In Appreciation of Trees: Brian Whitefield


Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata)



I have always loved nature and especially trees and have always struggled to understand my attraction and understanding of them. As a kid growing up in the country, I always appreciated the smells of the forest and even of different species of trees and their multitude of colours and textures at all times of the year. I always felt good in the forest but never sought to define or understand my sylvan proclivities.

We all know trees provide us with materials for construction, fruit, shade, protection from the wind, a home for our avian and forest friends and they even help prevent soil erosion, But they have also been a veritable pharmacopoeia for man providing the beginnings of drugs and natural health aids. The Willow provides the salicin that was the basis for creating the wonder drug aspirin, the balsam poplar the expectorant balm-of-Gilead, the Benjamin tree another expectorant, tincture of Benjamin, Nux Vomica gave us strychnine, Dogwood a quinine-like drug for malaria, the inner bark of the Slippery Elm provides a substance to soothe sore throats and help digestion (even IBS and Crohns), Sea Buckthorn provides antioxidants and heals the skin, Linden leaves and flowers make a very calming tea, the Cascara Buckthorn gave us a laxative, Sassafras provided flavour for root beer and sarsaparilla until it was realised it should be controlled as it was the basis for the party drug ecstasy, witch hazel provides an astringent that tones and calms the skin. The allspice and cinnamon trees give flavouring, the African Boswellia tree gives frankincense, the Commiphors myrrha gives us myrrh and the sap of pine and fir trees provide turpentine, retsina and resin, the birch tree xylitol and of course we all know maple sap creates a delicious syrup. But there is much more to it than their physical gifts.

Through the Toronto District School Board nature walks in the last year I have had the opportunity to consider and appreciate anew my connection to trees. Miles Hearn, the naturalist who leads these walks mentioned the book, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben (interesting that the author’s name in German translates as the weal or beneficial life) and I have been casually enjoying its chapters for some months. Peter delves into the science of trees and the secret world of their social networks and how they communicate through their own underground ‘www’ – the ‘wood wide web’ of roots, soil fungi and their mycelium. Through their root systems, trees communicate with their progenitors, their siblings their progeny and even other species to share knowledge and carbon for the wellbeing of all by very slow electrical impulses. Different species have their own characters and even within trees of the same species there are no two alike. I prefer to think of them as my friends who move really, really slowly. (OK, I admit it – each year I get more and more of these of the human variety)

Another friend and member of the walking group, Frances, then told me about the Japanese practice that became popular in the 1980s called Shinrin-Yoku translated as forest bathing or forest therapy. Walking in a forest and breathing the air can be seen as a type of walking meditation that brings with it multiple health benefits. As Wohlleben corroborates in his book, trees act as huge air filters collecting pollutants to clean the air and they also pump out phytoncides – antimicrobial allelochemic volatile organic compounds that are also most beneficial for humans. As Peter puts it, “every walk in the forest during the day is like taking a shower in oxygen.” Researchers have confirmed that breathing forest air can lower blood pressure (especially amongst deciduous trees), improve lung capacity and the elasticity of arteries, so that the practice can be seen to have great medicinal benefit. (Any chance we could get the government to subsidize such walks as preventive medicine?) To delve deeper into this phenomenon, check out this link:

Recently, as part of a study group led by Rabbi Lawrence Englander on post-Holocaust Jewish thought, I had the opportunity to re-read a seminal work by Jewish existentialist philosopher, Martin Buber, – I and Thou, and was pleasantly surprised to see a passage on trees that I hadn’t seen since my teen years and had all but forgotten. In the book, Buber primarily deals with the relationship between man and God but starts off examining the relationship between man and nature and then man and other men. While being a very difficult book to read, I was quite taken with this excerpt on his relationship to a tree:

“I contemplate a tree.

I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of greenness traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.

I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with the earth and air – and the growing itself in its darkness.

I can assign it to a species and observe it as an instance, with an eye to its construction and its way of life.

I can overcome its uniqueness and form so rigorously that I recognize it only as an expression of the law – those laws according to which a constant opposition of forces is continually adjusted, or those laws according to which the elements mix and separate.

I can dissolve it into a number, into a pure relation between numbers, and eternalize it.

Throughout all of this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.

But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an IT. The power of exclusiveness has seized me.

