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Doctors' nature prescriptions for health

Trees and bushes provide a healing environment on the Big Island, Hawaii.

Can you imagine going to your medical doctor and leaving with a prescription, not for pharmaceutical medicine, but for a nature prescription, something you can physically do to improve your health?


It's not the kind of prescription many people expect to receive from their doctor. Thanks to public health pediatrician Dr. Robert Zarr, it's the kind of prescription that more people are starting to receive.


Dr. Zarr began the nonprofit group, Park RX America (PRA) in 2017. Thanks to his initiative and to the network of health care professionals who now provide nature prescriptions to their patients, you might get a prescription that says something like this: "Walk along a trail near a pond or in a park with a friend, without earbuds, for half an hour twice a week."


Park RX America is a non-profit organization whose mission is to decrease the burden of chronic disease, increase health and happiness, and foster environmental stewardship. I read about this wonderful nonprofit, PRA, in a Feb. 1, 2024 article written by H. Patricia Hynes in truthdig, an award winning alternative news website at https://www.truthdig.com.


Several studies have shown that people who spend time in nature improve their health. Hynes wrote that Korean scientists "have confirmed that walking through forest areas improved older women's blood pressure, lung capacity and elasticity in their arteries." Those results can happen whether people walk in an actual forest or through an urban park with plenty of trees.


Hynes quotes Diana Beresford Kroeger in the article. Kroeger, born in Ireland, was educated in the ancient Celtic culture of spiritual and physical respect for trees. She has a doctorate in medical biochemistry. "A forest is a sacred place," Hynes quoted Kroeger as saying. "The medicines available in the forest are the second most valuable gift that nature offers us: the oxygen available there is the first."


Kroeger went on to say that when people walk through a pine forest, they benefit by the pinenes aerosols that the trees release and that are absorbed by our bodies.  Those chemical aerosols are "a balm for the body and soul."


People can benefit from trees even if they can't physically walk among them. Patients recovering from surgery who are hospitalized in a room with a window that looks out on nature often need fewer pain killers and heal more quickly. That benefit extends to students who have a view of nature from their classroom windows.


If you have a doctor who sometimes gives you nature prescriptions, consider yourself fortunate indeed.

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Proof that Plants Communicate

It is easy for us to walk by a tree or other plants, admire their beauty, then move on, unaware that the plants are aware of everything that happens around them. We can't see evidence of that awareness, so it's easy to assume it doesn't exist.


A group of Japanese scientists decided to find out what kind of awareness and response to their environment that plants really have. According to a January 16, 2024 Yahoo News article written by Bryan Ke, the scientists were able to film plants communicating with each other. The plants warned each other about potential dangers going on at that moment. The findings were first published in the journal Nature Communications in October 2023.


Molecular biologist Masatsuga Toyota of Japan's Saitama University led the research team that captured the plants communicating on film. The national university is located in the city of Saitama in the Greater Tokyo area. The team photographed undamaged plants sending warnings to nearby plants. These defense responses occurred after the plants sensed volatile organic compounds (VOC) produced by plants when they experience mechanical damage or attacks by insects.


The team captured the plants' responses on film by attaching an air pump to a container that was filled with leaves and caterpillars and to another container holding a common weed from the mustard family called Arabidopsis thaliana. The team managed to genetically modify the Arabidopsis so that its cells turned fluoresce green after they detected calcium ions that act as stress managers. Team members used a fluorescence microscope to monitor signals that the undamaged plants released after they received VOCs from the damaged leaves.


The team's accomplishment is impressive because it films what had been an unseen network of airborne communication between plants. Purpose of the network is to warn neighboring plants about an imminent threat so they have time to protect themselves.


The team's work is a breakthrough after a 1983 study in which plant communication was first observed. Ever since then, scientists had wondered how the communication actually happened. With the filmed evidence, they know that plants are aware of dangers around them and spread that information to each other. It makes us more aware that plants have the ability to network with each other, to care about each other, and to develop a warning system that helps to keep each other safer.


Sometimes we might think that only humans have that kind of ability, but the film project has the potential to change the way we view plants. On some level, we all have the capacity to care about each other and to want to keep each other safe.

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Blue Spruce Improves Backyard

Blue spruce adds welcoming touch

When my son, Philip, bought a house in Anchorage, Alaska earlier this year, he talked about what looked to him like a beautiful blue spruce tree in his backyard. He wanted me to take a look at it when I came to visit.


