The Science and Spirituality of Trees

P1090816At the risk of sounding like a nineteenth century Romantic painter or poet, I feel that trees echo a part of the human spirit that otherwise remains silent in our day to day urban lives. Although their leaves exist to provide more surface area than what green branches alone would provide, trees assume a wide variety of hues in variable sunlight. Their matrices of lignin and cellulose form towering trunks spreading an intricate canopy over our view of the sky. From dawn to dusk, or from spring to autumn, the smells they evoke are not constant. With different wind speeds, a spectrum of rustling and swaying sounds are created. The symphony of colors, fragrances and sound waves of trees along with their imposing strength can interact with our memories and inner feelings. Although they are not of the intensity brought on by another human, trees evoke notes within us that no other living thing can replicate.

Existential issues aside, from the point of view of smaller organisms, a tree is in a sense its own forest. Over the ridges of the bark of some species, there are lichen—  algae and fungus, mutually helping each other* survive and serving as an indicator of pollution in cities. All tree-species provide niches and shelter for insects, birds and small mammals. Most trees would not survive if their roots were without the company of fungi known as mychorrhizas that help them absorb nutrients in exchange for carbohydrates.

And how they produce carbohydrates is a scientific wonder. Photosynthesis occurs in chloroplasts, structures which on a microscopic and evolutionary level reveal another partnership. A billion years ago, endosymbiosis, a process by which large cell engulfed smaller ones without killing them, led to the formation of plasmids. These evolved into the modern set of membranes and genetic material serving as the sites of photosynthesis in all plants.

The overall reaction of photosynthesis mocks what is actually occurring in the cells of trees:

6 CO2 + 6 H2O –> 6 O2 + C6H12O6

Mix the reactants in vitro, and you would get nothing but carbonic acid! How does a tree or any plant manage to come up with a gas that is more often than not at the opposite end of the reaction arrow? How does it generate something sweet that flows through veins know as phloem, veins that the tree itself constructed from the same building blocks that it made with sunlight, with mychorrihizas’s transferred ions and the two official reagents water and carbon dioxide? Essentially through a network of cooperating cycles, chloroplasts absorb light frequencies in order to eject electrons from chlorophylls. These electrons are returned after they are ultimately taken away from water and transferred to molecules that use them to bond carbon dioxide. But the energy of the sun is not only invested in an electricity-like movement but in creating a voltage by temporarily isolating the hydrogen ions that also result when electron-yielding water splits into oxygen.

In the tropics there are at least 40 000 tree species but possibly more than 53 000. Temperate Europe, in contrast,  has only 124. Although forest cover has improved in Europe since the Middle Ages and has continued to do so recently, elsewhere on the planet areas with the most biodiversity have experienced the most loss. Here is a map showing which areas have done well and which haven’t between 1999 and 2012.mapping_world_trees

Landsat 7 data from 1999 through 2012 were obtained from a freely available archive at the United States Geological Survey’s center for Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS).  More than 650,000 Landsat images were processed to derive the final characterization of forest extent and change.

From the vantage points of economics, carbon footprints and time management, it would make more sense for urban dwellers (now 54% of the planet) to access wooded areas as close to home as possible.

In the United States, Pittsburgh, formerly known as the Steel City, has steadily reforested its surrounding hillsides, which had been previously cleared for logging and mining. Currently, this new growth forest along with four large parks occupy 42% of the urban area in Pittsburgh. Not only do the trees help filter pollution, avoid soil runoff in the sloped areas, they provide citizens a chance to have their spirits uplifted in an alternative way.

  • Postscript. Many biologists argue that the relationship only helps the fungus and not the algae. And yet some lichens show a three-way symbiosis involving a yeast. See  The previous reference gives no credit to Goward, a naturalist who first realized that a 3rd partner had to be involved in order to explain a mystery:  Bryoria fremontii, is hairlike, often brown and eaten by Northwestern indigenous peoples, but the lichen, Bryoria tortuosa,  is often yellow- green and toxic, with high levels of vulpinic acid. Yet both species had the same alga and fungus. It turned out that the toxic species had a lot more yeast.