This does not require me to forego any of the modes of contemplation. There is nothing that I must not see in order to see, and there is no knowledge that I must forget. Rather is everything, picture and movement, species and instance, law and number included and inseparably fused. Whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, its conversation with the elements and its conversation with the stars – all this in its entirety.

The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of a mood: it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it – only differently.

One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity.

Does the tree then have consciousness, similar to our own? I have no experience of that. But thinking that you have brought this off in your own case, must you again divide the indivisible? What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree or a dryad, but the tree itself.”

* from Martin Buber’s I and Thou, Part One translated by Walter Kaufmann

While not claiming to fully understand anything Buber says, I must say this passage has given me better understanding of the complexity of what I see and feel when I am in the presence of a tree. It includes awe and wonder but it also feels reciprocal in some way implying some sort of communication. And indeed there is a form of reverence for trees without any hint of Pantheism. I have been to Punta Catedrale, a ‘cathedral’ forest of tall trees overlooking the Pacific Ocean on the west coast of Manuel Antonio Park in Costa Rica and have seen pictures of the Cathedral Grove of eight-hundred-year-old Douglas Fir in Vancouver Island’s rainforest. I have also had the opportunity for formal communal prayer under glorious tree canopies on several occasions which were most

uplifting and amazing experiences. But I must say, formality is not required as I have always felt that any encounter I have with a tree seems like a form of prayer.

I was touched with this quote from a British Zen philosopher: “But I’ll tell you what hermits realize. If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything.” – Alan Watts (1915-1973)

Norway Maple (Acer platanoides)

Now if you’re still interested, here are some poems on the subject of trees:


I think that I shall never see

a poem as lovely as a tree

a tree whose hungry mouth is prest

against the sweet earth’s flowing breast

A tree who looks at God all day

and lifts her leafy arms to pray

A tree that may in summer wear

a nest of robins in her hair

Upon whose bosom snow has lain

who intimately lives with rain

Poems are made by fools like me

but only God can make a tree. – Alfred Joyce Kilmer. 1886 – 1918

Advice From A Tree

Dear Friend,

Stand Tall and Proud

Sink your roots deeply into the Earth

Reflect the light of a greater source

Think long term

Go out on a limb

Remember your place among all living beings

Embrace with joy the changing seasons

For each yields its own abundance

The Energy and Birth of Spring

The Growth and Contentment of Summer

The Wisdom to let go of leaves in the Fall

The Rest and Quiet Renewal of Winter

Feel the wind and the sun

And delight in their presence

Look up at the moon that shines down upon you

And the mystery of the stars at night.

Seek nourishment from the good things in life

Simple pleasures

Earth, fresh air, light

Be content with your natural beauty

Drink plenty of water

Let your limbs sway and dance in the breezes

Be flexible

Remember your roots

Enjoy the view!

– Ilan Shamir (1951 – )

The Lessons of A Tree

If I could be, Like a tree, Peace is all I would ever be…

Tall and strong, They sing their song, In spite of thunder all night long…

Blankets of green throughout the land, Refuge to animals meek and grand, From squirrels to bears-a helping hand…

If I could be, Like a tree, Death would not follow me…

Within they hold the wisdom from above as well as from below, The reasons that they grow, Content with what they know…

Breathing monuments, Weep for no ailment, Present in each moment…

If I could be, Like a tree, I’d bend with the wind as it danced through me…

Lungs for all, Big and small, Humble when they fall…

Trees never mock, Shun the flock, Or mind a clock…

If I could be, LIke a tree, I would be content–to just be me… – Lisa A Romano (1965 – )

White Spruce (Picea glauca)

Lessons Learned from Trees

A canopy of trees

filters the sun for me,

and I am grateful…

For I do not feel like

having the rays glare

in my eyes today,

in a brooding mood I am.