I spent two weeks with him in his new home during the first half of December. We donned our boots and tramped through sometimes foot-high snow in his backyard. The tree was, indeed, gorgeous. He's right about it being a blue spruce. It towers into the sky, much taller than his split-level home.


It felt good to stand near the tree. Not only is it part of Philip's new property, but it exudes a sense of welcome and love. That may seem ridiculous to some people. I can only say that it felt good to stand near the tree. I lingered outside in the cold and snow because I liked the way I felt being close to the tree.


During the time I visited Philip, I often saw a raven fly through the covered deck, which overlooks the backyard, and into the blue spruce's branches. The bird must have a nest there.


The towering tree, which provides a home for birds, also will provide my son with many years of pleasure and enjoyment. I think he chose well when he bought that house and the property on which it sits! The welcoming tree is an extra bonus.

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Experiments to Sequester Carbon

A fascinating article in the November 2023 issue of National Geographic tells about several projects around the world that are experimenting with ways to remove carbon from the air. "Clearing the Air" was written by Sam Howe Verhovek. It discusses many projects for sequestering excess carbon, which can overheat the planet enough to threaten life itself.


One such project in Iceland is working to capture carbon dioxide in porous basalt, in essence turning carbon into stone. The article also focuses on a project in Arizona that uses a mechanical tree to capture and store carbon. There's another project in Australia focused on trapping carbon dioxide and locking it in crevices under the earth.


Another project along Long Island's Little Peconic Bay in New York experiments with using a special green sand in an effort to remove carbon from the oceans. The sand is finely ground olivine, a type of magnesium iron silicate common in Earth's upper mantle. Still another project aims to use seaweed that, pound for pound, can sequester up to 40 times as much carbon as trees.


Carbon is not our enemy. It is essential to life. Plants need it for photosynthesis. The problem is that now there's too much of it in the atmosphere. That excess carbon became a problem when massive amounts of it were released when fossil fuels were mined, drilled for, or extracted in other ways.  If the planet gets too warm, it could threaten life on Earth.


Because my blogs focus on trees, I was especially intrigued by the mechanical tree project in Tempe, Arizona.  It is a form of direct air capture. Physicist Klaus Lackner has been working on the project for a long time. Lackner runs the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University.


What he calls mechanical trees are three-story tall devices that suck in carbon, filter it, and store it. Lackner says the mechanical trees are about 1,000 times more efficient than actual trees in their ability to sequester carbon dioxide. Unlike trees that release their carbon dioxide when they die, the mechanical trees keep it locked away.


To learn more about the fascinating carbon sequestering projects being developed right now, head for your local library and read the article, "Clearing the Air," in the November 2023 issue of National Geographic. It left me feeling hopeful that so many intelligent, creative, passionate people are dedicating part of their lives to solving a significant problem.

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Leaf Patterns

Leaves on Lawn

Cottonwood leaves from my neighbor's graceful, gorgeous tree are starting to blanket my lawn. I know that means freezing weather is soon to follow.


The leaf patterns on my lawn are intriguing. I could look at the leaves and think about the work it will take to remove them. But it's not a huge task. When I run my lawnmower one last time over the grass, it will pick up 90 percent of the leaves. The remaining 10 percent don't take that long to bag.


Instead of worrying about leaf pickup tasks, I find myself focusing on the leaves and the way they decorate my lawn. When I do that, something interesting happens. I am so focused on appreciating the beauty of the leaves that I forget everything else. It becomes a kind of meditation, a moment when the world fades away as I rivet my attention on the artistry of the leaves.


Instead of feeling overwhelmed by more work to do, I find myself at peace. The concerns about everything else in my life melt away. Those short moments in time are incredibly restful. It's easy to forget to take a little time to appreciate the beauty in simple things around us. The rewards of filling our awareness with the wonder of the moment are immense.

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Endangered Cypress Trees Get Help

Cypress trees can live for thousands of years. Some over 2,600 years old have been found in the United States. Tree ring expert David Stahle found one of them along the Black River in North Carolina. Stahle, a dendrochronologist at the University of Arkansas, cores cypress trees to learn their age and to find out what they can reveal about soil moisture during the trees' lives.


The process involves taking a pencil-thin core from the tree in a way that does not endanger it. An article about the cypress trees called Ghost Forests, written by Joel K. Bourne Jr., appeared in, I believe, the August 2023 issue of National Geographic.


The ancient trees are disappearing for several reasons. Just 120 years ago, swamps containing bald cypress trees covered about 40 million acres of forested wetlands in the southern United States. But by 1935, 90 percent of the ancient bald cypress trees in the U.S. had been cut down.


