of trees taking sugar from their hosts. The relationship isn’t one-sided, however. If it were, the fungus would be a parasite and the tree would eventually die. No, the fungus returns the favour. In return for the sugar it takes, its vast network of mini-roots called hyphae provides trees’ root systems with access to nutrients and water that they would not otherwise be able to reach.
The enormous mat of fungal hyphae in the soil beneath trees vastly increases the volume of soil a tree is able to explore, making Tolkienesque ents of them all, capable of amassing far more nutrition from the soil than their stationery stance would suggest! When I walk in a forest or within just a small community of trees, I know that in the soil beneath my feet is a universe of fungal hyphae nurturing and sustaining the trees, as they are nurtured and sustained by the trees.
Will wonders never cease? Not if you fall in love with nature!
Jennifer Scarlott is based in New York, U.S.A. and is Director, International Conservation Initiatives, Sanctuary Asia. You can contact her at
by Jennifer Scarlott, First appeared in: Sancturay Cub, November 2011