The earth is damp,

drunken with dew,

seemingly commiserating

with me

I lay myself down,

jagged rocks beneath me

–cutting, rough–

and I welcome it

For it grounds me,

a reminder

that not everything

is sunlight and blooms

I sink in my darkness

and close my eyes

to dwell in it and drown,

just sighing

For an eternity,

I am mired with

muck and moss in my mind,

thoughts eroding

to nothingness

…until I open my eyes

to Wonderment

The trees above me

stand tall and proud

in their radial glory,

the sun just

breaking through,

shimmering, dappling

my cold being

Leaves gilt with light

blink back in awe

and I am floored,

blanketed by warmth

of hushed spirits

surrounding me

These trees

tell their tales

of growth and survival,

of yearning for

that light,

of their struggle

to catch a glimpse

of heaven…

of capturing

its light,

using it,

feeding off from it,

in order to

give back to others

some of them stumble

yet most of them


I am humbled.

I am awed.

Yes, the canopy

gave me shade,

temporary darkness

from the light,

I look up again

and realize

that the tiniest

pinholes of hope exist,

reaching deep within…

little sparks

that set off

a chain reaction

of life

– Kabuteng P.Ink K.

Balsam Poplar (Populus deltoides)

Learn From A Tree!

When you pluck a flower, the tree remains silent

When you remove a leaf, it reposes to relent

When you climb over, it shields

When you sever a branch, it yields

When you harvest the fruits, it doesn’t demur

When you cut a portion, it doesn’t murmur

When you replant, it don’t quit

When you cut the whole tree, it is quiet

For the tree treats you, as its’ master

So your needs, happily it does cater! !

By silence, it symbolizes surrender

It silently shows a noble order

The tree, to its’ master, contently admit

Like the tree, to your Master, learn to solemnly submit! – V. Muthu Manickam.

One, two, three,

Come children come here

Look at this tree.

Four, five, six,

The shadow of the tree is sweet

Sit beneath frisk.

Seven, eight, nine,

Learn from the tree how

Always it is fine.

Ten, eleven, twelve,

Tree gives us fruits to eat

It gives branches to fuel.

Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen,

On its branches you like to swing

You are very keen.

Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen,

Tree gives us trunk to build

Home and does keen.

Nineteen, twenty, twenty-one,

Tree gives food, shelter to enemy

In his time of wan.

Twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four,

Tree gives us oxygen in day

It never feels bore.

Twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven,

Tree has tolerance, love, kindness and peace

Keep away from oven.

Twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty,

Learn from tree, love to all

Love the God, all mighty. – Kumarmani Mahakul

White Birch (Betula papyrifera)


When I see birches bend to left and right

Across the lines of straighter darker trees,

I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them

Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning

After a rain. They click upon themselves

As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored

As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.

Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells

Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust–

Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away

You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.

They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,

And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed

So low for long, they never right themselves:

You may see their trunks arching in the woods

Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground

Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair

Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

But I was going to say when Truth broke in

With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm

I should prefer to have some boy bend them

As he went out and in to fetch the cows–

Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,

Whose only play was what he found himself,

Summer or winter, and could play alone.

One by one he subdued his father’s trees

By riding them down over and over again

Until he took the stiffness out of them,

And not one but hung limp, not one was left

For him to conquer. He learned all there was

To learn about not launching out too soon

And so not carrying the tree away

Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise

To the top branches, climbing carefully

With the same pains you use to fill a cup

Up to the brim, and even above the brim.

Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,

Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.

And so I dream of going back to be.

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs

Broken across it, and one eye is weeping

From a twig’s having lashed across it open.

I’d like to get away from earth awhile

And then come back to it and begin over.

May no fate willfully misunderstand me

And half grant what I wish and snatch me away

Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:

I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,

And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk

Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,

But dipped its top and set me down again.

That would be good both going and coming back.

One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

– Robert Frost (1874-1963)

And, finally, one I wrote myself in Grade nine:

The Old Apple Tree

The sentinel of the winter

When snow falls all around,

She stands in haunted silence

Her cold feet in the ground.

When spring comes she will blossom

Her perfume fills the air

A wondrous gift for all to see

For everyone to share.

At harvest time, the apples red

We pick them all with care.

She proudly gives us all she has

Her bounty she must share.

In summer, winter, spring and fall

And weather dark and clear

It matters not, the apple tree

Stands guard throughout the year.

– Brian Whitefield (1949- )

A note from Brian:

Having gotten back to my ‘roots’, so to speak, since my retirement, I am spending many hours a week walking in woods, forests and fields. I have rekindled my love affair with trees and have written an article to try to express how I feel. If you have any interest, take a look at the attached when you have some time.
cheers, b.

White Oak (Quercus alba)

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