The loss of those trees has had disastrous effects in some places, such as Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina. Though Louisiana once had lush cypress forests, over the years most of them were cut down and the swamps were drained. The city of New Orleans sits on some of those old cypress swamps. Over time, the city sank many feet below sea level, Bourne wrote in the National Geographic article. As a result several parts of the city were flooded during Katrina.


Conservation groups such as the Ponchartrain Conservancy have been planting many cypress trees as a buffer against hurricanes and to provide other benefits. Other actions also have been taken to make the city safer from devastating storms.


The value of cypress trees was not always recognized. Through the Swamp Land Act of 1850, the federal government targeted swamps for destruction. The Act "gave unclaimed federal wetlands to several southern states, requiring that the proceeds from land sales be used to drain them," Bourne wrote.


The federal government apparently did not understand back then that cypress trees can withstand months of flooding, and the soil around their roots have an amazing ability to absorb storm water and carbon. Their intertwined root system lets them stand firm even in furious winds.


In spite of their resiliency, cypress trees are dying because they cannot survive rising tides that push salt water into what were once freshwater ecosystems. When trees are surrounded by water with more than two parts per thousand of salt, they start to die. Though not all cypress trees grow in areas being invaded by sea water, some cypress forests are dying along coastlines from Delaware to Texas, the National Geographic article revealed. Scientists estimate that as seas continue to rise, all the coastal forested wetlands in the U.S. could be gone by 2100.


But all is not lost. Conservation groups are planting many cypress trees. Individuals like Stahle

and organizations such as the National Geographic are doing what they can to educate people

about the trees' importance.

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Everyone Needs Support, Even Trees

As I was walking on a sidewalk next to the Animas River near 32nd Street in Durango, Colorado, I saw a young tree being supported by two sticks, one on each side of it.


After I took several pictures of the tree, using my Picture This ap, I learned the tree was an American sycamore. It had been planted sometime in the last year on grass near the new sidewalk. Thanks to those supports, the tree was standing straight and tall. Green leaves grew from the base of the sycamore, and some sprouted farther up the trunk near where leafy branches spread outward, looking healthy.


I sometimes see employees of the city of Durango tend the trees, bushes and flowers that grow near that sidewalk. They help to keep the plants healthy and beautiful. Lots of people walk or bicycle past the greenery on that sidewalk as they enjoy an outing near the river.


Just as trees sometimes need support to help them stand tall and healthy, we may need a little support too. I am thankful for people in my life who take the time to talk with me and to really listen.


So many times, people have done simple things that help prop me up and give me support. When I have only one or two items in the store check-out line, sometimes they let me go ahead of them. What a thoughtful gift!


Sometimes they pick up a pen or a piece of paper I have dropped, a kindness that took only a few seconds. I felt the caring warmth of their gesture much longer than that.


Even a friendly smile can lift my spirits and make me feel supported. And I can do the same for others. It takes almost no time or effort, but it can be just what someone needed.


That American sycamore, with the supportive sticks on both sides of it, reminds me of how important we are to each other. One act of kindness can give us the encouragement we need to make it through a tough day and to stand a little taller.

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Pictures of Trees Can Help Us Heal

Honey Locust Tree in the neighborhood

When I walk my dog through the neighborhood, I sometimes stop to take a picture of a tree that catches my eye. Though my dog loves to walk, she patiently waits while I get just the right angle. Then we're on our way again.


Keeping my eye pealed for a tree that I want to photograph helps me to stay focused on the moment instead of thinking of what needs to be done at home. I find myself intrigued by birds flying through the air, a lizard skittering behind a clump of grass, my dog sniffing at whatever delectable scent her nose discovers.


In more quiet moments at home, I look at the tree pictures I've captured on my iPhone. They remind me that each image is a little bit like the moments that make up our lives. Each second contains a physical and emotional memory. What happened in that instant can be pleasant or can store varying degrees of pain.


I sometimes experiment with looking at each of those tree pictures and deliberately giving myself permission to let go of any unpleasant physical or emotional memories that might come up as I look at them. There are usually no unpleasant events around the taking of the picture. But, in its own mysterious way, my mind can be triggered by the photos. Suddenly, I am remembering something totally different that still holds pain for me.


If I allow my mind to find its own pathway to that pain, it presents a chance to heal from sadness, anger, confusion, indignation, fear or other emotions. The letting go process involves the willingness to dwell for a short time on the painful emotion.


