The Inner Beauty of Trees

For many, the sight of swaying palm trees invokes fantasies of sailboats, salty breezes, tangy cocktails and Jimmy Buffett. In a typical tropical dreamscape, palm trees are romantic, if non-essential ornaments. But to coastal dwellers in the developing world, the palm tree's beauty is more than skin deep. Indonesians, for example, see oil palms as major assets. Leaves for brooms, fronds for fencing and palm oil for biofuels and consumer and industrial exports -- these all translate into cash.

Surely recognizing the economic value of trees deepens the appreciation that humans have for them. But evaluating "ecosystem services" -- estimated to be worth between $33 and $77 trillion globally -- is a double-edged sword. Once we distill nature into dollars, we can't help but seek ways to maximize market value or cash out entirely.

Today, the oil palm's economic value supersedes that of the tropical forests that once covered Malaysia and Indonesia. According to WWF, Princeton University and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology estimate that between 1990 and 2005, 55-60 percent of oil palm plantation expansion in these countries occurred at the expense of virgin forests.

Deforestation is happening all over the world, wiping out innumerable species of trees. Culture is changing, but will it change in time to stop exploitative practices and overconsumption before it's too late? Reforestation is critical for countering ecological and economic damage done by deforestation.

Cities are an important place to focus reforestation efforts. According to author and urban planner Brian Stone, Jr. the warming trends reported by climate science do not reflect the impact of the urban heat island. Cities are heating up at double the rate of global climate change, with major implications for human health. Urban forestry is critical for mitigating this problem. However, getting policymakers, developers and planners to work together requires tremendous orchestration. Cities like Dallas, anticipating extraordinary growth over the next decade, are taking the matter seriously (Dr. Stone will speak on green infrastructure in Dallas on May 27.)

Many decision-makers still don't understand why trees matter. After all, how we value trees depends on the eyes we use to see them. To a developer, a clump of trees may look like a morass to mow down or nuisance to manage. To a busy consumer, trees offer a shady place to park and pleasant landscaping for paved areas. But knowledge magnifies beauty beyond the superficial. To those with eyes to see, a forest can represent a vital carbon sink, a hub of biodiversity, a psychological refuge or a spiritual sanctuary.

In fact, what we call inner beauty -- the substance, spirit and energetic essence of a person -- could also apply to trees. This sentiment shows up in my favorite children's stories such as Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree and Hans Christian Andersen's The Fir Tree. Like Aesop's Fables, these beloved stories contain wisdom that belies their innocence.

Why do we lose our sense of wonder about nature as we mature? This wasn't so with the Native Americans, who were intimately connected to the land throughout their lives. Perhaps our culture's bent toward Enlightenment-based reason forces us to push spiritual concerns aside, robbing us of a lexicon for articulating the void that we feel in a sea of concrete.

Whatever the cause, our bonds with nature are broken, leading to an epidemic of "nature deficit disorder." Fortunately, the remedy is not complex. It merely calls for an interest in cultivating an appreciation for nature, fed by both knowledge and experience. As Scott Olsen wrote in The Golden Section:

Plato mentioned that the goal of aesthetics is not simply to copy nature, but rather to peer deeply into her, penetrating her tapestry to understand and employ the sacred ratios at work in her beautifully simple but divine order.

To ancient Romans, palm trees were not there to improve the view or even for a utilitarian purpose. Palm branches were sacred. They symbolized victory, triumph, peace and eternal life. We cannot hold on to artifacts of our past, nor do we need to romanticize the way we were. But we can all benefit by reintegrating neglected values and connections to nature into our vision for the future.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. To preserve public health, the destiny of our cities and our own sanity, we must learn to regard nature as sustainers, not as consumers. We can start by planting trees.