The Giving Trees
Stanford scientist and her photographer friend publish an arboreal meditation.
Thursday, December 20, 2012
As astronomer Carl Sagan famously observed in the 1980 PBS series Cosmos: “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”
In a similar spirit, environmental scientist Gretchen Daily philosophizes in her new book:
“[Trees] draw their power across 93 million miles, from the sun. They use it to drive cycles of six fundamental elements – carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur – that together make up 95 percent of all living tissue in the biosphere… We are indeed all of the same cloth, and the very constituents of our own bodies have likely resided in forests for many periods of time.”
In other words, we are made of treestuff.
Daily’s The Power of Trees, with photographs by Charles Katz, is a soft and quick read. Sixty-four unnumbered pages alternate between spreads of spare text and black-and-white photographs more contemplative than breathtaking.
“We wanted [it] to seem like a walk in the landscape between a photographer and a scientist,” Katz writes by email. With that in mind, he shot all the book’s photos in 35-millimeter film near the Skagit River in Washington State.
In Daily’s hands the science, stripped of data and jargon, becomes lyrical prose. In language that could be understood by a 12-year-old, she describes why trees deserve our respect and gratitude.
By pumping water from underground aquifers to the sky, they make clouds. By absorbing carbon dioxide from the air, they build carbon-based cells and release precious oxygen. They produce the sugars, fats and proteins that sustain a dizzying web of life, even nourishing the pollinators that propagate our crops. They formulate attractant and repellent chemicals, inspiring human pharmaceuticals.
More than 60,000 tree species trace their lineage back 400 million years, she writes. Evolving from algae, they escaped damp places by adapting xylem to draw water against gravity and rigid trunks to support them as they reached for the light. More than 300 million years later, their Darwinian journey began shaping our own, influencing what would become human 3-D vision and hand-eye coordination. They provided the fuel that allowed us to discover fire and everything that followed: cooking, social systems, industrialization, cognitive development.
Trees build rings that tell stories not only of a forest’s history, but also humanity’s. Their outer bark protects them from rain, drought, heat, cold, insects and fire; their heartwood can be strong as steel. When they are cut for lumber, they live on in cathedrals and violins. And in the pages of this book.
The Power of Trees is not a coffee-table piece, but rather a science-based title for the poetry section, with a beauty best appreciated up close – like the veins of a leaf, so similar to our own.
THE POWER OF TREES by Gretchen C. Daily and Charles J. Katz Jr., is published by Trinity University Press. Hardcover, $12.95. Available at Pilgrim’s Way Bookstore, Dolores between 5th and 6th, Carmel. 624-4955..