That's the hard part. If I am willing to sit with that emotion, the feeling soon begins to soften until it releases or become so mild that it no longer triggers discomfort. The key is to be willing to sit with the pain until it lessens. It usually doesn't take more than a few minutes. If you sense that your painful memories are too great to handle alone, try this experiment with a counselor or a trusted friend.


Initially, I thought that walking my dog was something I did to help her explore the neighborhood, stretch her legs, and give me some physical activity. I didn't think about the emotional healing that can come when I look at pictures of trees I've taken on those walks.


I don't always take pictures of trees when I walk my dog. Sometimes I just enjoy every moment for the peacefulness it holds. And that's okay too. It helps to create pleasant memories, and I can never have too many of those.

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Hawaiians Preserve Important, Sacred Seeds

At Waipi'o private citizens preserve seeds of important, sacred plants.

I felt so sad to see the devastating fires on Maui and the Big Island of Hawaii on television news reports this week. When my son and I visited the Big Island in January 2023, we loved seeing the beautiful trees, bushes and huge, colorful flowers. I hated to see some of that lush foliage, historic buildings, and people's houses and businesses go up in flames.


One place we visited was Waipi'o, a sacred place where seeds of important and sacred plants are carefully guarded and preserved by private citizens. In that way, the plants, which are not only beautiful but often have medicinal value, will remain available for future generations. If fires or other catastrophes threaten these plants, the seeds will allow the plants to reproduce for centuries to come.


I loved Waipi'o, near the Kohala Mountains on Highway 240 off the Hamakua Coast. Trees overlooked a view of the coast and the lava shaped hills that plunged into the water. It felt like a sacred place where private citizens spent their time preserving so many seeds of important plants for future Hawaiian citizens.


Waipi'o played a major role in saving the life of an important king, Kamehameha, when he was an infant born around 1758. Threats from warring chiefs and the foretelling of events at the time Kamehameha was born led loyalists to take the future king to Waipi'o Valley, where he was kept in seclusion and raised by attendants loyal to him. When he was five years old, he came out of seclusion and was trained as a warrior under the watchful eye of his uncle, King Kalani'opu'u.


In 1791, Kamehameha led a great canoe battle that was fought in the ocean off of Waipi'o and neighboring Waimanu Valley. With the help of fellow fighters, he defeated the enemy, who fled to Maui. The Battle of the Red Mouth Guns, as it became known, was the first recorded naval battle in Hawaiian history. By the early 1800s, Kamehameha had successfully united all the Hawaiian Islands under his rule. He died in 1819.


His leadership and warrior skills saw to it that all the Hawaiian Islands remained united as they are today. It is my belief that the beautiful, valiant spirit of the Hawaiian people will help them rebuild from the destructive fires and allow their land to continue to thrive.

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Encounter with a Ponderosa Pine

Ponderosa Pine in my neighborhood

There are many beautiful trees in my neighborhood. One of them grows at the corner of my street and a cross street. It is a stately Ponderosa Pine. It stands alone in one section of the front yard, holding a special and valued place.


I have come across Ponderosa Pines in other places as well. I think they are quite beautiful and elegant. One ponderosa in Spokane, Washington that I saw in 2012 made a big impression on me. Every once in a while, when I walk through an area that has several trees, I feel a connection with one of them. That happened with the ponderosa in Spokane. As I walked by it, I felt a sudden sense of joy. It was as though the tree were delighted to see me. Sounds weird, I know, but these things sometimes happen to me, and they create wonderful memories.


It felt so good to stand near the tree that I spent a good 15 minutes there. In some intangible way, it felt that I was being rejuvenated by the tree. Trying to put words to the experience is next to impossible. How do you explain feeling like your body just got a remarkable tune-up?


When I walked by the Ponderosa Pine in my neighborhood recently, I felt no special connection with it. I was just curious about what kind of tree it was. Using my amazing Picture This app, I learned it was a ponderosa. It reminded me of the gift I received from the Ponderosa Pine in Spokane eleven years ago.


It isn't easy to talk about experiences like this. Some people think such a possibility is ridiculous. Others get a far away look in their eyes as though they too remember an experience they had with a tree.


What makes an encounter with one tree so special while there's no such experience with other trees of that species? I don't know. I just know that when such a joyful encounter does occur, it is special beyond words.


You may wonder how anyone could believe such a thing is possible. I suggest that, if you're so inclined, you remain open to the possibility. It might result in an experience that lifts you from deep sadness, or it may simply add joy and delight to your life.

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