An Interesting Perspective on How To Change Canadians’ Attitudes Toward Climate Change

I came across a Quirks and Quarks interview that not only reveals how Canadians perceive climate change, but it provides a fresh outlook on how to change their attitudes. A Université de Montréal political scientist, Erick Lachapelle, whose focus since being a student has been climate change, randomly surveyed 1014 adult Canadians in telephone interviews. This is what he learned:

  1. Canadians want more action on climate change but are less willing to pay for it.
  2. They are aware of the rising temperatures (82% accept that temperatures are rising), but many still question how important a role humans have played in it.
  3. 50% feel it’s mainly caused by humans;  unfortunately, 30 and 50% fail to see a human role or don’t see it as the main cause, respectively.
  4. When asked, “how much will it harm you personally?”, 14% feel it will harm them a great deal and 30 %, moderately. But the rest feel that they will experience  little or no harm at all from climate change in their lifetimes.
  5. The majority agree that it’s only future generations that will be harmed.
  6. Canadians have little clue about cap and trade of emissions— 80% have heard next to nothing. This is surprising since Quebec’s cap and trade program has been in effect since 2012. CapTrade
  7. Forty-four percent would be willing to pay somewhere between $1 and $100 per year for renewable energy production. Only a third would be prepared to pay more.(pale in comparison to what it would really cost and also relatively little to what they pay for internet, cell phones and cable). Worse, 25% want to pay $0. Two interpretations of this dismal result is that (1) they feel a collective problem should be fixed by big business who put out the emissions; and (2) given the enormity of the problem, any individual’s contribution seems meaningless to them.

LaChapelle’s interpretation of Canadians’ ambivalence is quite interesting. Here is what he attributes it to:

(1) Unless they are highly motivated, people will not do the necessary research to inform themselves. And climate change is a complex problem with technical aspects.

(2) They rely on heuristics as an alternative, hoping that media will fill them in on all the facts. But media coverage of environmental issues has been episodic. (and typically it throws everything into a pot of minestrone of less critical issues that still serve as attention-grabbers.)

(3) The public takes hints from elite cues, but the previous Canadian government was committed to fossil fuel exploitation, and for a decade avoided discussing any environmental issues associated with the combustion of carbon-based fuels.

(4) The worst effects of climate change have not surfaced yet. So people are not getting the experiential cues , and they overlook the uncertain impacts on the future.

(5) Ideological predispositions influence interpretations. Some people don’t want an increase in the role of government, which they fear would come about if we take more serious action against climate change.

He  goes on to say that we have to appeal to a more universal concern for public health, security and economic consequences of climate change. Elites must act and then people will follow their masters. This reminds me of an article I wrote regarding social revolutions. Citing one of the conditions needed for a revolution to occur, historian Jack A. Goldstone points out that part of the elite must oppose the status quo and feel alienated enough to mobilize the population. The ambivalence that the public is currently experiencing comes from the fact that for a long time in Canada (and elsewhere), the wealthy class and governments that they successfully and heavily lobby have not seriously pondered the consequences of minimal action.

Postscript:  Canada’s not doing its part in ababting climate change. From 2018
Warming assessment of the bottom-up Paris Agreement emissions pledges


Here’ a summary of the above paper’s results as reported in CBC’c The National

The National Today

Workers use heavy machinery in the tailings pond at the Syncrude oil sands extraction facility near Fort McMurray, Alta. Two new studies say that Canada is one of the world’s worst contributors to climate change. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

Canada: climate change villain

The world is falling dangerously short of its global warming reduction targets and Canada is among the worst offenders, say scientists.

new study published today in the journal Nature Communications, finds that current emission reduction efforts in Canada, Russia, China and Saudi Arabia would result in a 5.1 C warming of the planet by the end of this century, if all other nations set similarly unambitious targets.

The paper, by two Australian climate researchers, tries to reconcile the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5-to-2 C by 2100, with what it terms the “self-interested bottom-up” approach being taken by individual nations.

Looking at emission targets through the lens of equity or fairness, the authors find that all industrialized nations, and particularly major oil exporters, are radically downplaying their role and responsibility in climate change, with India the only such country close to being on track to meet the 2 C target.

Australia, the United States and Brazil are all pursuing policies that will push the planet towards a 4 C temperature rise, while most European nations are producing emissions that would warm the planet by 3 C. 

The gap between government pledges and their actual measures is now so wide, that the authors say warming targets should be set to “aspirational levels” of 1.1-to-1.3 C to compensate for all the fudging.

The findings echo another report, released yesterday, by the group Climate Transparency, which says that no G20 nation is on track to come anywhere near their 2030 Paris Agreement targets. These large economies, which are responsible for 80 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, are instead steering the world towards at least a 3.2 C temperature rise.

Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Russia were judged the worst performers — on track for emissions that would contribute to more than 4 C warming.

But the group’s report card for Canada is hardly better, citing the absence of “ambitious renewable energy targets and policies.” It says Canada’s emissions level would contribute to global warming of between 3 C and 4 C if the rest of the world behaved similarly.

The emission intensity of Canada’s buildings, transportation and agriculture are all well above the G20 average, and overall the country produces almost three times more greenhouse gas per capita than the average bloc member.

All of this comes a little over a month after a dire warning from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that the planet is warming even faster than projected, with the 1.5 C threshold likely to be surpassed as early as 2030, greatly increasing the risk of devastating droughts, wildfires, floods and food shortages.

For those who wonder what global warming’s concrete consequences might be, the European Union’s Joint Research Centre has released its own study on the human and economic consequences of a 2 C shift.

The report predicts an additional 132,000 heat-related deaths across Europe every year, as well as widespread water shortages in southern regions and a potential doubling of the continent’s arid climate zone. On the flip side, northern nations are expected to experience much more rain, with flood damage anticipated to rise from 5.3 billion Euro a year to 17.5 billion.

If there is any bright spot, it comes in the form of an embarrassing math error.

Late last month, a group of oceanographers published a paper in the journal Nature that applied a novel new method to measure oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It came to the conclusion that the world’s seas were absorbing 60 per cent more heat than had been estimated, suggesting it might already be too late to halt global warming.

But another researcher pointed out a fundamental error in their calculations, and they are now working up a correction. The new calculations are expected to show that the oceans are warming at a rate closer to what the IPCC had already determined.

The fact that it was a climate science critic who discovered the mistake won’t make it any easier to persuade deniers that the Earth is indeed in imminent danger.

However, it does mean that the emission reduction targets won’t have to be radically revised upwards, placing an as-yet-unattained goal even further out of reach.

Takotsubo: Broken-Heart Syndrome


The appearance and causes of most cardiomyopathies are unlike those of broken-heart syndrome.

Perhaps because so many of us complain about light stress, we sometimes underestimate the impact of both chronic stress and intense stress brought on by the death of loved ones or by a sudden romantic breakup.

Doctors had long known about various forms of cardiomyopathy, a functional or structural abnormality in the ventricular muscular wall of the heart. Cardiomyopathies involve one or more chambers affected by a variety of factors, ranging from cocaine use to neoplasms, and from selenium deficiency to bacterial or viral infections.

But only in the 1990s was another form of cardiomyopathy recognized. Known as takotsubo cardiomyopathy (broken-heart syndrome), it affects mostly women who are older than 50.  Due to chest pains and shortness of breath, patients typically mistake the onset of the syndrome for a heart attack. It has confused more than a few doctors who only diagnose it after an x-ray and dye reveal that there’s no arterial plaque in the heart of the patient. Instead the left ventricle takes on the shape of a Japanese ceramic pot (a takotsubo), which is used to trap lobsters.


The X-ray revealing takotsubo cardiomyopathy, and on the right, a Japanese pot which it resembles. A composite image from two sites( &

Traditional causes of heart disease such as smoking, sedentary lifestyle, diet and diabetes are not the causes of this syndrome. It’s neither a congenital defect nor an inherited one. In 85% of the cases it is caused by the autonomic nervous system’s pronounced response to something highly stressful. The symptoms appear just minutes or hours after a sudden death of a loved one, a job loss, an intense argument with a spouse or any jarring event.



Specifically, a high concentration of adrenaline and other hormones may be damaging the ventricular wall, leading to the distortion of its shape. The hypothesis is supported by the fact that the syndrome can also be brought on by an accidental adrenaline-overdose and by an adrenaline-producing tumor. Fortunately, the muscle eventually recovers, and no long-term damage ensues. In 2000, only two research papers investigated broken-heart syndrome. A decade later, 300 such papers were published, but it’s still not exactly known why women over 50 are strongly predisposed.

estradiolMy non-expert notion is that it’s tied in to the chemical characteristics of post-menopause. Women in that stage of their lives have less 17 ß-estradiol, the main estrogen hormone, and lower concentrations of other sex hormones. Since estrogen and testosterone play a role in how organisms react to stress, an intense event in the presence of less estrogen and other hormones could produce an overreaction and overproduction of adrenaline from their autonomic nervous system. Regardless of the cause, takotsubo is something far more explosive than a hot flash from pre-menopause.